Alive and Picking 


That high, lonesome sound is coming back around again. No, those good vibrations you hear aren't the weeping and gnashing of teeth and postponing of major concert tours as pop-music's boy-band phase begins its overdue commercial decline. We're talking about the picking, plucking and bowing of fiddles, mandolins, banjos, guitars, dobros and string basses, all integral to the sound of bluegrass.

The genre, named after the late Bill Monroe's backing band in the 1940s and an outgrowth of the traditional string-band music that set the stage for country music, is reasserting itself. Call it a mini-renaissance, half a century after the golden age of bluegrass. But there are some differences this time around. Many of the today's bluegrass musicians are pushing the boundaries of the music -- conjuring up bluegrass variations on classic rock songs and incorporating influences from other styles of country and folk.

The bluegrass revival, if you will, has even spread to Central Florida, where inadvertent evangelists for the music have gathered for about three years at the Copper Rocket Pub in Maitland. The venue is the host of an increasingly crowded "bluegrass bash" that takes place the first Sunday evening of every month, with the next event slated for Sept. 2.

The joint has been jumping for these shows, with 200 or more people passing through the doors of the intimate club. "It has been very popular over the last year," says coordinator Gianni Arsonetti. "We get a very positive response from the crowd. We get everyone from doctors and lawyers to a lot of the biker people. It's something different, something unusual, kind of wholesome good fun for a Sunday."

Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a roots-music collective featuring members of various Orlando-area bands, typically headlines the Copper Rocket shows, sharing the bill with Cold Cut Combo and other acts. Riverbottom -- together since 1996 -- features guitarist Brian Chodorcoff; bassist Ralph Amuderri; banjo player Jack Sterling; singer, guitarist and harmonica player David Schweizer; mandolin player Bruce Schweizer (David's cousin), and Fiddlin' Al. Occasionally, Anthony Cole, drummer/multi-instrumentalist with Sam Rivers' trio and big band, sits in.

Chodorcoff and the other musicians variously play with or have been associated with the Joint Chiefs, Cold Cut Combo, Princeton's Guff, Terri Binion, Throcket Luther and My Friend Steve. Riverbot-tom, as opposed to those other bands, represents a low-pressure good time, more ambitious than a pure jam but far less structured than a typical nightclub act. The group, whose self-titled CD was released on their own label about six months ago, has a repertoire of about 30 tunes, including genre standards "In the Pines," "Nine-Pound Hammer" and "Orange Blossom Special," as well as several bluegrass reworkings of contemporary songs. In addition to their regular Copper Rocket gig, they play parties, festivals and the occasional wedding.

"It really started out as us getting together on a Sunday afternoon, picking some guitars and drinking some shitty beer, and it turned into doing gigs regularly," Chodorcoff says. "Everybody in the band has worked in the music business and knows the real deal. We never approached it like, 'Let's go get a record deal and get a tour bus.' Nobody comes to the rehearsals or to any of the gigs on a mission other than to hang out with each other, have a good time and make the tunes sound good. It's an excuse to learn how to play another genre of music, and hopefully figure it out as life goes by. Maybe by the time we're all in our 50s, we'll really be burning."

Riverbottom's members have been pleasantly surprised by the wide appeal of the music, and the range of the listeners, says Chodorcoff. "Whether we play downtown or wherever it is, punks like it and grandparents like it. You get these kids with tattoos and pierced tongues square dancing. I think it's the way we deliver it. There's probably some real bluegrass people saying, 'Why are you making a mockery of our music, boy?' It's a party atmosphere. We're not trying to force bluegrass down anybody's throat or trying to make them get into something they don't want to be into."

Upsala, a Sanford-based band, plays a brand of roots music that might not be best described as bluegrass. The quintet's 1999 CD "Upsala -- A String Band" was nominated for a Grammy in the category of traditional folk music, and they've gained a following at MP3.Com. The group draws from a tradition that predates bluegrass, says banjo player J.U. Lee. The band also includes Lee's wife, Wanda, on guitar; mandolin player Billy Jickell; bassist Kristi Hamilton, and fiddle player Andy Thomas. Formally organized about four years ago, the band includes members who have been playing together for two decades or longer.

"I play with the clawhammer banjo, and we emulate a lot of the Georgia old-time fiddle style," says J.U. Lee. "A lot of what we do is based on music that came out of Appalachia 150 years ago. It was a style that was prevalent before three-finger banjo picking became prevalent, and [the latter] is what people associated with bluegrass. It's an older cousin. [The recent film] "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" exposed a lot of people to traditional music. That's closer to our field of expertise in the music -- that type of music which wasn't strictly bluegrass but had a lot of folk and historical context with it. What we play probably fits into alternative [country] more."

Many stages have been welcoming the hybrid folk-country-bluegrass music of Upsala. The quintet has played events all over Florida, from folk festivals to the Florida Fiddler's Convention to several contra dances (weekend-long square-dancing events) in Casselberry and Casadega.

"Another thing about the roots of our music is that a lot of it was written for dance music," says Lee. "We started playing dances about 15 years ago. It was really neat to see the connection between music and the dance again. That's not uncommon, going back 200 or 300 years. A song like 'Soldier's Joy' goes back to 1600. That's how it comes to be called traditional."

Bluegrass, traditional and gospel music all show up in the mix of the American Bluegrass Radio Network, an hour-long radio program produced in Orlando by host Tom Riggs. The show airs on 152 stations around the country. "About 70 percent of what we play is what most people would call bluegrass, a mixture of current and classic," Riggs says. "We play another 15 percent Americana, and another 15 percent would probably be something that meets my definition of American acoustic country; if Johnny Cash would do an acoustic album, which he has done, I would play that.

