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Harmonies By The Number

11 Aug 04 - 08:58 PM (#1245359)
Subject: Harmonies By The Number
From: Jerry Rasmussen

I've been listening to a double CD of bluegrass gospel this evening and I am reminded once again how predictable harmonies (and banjo and guitar bass runs) can be in bluegrass. I am NOT saying that most bluegrass is predictable, but Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe are such monstrous influences on the genre that they've spawned a lot of bluegrass bands who do what sound to me like "stock" harmonies (and bass runs on guitar, and Scruggs licks on banjo. That's probably why I've had a hard time enjoying bluegrass as a body of music. (Bluegrass musicians are often condescending toward folk music, tit for tat.) C'mon, Martin G... I await your caustic comments.

Now, there are many bands who are more inventive... some who everyone knows, and others who may be less known. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver is probably my favorite group, and I particularly get a kick out of their "covers" of recordings by the Soul Stirrers. There's a group I had never heard of on this collection, IIIrd Tyme Around that are a breath of fresh air too, and I just ordered a CD of theirs. The Stanley Brothers are probably my favorite bluegrass group because they sound more "mountain" to me. There's a real nice track of How Great Thou Art by the Osborne Brothers on this album, too.

Lest anyone ever confuse what Mudcat is, it's a collection of personal tastes posing as absolutes. That's all this thread is. It irritates me in a way that I don't appreciate bluegrass as much as I probably should. So, I keep looking for recordings that I like. For many years, I was determined that I'd come to like liverwurst. So, every once in a while, I'd buy some and make a liverwurst sandwich. It finally worked.

If it worked for liverwurst, why not for bluegrass.

Personal opinions welcome here...


11 Aug 04 - 09:38 PM (#1245394)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Padre

I played in a bluegrass band for about 2 years, and like you, I felt that the 'conventions' of chord changes and instrumental breaks were often rather limiting. I grew to appreciate those groups whose approach to the music was broadening (The Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene being two local [Washington DC] groups that tried to broaden the music.) And like you, I thought Ralph and Carter Stanley were the very best of the bands to hear at festivals.


11 Aug 04 - 09:56 PM (#1245402)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Amos

Old and In The Way -- the Bluegrass group that got Jerry Garcia strutting his stuff on the banjo -- is a really impressive bluegrass group, and I delight in listening to them. See thisweb page


11 Aug 04 - 10:04 PM (#1245407)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Jerry Rasmussen

Seldom Scene, Country Gentlemen and Old And In The Way... didn't someone create the term "Newgrass" for groups like them? Allison Krauss has certainly been commercially successful bringing bluegrass into country, even with a little touch of Rhythm and Blues.

Anyone know anything about The Isaacs? I hadn't heard them until tonight and they sound more "mountain" to me. What is "mountain?"
I guess I'm trying to say that the approach to the songs sounds less formulaic than some of the more traditional groups, but now "New", either. It sounds more like older mountain music to me.


11 Aug 04 - 10:10 PM (#1245411)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Jerry Rasmussen

Not "New"...


12 Aug 04 - 01:23 AM (#1245520)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Mark Clark

The term “newgrass” originally referred to bands like The Second Generation and The Newgrass Revival. The Country Gentlemen had been making records for ten or twelve years before newgrass came along.

I think the general impression that traditional bluegrass has an air of restrictive sameness comes from listeners who've spent more time hearing jam bands and avocational groups than they have actually listening to the body of work assembled by particular artists. The same may be said of old-timey and mountain music in the hands of jammers. They tend to have every instrument playing the same melody, in unison, until someone gets tired of the tune. Of course the music's original bands didn't play it that way but festival jams are usually trying find the lowest common demoninator so musicians can easily fit in without having to know complex arrangements before hand.

Bringing rhythm and blues into bluegrass isn't a new idea at all. Don't forget that Bill Monroe is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Monroe's band did a lot of numbers that sound a lot like rock and roll and Flatt & Scruggs continued that tradition. Some of Monroe's music along with Flatt & Scruggs may sound trite today but it wasn't trite when they were the only groups making that sound.

