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 learning).
On the 111th anniversary of the birth of “the Father of Bluegrass” (Sept. 13, 2022), the Bluegrass Today web magazine kindly published my guest essay “Celebrating Bill Monroe as an Autobiographical Singer-Songwriter”:
It’s not well known just how revealing Monroe was in his self-composed “true songs.”
For example, the chorus of Bill’s well-loved “Uncle Pen” (a tribute to his fiddle-playing uncle and mentor) is not simply a collection of pleasant words: It contains a detailed description of a formative experience in his youth.
In the essay, I give my reasons why Monroe’s singer-singer powers have scarcely been recognized and credited. I hope this will spark a needed conversation about this tremendous American – even world – music figure.
On the evening of August 29th, 2021, 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”:
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:
My regular band is now Old Faithful, led by long-time New Jersey bluegrass stalwart David “D.W.” Griffiths: