Saturdays are for listening to old bluegrass on the radio. Because old music sounds better on the radio. Hearing those broadcasts in the mountains adds an even deeper patina to the antique sound of old-time recordings: The hisses and pops seem to keep time with the driving banjo runs and tinny mandolin licks. The early high-lonesome sound is the soundtrack of an era that's gone now -- and won't come back.
Like me, lots of traditional-music fans listen to the old stuff and imagine themselves there, back where it all started, before bluegrass even had a name. But what is "traditional" bluegrass, anyhow? Soon, you can decide for yourself: two of the genre's top acts are scheduled to grace local venues in the coming week, and each has a vastly different idea of what traditional bluegrass should be.
The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show is a rare animal, these days: a live, museum-quality throwback to the 1950s that can transport you back to that time with a single note. On March 18, the band will play Valdese's Old Rock School -- a renovated historic building that has housed some of the best bluegrass shows ever seen in these parts. The next evening, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, much-revered contemporary bluegrass musicians who've pushed the style both technically and stylistically, play Asheville's Be Here Now.
Shiflett's band, often termed a retro-grass group, is literally a five-piece time machine. Onstage, they wear the Truman-era suits and the two-tone shoes. And the arrangements and timing on their 1999 self-titled Rebel Records release are nothing if not the genuine article. The quartet's harmonies -- Shiflett calls it "gang-style singing" -- are downright invigorating. Live, the band even uses a one-microphone stage format, with members bobbing in and out for solos. Their faithful recreation of the old style is as vintage as Karl Shiflett's 1938 D18 Martin guitar.
The album contains many covers of old-time-country gems -- a few recorded for the first time. It's a sound that satisfies a deep need in traditional-music lovers -- and one that has caught new fire.
Shiflett contends that this whole retro thing isn't so much a marketing gimmick as a way to play in the grand old style that's close to his heart, and he feels the trend is far from played out:
"I always thought the music, the way it was, never reached its peak before it started changing," he says. "There are people who say the music needs to change to grow, and I'd agree with that, to a degree. ... But I feel there could have been much more done in this style of music. I think we are just now taking it to the next level."
For a long time now, bluegrass has built an empire on looking back. But Peter Rowan is a "newgrass" pioneer who's as well known outside bluegrass circles as within them. In his twenties, Rowan played in Bill Monroe's band; later, he was part of Old and In The Way, a project that starred David Grisman and Jerry Garcia and whose self-titled album is the best-selling bluegrass record of all time. Today, the 58-year-old artist proudly wears the banner of bluegrass musician -- after all, no one can fault his credentials. Yet you don't hear Rowan doing many old-time recordings. His music changes from album to album, with innovation, rather than re-creation, providing the unifying force.
When Rowan talks about traditional bluegrass, you can tell he's got his eyes on a different horizon entirely. To him, bluegrass is less a distinct genre than a musical foundation that permeates his work -- because any other approach feels limiting. Rowan refers to Monroe, his old teacher and mentor, pointing out that even that legend never adhered to some tried-and-true formula.
"Check this out, answer this question," he urges: "When Bill Monroe invented bluegrass, what was he listening to? He sure wasn't listening to bluegrass ... Bill Monroe was using the progressive players on those traditional instruments to play what was essentially boogie-woogie music. If you really check it out, it's more in the blues than it is in country."
Rowan's last album, titled Bluegrass Boy (Sugar Hill, 1996), caught some hell for a song called "Ruby Ridge," which detailed a violent militia/federal-government showdown in Idaho. Rowan says his label had reservations about including the song, sensing it was too controversial for a disc that essentially showcases the far-reaching influence of Bill Monroe's music.
Traditionally, bluegrass albums just don't have "problems" like that, Rowan notes significantly. For his part, he has always felt the song to be a natural fit in any bluegrass session.
"Nothing against other musicians," he declares, "but I don't feel bluegrass should just be a nostalgia trip. It should be daring and bold, and it should talk about controversial things."
Rowan points out that early bluegrass music often told the news of the times. Well, times have changed -- but not so the sound's spirit: "Bluegrass still has the capacity to be immediate. ... It has such a vitality to it, really," he insists.
For Rowan, the music's power has less to do with the past than it does with the moment.
"I inherited a certain legacy from Bill Monroe, and it wasn't to wear his crown," he laments. "It was to forge something. I can't define what it is -- it's just music."
The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show will play the Old Rock School in Valdese on Saturday, March 18. Tickets ($10 in advance, $12 at the door) are available at The Bluegrass Center in Asheville (236-9396). Peter Rowan will play with Tony Rice at Be Here Now on Sunday, March 19 (members of Donna the Buffalo open). Tickets are $18. Call 258-2071 for more information.
Valdese is located 65 miles east of Asheville off I-40, between Morganton and Hickory. The Old Rock School is located on Main Street. For further directions, call 236-9396.