I think today's musicians—Allison Krause, Rhonda Vincent, Nickel Creek, … a list too long to itemize—are doing much the same thing the bluegrass progenitors were doing, making wonderful, original music that sounds fresh, pleases their audiences and their own sense of creativity while still giving a tip of the hat to the traditions that provide their basic orientation.

      - Mark

12 Aug 04 - 08:35 AM (#1245688)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Vixen

Jerry, you *do* come up with interesting threads!

Reynaud, aka my husband, Tim, plays in a bluegrass band, and he's fairly frustrated with the "ya gotta play it like Ralph/Bill/Flatt 'n' Scruggs played it" attitude. Bluegrass just doesn't have to be that way. We listen to lots of musicians who do what those guys *really* did, which is take old traditional tunes and put a new spin on them.

According to another mudcat, who I shall not name, there are two kinds of bluegrass musicians: Bluegrassholes and Bluegrassaholics. One kind insists that if it's not Bill/Ralph/Flatt 'n' Scruggs, it's not bluegrass. The other kind are more open-minded.

Just my $0.02.


12 Aug 04 - 09:19 AM (#1245717)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Jerry Rasmussen

You hit the nail right on the head, Mark. Jam sessions at festivals understandably deal in the most fundamental tunes and chord changes. And that's great (not being capable of "jamming", myself.) It's a wonderful way to learn tunes and become familiar with playing with others. And, I do believe that there are bluegrass groups that limit their instrumental runs, chord changes and vocal harmonies, not out of a lack of ability, but because they believe that that's what bluegrass should be. That's o.k, too. It just bores me, very quickly. None of it is necessarily "bad." Just not to my taste.


12 Aug 04 - 07:16 PM (#1246256)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: M.Ted

I can listen to about five minutes of bluegrass anymore--the harmonies, arrangements, and the repertoire have gotten to be very cut and dried--a lot of it has to do with the audience--not that there is anything wrong with them--they are amazingly enthusiastic, but they want what they want and only that, full throttle. The old joke was that there are two tempos in bluegrass, fast and faster--you can only do so much in that range--

13 Aug 04 - 06:08 PM (#1247131)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: PoppaGator

Jerry, I just don't believe that you're "not . . . capable of 'jamming,' [your]self."

I realize that you're a singer first and foremost, and play your instrument primarily to accompany your self and your group. BUT, you've been at it too long not to be able to walk the bass from one chord to another, and throw in an occasional treble-string riff here or there. You *can* play along with others, contributing something that's not being heard elsewhere in the ensemble. Plus, you can probably chime in with a vocal part. Unless you're hanging with free-jazz players, that's jamming! (Folk-music jamming, anyway.)

We all undoubtedly undervalue our own "simple" musical skills, which are only simple in our own eyes because we've been doing them for so long. To listeners, we're almost always more impressive than we are to ourselves.

Uisng myself as an example: When playing within a fixed, strict, 12-bar blues format -- especially in E or A -- I can produce a fairly impressive racket that sounds convincingly like "improvisation." Thanks to long familiarity with a dozen or so riffs and a simple scale, I can patch together something that sounds half-decent.

Now, when the song structure becomes more complicated (or, for that matter, any different at all), I can't display nearly the same facility or apparent complexity. That's when I, too, feel "incapable of jamming." But I can usually play *something* fitting, even if it's little more than chord-strumming. Do it with enthusiasm and basic musical feeling, and, do you know what? It's perfectly OK. Listeners will be more favorably impressed than you think they should be. It's fun. Go for it!

13 Aug 04 - 08:20 PM (#1247264)
Subject: RE: Harmonies By The Number
From: Jerry Rasmussen


You're right, kinda. I do minimize my skills. One rmemorable night a couple of years ago, my group was supposed to be singing, and I had my electric guitar with me. Several other groups didn't show, so the minister got up and started singing, and the guys egged me on (volunteered me, against my will.) We were a crazy "band." There was an ancient black lady playing sanctified barrel house piano, a drummer, a 14 year old kid on trombone (This was a House Of Prayer church, with history leading back to New Orleans) and me. I must say, we dounded pretty darned good.

Under duress, I can get by.