Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Touch Of Bluegrass : "Molly And Tenbrooks"

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a 1964 decision that although he was unable to offer a clear and concise definition of what constitutes pornography - "I know it when I see it." I am not about to divert this PG-13 blog into NC-17 territory - it's just that Stewart's phrase is so very applicable to the less volatile topic of bluegrass music. No one has ever been able to define precisely what it is - but I know it when I hear it.

It's not a traditional folk form at all and really isn't very old, going back as it does no earlier than the 1930s or 40s. Not quite country and not quite folk, bluegrass derives some of its character from both - twangy vocals and the prominence of the fiddle in most bluegrass bands from country, the five string banjo and general Scotch-Irish Appalachian tone from folk. The music is usually played at supersonic speed with breaks for each of the principal instruments.

The name bluegrass itself is derived from the band name of the genre's first superstar, Bill Monroe, whose most successful band was called The Blue Grass Boys (above) and in its most famous incarnation in the late 40s included the instrumental line-up most common in bluegrass bands since - guitar and vocals by Lester Flatt, banjo by Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Monroe himself on mandolin and often doing very high harmonies a fifth (rather than the more usual third) above the melody line. This band's success on national radio's Grand Ole Opry (propelled in part by the electrifyingly original sound of the three-fingered rolls that Scruggs was doing that have since become known as Scruggs picking) led to a string of hits, many off from the 1947 recording sessions that yielded a number of huge 45 rpm hits - including "Molly and Tenbrooks." The Monroe video has been pulled from YouTube, but Allison Krause and Union Station do a fine replication:

Fourteen years later, the Kingston Trio with characteristic brashness decided to do their own version of the song, simplifying the lyrics, folkifying the tone - and not surprisingly changing the banjo part to something that Dave Guard could handle. Guard's growth as a banjoist from the first album to this cut from his last with the Trio is stunning, and DG acquits himself well here - but it's not quite bluegrass even though Guard seems to be doing some three-fingered picking here as opposed to his earlier thumb/forefinger instrumentals (maybe not - comments/speculations welcome). The KT called it, of course,"Run, Molly, Run" from Goin' Places:

This is a classic KT banjo blaster, performed with their trademark verve and just that little bit of vocal "acting" that made their concerts a delight. I always thought that this would have been a great concert opener for the Trio - and one that John Stewart would just absolutely have nailed had they kept it in the repertoire.

Most of the other bluegrass versions of the song are pretty direct derivatives from Monroe's recording, but the next two videos are worth a look for different reasons. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice's version showcases Rice's unbelievable bluegrass flatpicking:


Lester Flatt was a great, great flatpicking artist - but has anyone ever been better than Rice?

Tony appears again with another great instrumental here with the Manzanita Band. This superstar group has Sam Bush on the Monroe-styled lead and mandolin, but what makes this performance different is - no banjo. You won't exactly miss it, though, because its position is filled by dobro guitar played by Jerry Douglass, the greatest who ever touched the instrument and one of the great musicians America has produced:

KT fans may recall the liner notes from the Live At Newport CD from a few years back. Flatt and Scruggs had left Monroe to form their own band and like the Trio had been invited (in both cases against the wishes of folk purists) to play at the 1960 Newport Folk festival, which was in desperate need that year of an infusion of cash, as its very existence was threatened. Bringing non-traditional artists like Flatt and Scruggs and the KT caused some bitterness in the Greenwich Village crowd but saved the festival. (BTW - Flatt and Scruggs performance of four or five songs including "Salty Dog" is on the Vanguard two album set from the festival that year - one of the first records I ever bought. They were great!) The fans were so raucous demanding a KT encore that they drowned out Flatt and Scruggs until guard came back on stage and assured the crowd that the KT would return after the bluegrass set, and urged the crowd to listen to his own personal favorite banjo player of all time. The crowd complied.

I've often wondered how many of them recognized Scruggs distinctive style seven years later in the monster hit "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" that had been in the film Bonnie and Clyde....


How about some pure bluegrass? What better song than "Cripple Creek," and what better band than Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys?

And ole Earl is still picking away - I hope everyone saw this wonderful performance of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the David Letterman show a couple years back:

And why not? The scene from 1972's Deliverance with possibly the most famous bluegrass-styled number ever, "Dueling Banjos" played by the great Eric Weissberg of The Tarriers:

Beyond the music - Burt Reynolds...Ronny Cox...Jon Voight...Ned Beatty...script by James Dickey (who wrote the novel) and directed by John Boorman - will I be forgiven for saying they just don't make any movies this great any more?

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