Bluegrass’ real roots revealed

Monadnock Lyceum includes performance by Audie Blaylock and Redline

  • Audie Blaylock and Redllne celebrated  bluegrass music at Sunday's Monadnock Summer Lyceum  <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • Audie Blaylock and Redllne celebrated  bluegrass music at Sunday's Monadnock Summer Lyceum  <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

PETERBOROUGH — As he opened his Monadnock Summer Lyceum talk titled “Bluegrass: Celebrating an American Musical Art” on Sunday, August Watters asked his “typically stolid and dignified” audience what words immediately came to mind when they heard the word “bluegrass.”

The answers came promptly back: “Bill Monroe.” “Kentucky.” “Deliverance.”

Those aren’t surprising responses, said Watters, who is an accomplished mandolin player, co-director of education for the Boston Bluegrass Union and an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. They reflect the most common views of the music as presented in the mass media. But the notion that bluegrass is a true folk music is very misleading, Watters said, and misunderstandings abound.

“Bluegrass is not traditional,” said Watters. “It is a creation of professional musicians. It is a testament to Bill Monroe’s musical education and creative vision.” Monroe is the American musician who helped create the genre.

Watters said the music has three key influences: Southern hymn singing, melodies for fiddle and banjo, and the blues. It has sad lyrics, yet upbeat tunes. “There’s a message of optimism and redemption,” Watters said. “We are reassured that there are better times ahead.”

The music became popular during the early days of radio, when it was known as hillbilly music. It was developed by itinerant professionals, like Monroe and his band, as they travelled throughout the country.

That’s a tradition that’s continued to this day, said Watters, who shared the stage at the Lyceum with Audie Blaylock and Redline, a bluegrass quartet whose tight harmonies and rapid-fire fiddle and banjo leads quickly had the audience enthralled.

“How far did you travel to get here, Audie?” Watters asked Blaylock, who’s been on the road since he joined a bluegrass band in 1982 at the age of 19 and was playing with three much younger musicians.

“We were in Missouri two days ago,” replied Blaylock. “You don’t get to look like this for no reason.”

Watters said bluegrass went into decline with the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s, but Monroe soon found a new audience during the folk revival of the 1960s. The music also gained popularity through bluegrass jams, where musicians would gather and take turns playing increasingly intricate solos. Since then, many purists have insisted on a traditional approach to the music.

“Bluegrass audiences can be brutal if they feel traditions are not being honored,” Watters said, a remark that drew knowing nods from the members of the band.

But the music is also constantly evolving, Watters said, through innovators like David Grisman, Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss, and the Internet has sparked a recurrence of interest in bluegrass, as young and nimble enthusiasts learn ever quicker licks for fiddle, banjo and mandolin.

“Will the Internet make crossover so easy that bluegrass will be diluted?” Watters wondered.

He didn’t have an answer, but suggested that bluegrass could become a model for music education in the schools.

“It cultivates both individualism and teamwork,” Watters said, a statement amply proven by the performance of Blaylock and his band. “The educational value of bluegrass has barely been tapped.”

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