Bluegrass Music

I was one of many Yankees who got turned on to bluegrass when it added its surging energy and “high-lonesome” sound to the Folk Music Revival of the 1960s.

Since then, I’ve contributed my singing and mandolin playing to numerous bands, other peoples’ and my own.

Which makes me (just by sheer survival) something of an expert on bluegrass and its history (although I’m still humbly learning).

 

Banjo prodigy-turned-grandmaster Bela Fleck brought an astonishing band of talents to Princeton on September 24th during on his “My Bluegrass Heart” tour. NewJerseyStage.com published a wonderful in-depth review of this fabulous show, including superb photos and the comments of some attendees — including me and a highly talented banjo-picking protoge of mine:

https://www.newjerseystage.com/articles/getarticle.php?titlelink=awe-inspiring-bela-fleck-live-at-princetons-mccarter-theatre 

Scroll about one-third down through the article. Just after an on-stage photo showing fiddler Michael Cleveland and other band members in profile, look for a paragraph starting, “During intermission, we chat with …” 

Nikolai (who’s attended banjo camp led by Bela) has excellent insights from his youthful but already seasoned involvement with the music.

And I reflect on having experienced one of THE greatest bluegrass acts of all time in that very McCarter Theatre space — but literally more than a half-century ago.

    

Prior to Fleck’s Princeton triumph, on the evening of August 29th, I joined the outstanding N.J.-based band Last Whipoorwill in a concert show entitled “The Story of Bluegrass” at the Long Beach Island Arts Center. As we performed songs and instrumentals from the classic bluegrass repertoire, we narrated the music’s evolution starting with its pioneers in the 1930s and ’40s: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers.

Of course, we had to look the part as well! (That’s me on the far left with the mandolin.) Even our microphone got dressed up as being from WSM Radio in Nashville, broadcast home of the world-renowned “Grand Ole Opry”:

 

last whipoorwill_on stage_2

 

Yes, friends & neighbors, it was like steppin’ out of a bluegrass time machine …

 

One of the best bands I’ve ever had came together when I had an administrative day job at Princeton University:

By incredibly good fortune, I connected with then-Geosciences graduate student Sean Long (vocals/guitar). After just one great-fun, everything-clicked jam session, Sean and I formed Prospect Crossing (named after a famous street running through campus).

We quickly recruited two amazingly gifted undergrads — Brittany Haas (fiddle, now a busy Nashville-based show and session player) and Theo Beers (standup bass, now a PhD candidate specializing in Persian literature at University of Chicago).

Later, we were joined by a New Jersey bluegrass and contra dance music comrade of mine, veteran multi-instrumentalist Paul Prestopino.

We’ve all gone on to other things. But here we are (via YouTube) at a Princeton University variety show, performing the classic “Blue and Lonesome,” co-written by “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe and country music legend Hank Williams.

 

And I’m happy to report that my Bluegrass & Princeton University connection continues — with a lot of great music.

I’ve been playing shows with Prof. Robert George, as part of his folk music concerts through the James Madison Program which he directs. The latest was the standing-room-only event “Untangling Dylan.” Robby’s colleague Prof. Sean Wilentz of the History Department  — who is also a folk music expert, personal friend of Bob Dylan, and official historian for the Dylam website — joined in to give expert commentary on the legendary singer/songwriter.

In addition to the superb picking of Robby (a native of West Virginia, where banjos are seemingly issued to children upon birth!), we were joined by my old friend and world-renowned 5-string great Tony Trischka.

Here’s a link to the “Untangling Dylan” webpage, with bios of the participants plus a two-part video of the show. Our Dylan-done-bluegrass-style segment is right at the beginning of Part Two:

https://jmp.princeton.edu/events/untangling-dylan-music-and-conversation-sean-wilentz-robert-george-and-friends

My regular band is now Old Faithful, led by long-time New Jersey bluegrass stalwart David “D.W.” Griffiths:

RDS, DW & Old Faithful_7-7-19

Here’s me on mandolin and D.W. on guitar, singing a scorching “high lonesome” bluegrass duet, with Carl Baron on 5-string banjo and (unfortunately out of frame) Greg Vongas, bass, and Don Sojka, Dobro resonator slide guitar — all veteran bluegrass devotees and great guys. 

Also, D.W. is an outstanding songwriter who encourages creativity within the band. It’s a joy to work up and perform original material, including my own.

And I’m so pleased to report: We’re gettin’ back to it! Like the rest of the performning arts world, we’re playing live shows again  — with sensible precautions but also renewed fiery spirit.

It’s a good thing that we don’t have to keep a distance — social or otherwise — from our joy in making bluegrass music.

Stay tuned!