Progressive Bluegrass

Bluegrass music is an American country subgenre generally known for conforming to a fairly specific formula: the typical band consists of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass, with the guitarist singing lead and the mandolinist singing tenor harmonies. While traditional bluegrass bands have varied from this formula somewhat over the decades, the formula has nevertheless persisted. The musical content of bluegrass, however, has steadily expanded over the years, from an early focus on traditional fiddle tunes and ancient (or ancient-sounding) songs to adaptations of pop songs, increasingly jazzy instrumental compositions, and fusions of various other genres with bluegrass inflections and instrumentation.

What would come to be called “progressive” bluegrass has some of its earliest expressions in the late 1950s, when the Washington, DC-based Country Gentlemen formed and almost immediately began adapting non-bluegrass material such as “A Good Woman’s Love” by Cy Coben and the wind band composition “Under the Double Eagle.” They would eventually add to their repertoire songs by Graham Nash, the Beatles, John Denver, and others, while maintaining a more or less traditional bluegrass instrumentation and playing/singing style.

The Gentlemen paved the way for more adventurous experiments. In 1971, several forward-looking young musicians including mandolinist Sam Bush and banjo player Courtney Johnson (both of whom broke off from the Bluegrass Alliance) formed a band called the New Grass Revival. Sporting long hair and hippieish clothing, this group went even further afield in its style and repertoire, adapting rockabilly and reggae songs to the bluegrass format – much to the consternation of some more tradition-minded fans. Elsewhere, the Seldom Scene was organized by several former members of the Country Gentlemen and continued that group’s tradition of expanding the stylistic boundaries of the genre, including playing long and exploratory solos in its live concerts that could at times (in their length and discursiveness, at least) evoke the psychedelic excursions of the Grateful Dead. During the 1970s women began taking a more prominent role in what had historically been an almost entirely male scene, as Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis formed an all-woman band called the Good Ol’ Persons and eventually went on to illustrious and stylistically expansive solo careers.

In the later 1970s came the emergence of what would come to be called the New Acoustic Music movement. This phenomenon was largely a product of the California bluegrass scene, where a core of musicians centered around mandolinist David Grisman, guitarist Tony Rice, and mandolinists/fiddlers Mike Marshall and Darol Anger were experimenting with a fusion that blended elements of hot and Gypsy jazz with bluegrass conventions and instrumentation to create an entirely new genre of acoustic music. 

In recent years all remaining walls around bluegrass convention seem to have fallen, with sometimes thrilling results. Bands like Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Mumford & Sons (as well as solo artists like Sarah Jarosz and Billy Strings) have created new and at times highly personal pop and roots subgenres that draw significantly on the history and traditions of bluegrass, while pledging no stylistic allegiance to those traditions. At the same time, highly traditional bluegrass artists have continued to enjoy success, suggesting that despite the apparent stylistic tension between them, these multiplying streams of musical style will continue to coexist fruitfully for many years to come.

Live At The Cellar Door cover

The Seldom Scene followed in the “newgrass” tradition of the Country Gentlemen (of which mandolinist/singer John Duffey had been a founding member) but took it further, covering songs by Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, and Bob Dylan in a style that combined bluegrass instrumentation with a willingness to stretch out and experiment. This live album finds the band’s classic configuration (with lead vocalist John Starling) at the peak of its powers, joking around onstage but playing with impressive virtuosity. There’s a predictably long version of their production number, “I Know You Rider,” but also lovely instrumentals like “Pickaway” and “Colorado Turnaround,” and the album’s emotional centerpiece is a wonderful version of Haggard’s moving “California Cottonfields.”

Old Train cover

For their fourth release, progressive bluegrass flagbearers the Seldom Scene continued to celebrate the music’s traditions while restlessly expanding those traditions’ boundaries. As on most of their albums, there’s a blend of hardcore traditional bluegrass (“Maybe You Will Change Your Mind,” “Old Cross Roads”), old-school country (Hank Williams’ “Pan American”) and more modern, progressive fare including several Herb Pedersen compositions. Lead singer John Starling’s “C&O Canal” is a particular highlight.

