Twang redefined

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Mandolin generations at Telluride, left to right: Tim O'Brien, Chris Thile, Sam Bush and Drew Emmitt.
Hans Lehndorff

You know who you are. You are America’s sect of young bluegrass devotees. I’m not saying you’re a hipster or anything, just that you are probably under 40.  

You are lucky to listen here and now. There were progressive pockets in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C., but from the late ’60s through the ’70s, Colorado became the home of progressive bluegrass music. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the mother church of prog-grass, and devotees will flock there for the 46th June in a row this weekend, June 20-23. 

I went to the third Telluride Bluegrass Festival and wrote about more than 25 of them after that. I felt like I was present at the birth of a genre. Gifted young musicians as influenced by progressive rock and jazz rock as they were by Bill Monroe went there to push the envelope. 

The festival’s notoriously open-eared audience had been introduced to bluegrass by TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtracks for notable films from Deliverance and Bonnie and Clyde all the way to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ken Burns’ Country Music series debuting in September on PBS is likely to induce a taste for twang in a new generation. 

When I was lucky enough to interview Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford and Norman Blake, I always referred to their music as “bluegrass” and they each corrected me. They respected Bill Monroe but insisted that bluegrass was his variation on a theme. They played “country music” or “American music.” They pointed out that Monroe had stitched together a medley of Irish- and African-American influences to “invent” bluegrass. 

Modern bluegrass followed Monroe’s lead from the ’70s onward as it absorbed diverse musical influences. The bluegrass deities were less than thrilled with the trans-genre virtuosi at the heart of progressive bluegrass. Monroe and the others were eventually won over because the musicians and listeners still revered the roots, and bluegrass audiences are a model of inter-generational (and inter-genre) togetherness.  

If you want to know how your favorite jam-grass tunes got that way, listen to the seminal albums that changed the way music was played, recorded and performed. I offer my list of the top 10 most influential progressive bluegrass albums. The tunes that launched the genre a half-century ago are far hipper than you’d imagine. 

The list starts after the founders of bluegrass — Bill, Earl, Lester, Josh and Ralph — set the template for what bluegrass had to be, and a host of bands already were messing with it. Those early innovators included The Dillards, The Country Gentlemen, Bluegrass Album Band, Country Cooking, Seatrain and J.D. Crowe & The New South. 

The 10 Most Essential Progressive Bluegrass Albums 

(in chronological order):

1. Aereo-Plain (1971), by John Hartford — This is the album that launched a thousand riffs with old timey-meets-hippie originals performed by brilliant pickers including Norman Blake, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor. Listen to: “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie.”

2. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — This three-album epic reconnected rock and country fans with their roots and with Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis and Pete “Oswald” Kirby. It introduced the consummate picking of Doc Watson. Listen to: “Wabash Cannonball.”

John Lehndorff Doc Watson’s final performance at Rockygrass.

3. Old & In the Way (1975), by Old & In the Way —  Still one of the best-selling bluegrass album ever because Deadheads were infected with Jerry Garcia’s love of bluegrass and the banjo. Joined by Peter Rowan, Clements on fiddle and mandolinist David Grisman, the band tackled chestnuts and acid-tinged originals with rock band swagger. Listen to: “Panama Red.” 

4. Live at the Cellar Door (1975), by The Seldom Scene — Led by singer/mandolinist John Duffey and jazzy dobro genius Mike Auldridge, this hip group was the model for bands looking to really jam out on songs. Listen to: “Rider.”

5. Norman Blake/Tut Taylor/Sam Bush/Butch Robins/Vassar Clements/David Holland/Jethro Burns (1975) — A young producer with a vision named Hank Deane pulled together a remarkable group of bluegrass, jazz and swing instrumentalists for a one-time-only album. The “lost” progressive bluegrass masterpiece is now virtually impossible to find. YouTube: “Sauerkraut ‘N Solar Energy.”  

6. Too Late to Turn Back Now (1977), by New Grass Revival — Recorded live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, this album showcases the seminal bluegrass rock band including Sam Bush and John Cowan, Courtney Johnson and Curtis Burch. I could have listed a couple of later NGR albums featuring Béla Fleck. Listen to: “Lonesome and a Long Way from Home.”

7. The David Grisman Quintet (1977), by David Grisman Quintet — As Jerry Douglas told me recently: “This album changed everything.” The unprecedented hybrid of jazz, bluegrass and gypsy swing was performed precisely by an ensemble including violinist Darol Anger, mandolinist Todd Phillips and the genre’s greatest flatpicking guitarist, Tony Rice. Equally influential was the Tony Rice Unit’s 1979 album, Manzanita. Listen to: “Fish Scale.”

8. Hot Rize (1979), by Hot Rize —Boulder’s gift to modern bluegrass fea-tured stellar instrumental skills, stage presence, compelling lyrics and great vocals by Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster. Live performances revealed a reverentially skewed attitude toward tradition with the addition of its Monty Python-esque alter-ego band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Listen to: “High on a Mountain.”

9. The Telluride Sessions (1989), by Strength in Numbers — Born from col-laborations onstage at Telluride, Béla Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas and virtuoso classical bassist Edgar Meyer collaborated on mind-blowing composed works for chamber string band. Listen to: “Slopes.”

Hans Lehndorff Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck at Telluride.

10. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (1990), by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — The debut effort from this band inaugurated a thoroughly cool and melodic meld of rock, jazz, bluegrass and funk with Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, Future Man on Drumitar, and Howard Levy on harmonica and keyboards. Listen to: “The Sinister Minister.”

Highly Honorable Mentions

Other important progressive bluegrass albums include:Blue Side of Town, by Del McCoury Band; Cowboy Calypso, by Russ Barenberg; I’ve Got That Old Feeling, by Alison Krauss; Live at the Ryman, by Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers; The Great Dobro Sessions, by Jerry Douglas; Short Trip Home, by Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall; and Goat Rodeo Sessions, by Yo Yo Ma and friends.  

John Lehndorff has written about bluegrass music in Colorado since 1979 for diverse publications including the Rocky Mountain News and Bluegrass Unlimited

Live stream the Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Listen to live sets from this year’s sold-out Telluride Bluegrass Festival featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Peter Rowan, Chris Thile, Leftover Salmon, Green Sky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth and others streamed June 20-23 at koto.org. Festival lineup: bluegrass.com.