Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, July 28, 2006


Last night, Salt Lake City got to see a couple of real legends for free at the weekly Twilight Concert downtown. The evening's headliner was the great Earl Scruggs. What we know today as bluegrass music was born in 1945, when Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. The nascent genre was distinguished by a number of factors, among them a strong backbeat rhythm maintained by the mandolin, high tenor harmonies sung a fifth over the melody, and a heavy dependence on pentatonic scales, but it was Scruggs' aggressive, brassy, three-finger-picking style of banjo playing, more than anything else, that made the band's sound unique. Today it's uncommon to hear a banjo played in any other style. After leaving the Bluegrass Boys in '48, Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boys with fellow Bluegrass alumnus, guitarist Lester Flatt, and continued making music in the Monroe tradition. Flatt and Scruggs went their separate ways in '69, and Flatt died ten years later. Last night, Scruggs played with a 7-piece band that included a drum kit and electric guitar, but both were understated, and the performance fell solidly within the bluegrass tradition.

Since the '40s, many others have followed the Bluegrass Boys' lead; for the first couple of decades they stuck pretty close to the script. In the experimental days of the '60s and '70s, liberties were taken, some of them more successful than others. David Grisman (who performed brilliantly at a Twilight Concert a few years back) and his acolytes have stretched the boundaries of the genre beyond recognition, usually with splendid results. A school of traditionalists, exemplified by the Johnson Mountain Boys, has added a new level of dynamism while maintaining reverence for the old structure. The most successful contemporary school of bluegrass, though, was initiated in large part by last night's warm-up act. Chris Hillman started playing mandolin in California bluegrass bands as a teenager in the late '50s. A demand quickly developed for his skillful playing, and soon he found himself playing with well-known musicians. In 1964, he was convinced to switch to bass guitar and join the Byrds, who would burst from the gates as an immediately famous folk band. From there, they moved in the direction of psychedelia, then, when David Crosby was replaced by Gram Parsons in 1968, back towards Hillman's bluegrass roots. Within a year, Hillman joined Parsons to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, and began really applying the Burdizzo to bluegrass. Over the succeeding decades, Hillman and his cohorts have been grinding the rough edges from the genre, leaving a bland, drab, but wholly inoffensive entity in its place. Sadly, this mutation has largely taken over, and most of what passes for bluegrass today is to Scruggs what Pat Boone was to Little Richard.

Nothing offends me more than inoffensive art. The purpose of art is to challenge the public--better yet, to accost it. To grab it by the ear and smack its head against the wall. I like a pleasant little tune or a pretty little painting as much as anyone, but a life's body of work composed of nothing else would have been better spent cleaning toilets. Too often, artists are asked to serve as devises for public relaxation, as if much of the public weren't already relaxed to the point of anesthetization. If you really need to relax, try a couple of good belts of cheap tequila in rapid succession. It's a lot more fun, and its zombifying effects are less dangerous than music and painting designed to bore you out of your cares.
illustration: BAT-EARED FOX PORTRAIT (2006) acrylic 20" x 10"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Del McCoury with Steve Earle out front.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

You refer to The Mountain? Your vision of heaven? Hell?

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know as I'd go that far in either direction. But as a fan of Steve (however hard he can make it sometimes) and bluegrass, you've got to have it...

12:57 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Yeah, I've got to pick that up. I actually have not even heard it. Steve Earle performed at our Twilight Concert series about four years ago. We're lucky to have such a program.

10:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home