Riggs, unfortunately, isn't heard in his own town. He's matter of fact about that situation. "Typically, our affiliates are traditional country [stations]. That's why we're not on the air in this market. We are on the air in 10 Top-20 markets, and we're also on the air in a lot of bottom 50 markets. It has more to do with what is being played in the market than anything else."

Riggs launched his show in 1988, on a small country station in Kissimmee, and the next year began his own record label, Pinecastle, named for his home community in south Orlando. More than 100 discs have been released on the label, including recordings by the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse (McReynolds), Chubby Wise and Eddie Adcock. Discs by David Parmley and Continental Divide, and a compilation in tribute to late songwriter Randall Hilton, are among the 10 CDs on Pinecastle's release schedule for 2001.

Pinecastle artists, among many other acts, have frequently played the Kissimmee Kiwanis Bluegrass Festival, an event that Riggs booked for several years, up until 1998. The three-day festival attracted about 3,500 people for its 24th edition this past March, says event coordinator Steve Dittman. Mac Wiseman, the Lewis Family and the Bassmouth Boys were among the major draws this year, and local talent included Doug Cloud and the County Line.

The national resurgence of interest in bluegrass and Americana has had an impact on audiences at the Kissimmee fest, says Dittman. "The young musicians, there's gobs of them," he says. "And the young people (fans) are starting to come. It's mixing the old people with the young people. It's a touchy situation, but we have to do it."

Bluegrass has remained viable after all this time in part because of its ability to connect directly with listeners. As an acoustical music, there are few artificial barriers between the natural sounds of the instruments and listeners' ears. "It conveys emotion, this tradition of music -- everything from morbid ideas to elation and joy -- when they're really cranking on a reel," says Lee of Upsala. "What's more primal than music?"

Bluegrass, of course, has played a vital role in the sound variously referred to as alternative country or Americana: Gillian Welch and Steve Earle are on that list, along with rock-oriented acts such as The Old 97s, Ryan Adams and his now-defunct band Whiskeytown, and Uncle Tupelo splinter groups Wilco and Son Volt.

Jam bands, too, including String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Blueground Undergrass and the on-hiatus Phish, have opened their arms to bluegrass. Bela Fleck has taken a traditional bluegrass instrument, the banjo, and given it a rebirth in fusion and classical.

The music also is a central element in two recent film soundtracks. The Coen Brothers' "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" features recordings by Dan Tyminski ("I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow"), the Cox Family, Ralph Stanley, the Fairfield Four, Welch and Allison Krauss, and the late John Hartford, along with vintage pieces by the Stanley Brothers and Harry "Mac" McClintock. The disc, which topped Billboard's country albums chart, has sold more than 1 million copies.

"Songcatcher," from director-writer Maggie Greenwald, offers onscreen performances of Appalachian chestnuts by singer-songwriter Iris Dement, Metropolitan Opera regular Emmy Rossum (with an offscreen Dolly Parton) and blues man Taj Mahal. The CD includes tracks by Welch, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Maria McKee, Deanna Carter, Julie Miller and Hazel Dickens.

The commercial ascent of Southern California roots-minded band Nickel Creek's debut album, released last year and climbing into the top 20 on the country charts, is another indication of the genre's resilience. So is the chart success of Dolly Parton's current "Little Sparrow" and its 1999 predecessor, "The Grass is Blue."

"The music runs pretty deep in her veins, and she does it wonderfully well," veteran bluegrass instrumentalist and producer David West says from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. "She's a smart woman. She's a musicologist. She understands the boundaries of where bluegrass ends and country begins. She does an album that stylistically is a bluegrass album, rather than just a country album with mandolins and fiddles thrown in."

West and his colleagues at CMH Records in Los Angeles have given a lot of thought to the stylistic boundaries and borders of bluegrass music. Its releases have featured performances by many roots-music favorites, including the late Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, the Osborne Brothers, Josh Graves and Jim & Jesse (McReynolds). But it may be best known as the prime purveyor of blueglass-flavored tributes to rock and pop artists.

"Breathe," a Dave Matthews tribute, is among the most popular of this year's batch of CMH titles. So is "Moonshadow," a tribute to Cat Stevens' songs, including covers of "Peace Train," "Morning Has Broken," "WildWorld" and the title tune.

West has produced, co-produced and/or played on about 40 tribute discs, including this year's salutes to the Grateful Dead, the Doobie Brothers, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. The guitarist, who also plays banjo, mandolin and bass, additionally has given the bluegrass treatment to Neil Young, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The trick to taking Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Waiting in Vain" and tinting them with the sound of Flatt and Scruggs is to focus on the elements that defined those songs, says West. "If you can find the hook, the melody, the signature lick, and can retain those, you can pretty much play the song in a bluegrass style." (Parton's "Little Sparrow," for example, features a cover of Collective Soul's "Shine.") "People who know the song will hear the melody or the guitar lick and say, 'Yeah, that's that song,'" says West. "I've always thought that a well-written song, if its musical format is solid and based on musical principles, is going to hold up if you change it to a few different genres.

"These CMH records aren't bluegrass albums in the strictest sense of the word," he adds. "A real hardcore traditional bluegrass fan wouldn't call them bluegrass. I would like to think that the followers of the original rock artists see these things and buy them as novelty items and then think, 'Hmmm, this is good.' And maybe they'll have more and more of an interest in bluegrass music and start exploring the bluegrass catalog as well. I'd like to think I bring new converts to the bluegrass fold."

What keeps the converts on the straight and narrow once they've entered the fold? "It's very real music," says Riverbottom's Chodorcoff. "It's storytelling, the kind of stuff where you have to listen to the words. You kind of have to get the beat of it, too. Sometimes the train is going up a mountain, sometimes the train is coming down a mountain."


More by Philip Booth

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