Nickel Creek cover

Before Chris Thile became a reasonably big-time solo artist (and an NPR rock star) he was in a progressive bluegrass band called Nickel Creek, a trio of mind-blowingly talented youngsters whose playing was deeply rooted in bluegrass and old-time music but exploded the boundaries of those styles. Just listen to “Ode to a Butterfly” on this, their third album: it sounds like a traditional fiddle tune except for the crazy time signatures and the equally crazy arrangement. And the whole album is like that: brilliant, exploratory, maybe slightly baffling.

On the Boulevard cover

By the mid-1980s, there was no band more skillfully demonstrating how bluegrass and pop music could be seamlessly blended than New Grass Revival. Between John Cowan’s soul-country vocals and Béla Fleck’s constant and fluid transitions between Scruggs-style and melodic banjo picking, this band pretty much defined progressive bluegrass during the period. The title track of this album is perhaps the best illustration, but their cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love/People Get Ready” is right up there too.

Something Auld, Something Newgrass, Something Borrowed, Something Bluegrass cover

Banjoist Bill Keith makes his intentions clear from the very first track of this album, which is a Rolling Stones cover. Despite the fact that he and his band are playing what sounds more or less like straight-ahead bluegrass, they’re not going to be constrained by any convention. Alongside traditional fare like “Rickett’s Hornpipe” and “Farewell Blues” you’re going to hear a Clifford Jordan tune and a setting of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” And Keith will be playing in the melodic banjo style that he and Tony Trischka pioneered and Béla Fleck later perfected.

25 Years cover

By the time this retrospective set was released in the early 1980s, the Country Gentlemen had gone through many personnel shifts, the only constant presence being guitarist and lead singer Charlie Waller. This collection provides an excellent overview of the group’s consistent dedication to both celebrating and aggressively pushing the boundaries of traditional bluegrass music. Strictly traditional settings of classic songs like “I Am Weary” and “The Fields Have Turned Brown” rub up against arrangements of songs by Bob Dylan, Mel Tallis, and Gordon Lightfoot.

Dawg & T (Live) cover

Mandolinist David Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice came out of the progressive bluegrass scene of the 1970s and, together, basically built the foundation of what would come to be called New Acoustic Music in the 1980s (which amounted, effectively, to jazz played on bluegrass instruments). Recorded live in 2017, this set documents a duo performance that showcases not only the pair’s mighty stylistic range but also Rice’s phenomenal rhythm playing — an often overlooked aspect of his talent.

My Bluegrass Heart cover

Don’t be fooled by the title: true, bluegrass has always been close to Béla Fleck’s heart, but this is only a bluegrass album in the loosest sense. Really, it’s a jazz album (listen to the chord changes on “Vertigo”), though Fleck’s music has always been too stylistically expansive to be contained by any one genre designation. Highlights here include his banjo trio number with Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny and the sweetly lyrical (and harmonically spiky) “Charm School.”

Dr. Banjo Steps Out cover

Banjo player Pete Wernick has been working the more progressive end of the bluegrass spectrum since his earliest days as a solo artist. His second solo album opens with a unique version of the classic fiddle tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” presented here as a banjo-flute duet. Elsewhere he debuts the harmonically twisty “Gnu Breakdown” and plays his banjo through a phase shifter on the otherwise traditionally-arranged Delmore Brothers tune “Life’s Too Short.”

Country Songs, Old and New cover

The Country Gentlemen were the godfathers of progressive bluegrass, a band that looked pretty trad on the surface but started to incorporate pop and rock elements early on. Their 1960 debut album sounds entirely straight-ahead at first: classic material like “Drifting Too Far from the Shore,” “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies,” a rollicking “Paul and Silas,” etc. But that arrangement of “Under the Double Eagle” would have raised a few purists’ eyebrows, and their take on “Honky Tonk Rag” was pretty… rocking. This was all a harbinger of things to come.

I’ve Got That Old Feeling cover

As a progressive bluegrass artist, Alison Krauss came on like a stealth jet. An accomplished fiddler, she really caught the world’s attention as a singer, and even on her earliest solo work you can hear her gently pushing out of the bluegrass corral and into a more poppy, country-derived style. Check out the subtle but clear swing rhythm she applies to “Endless Highway,” and the tricky chord changes on “It’s Over.” She’s clearly destined for stylistically bigger things already.