Diamonds in the Rough

THIS WEEK: BLUEGRASS

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At first glance, San Francisco seems far removed from the cultural institutions and trademarks that are indications that someone is in bluegrass territory. Sure, most San Franciscans don't drink moonshine, nor do they carry around shotguns or name their children Cletus. Nevertheless, we have some evidence to indicate otherwise. Each year Golden Gate Park hosts the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, welcoming major acts and fans from around the country. Bluegrass acts Laurie Lewis and Larry Carlin hail from the city by the bay, as did the Grateful Dead (the gods of San Francisco music began as a bluegrass band). And this weekend, the SF Bluegrass Festival begins its week-long run across the city. But there's no denying it: The City is a long way from good ol' Kentucky.

The origins of bluegrass are about as sketchy as roadkill stew, but the genre's rise can be attributed to Bill Monroe's efforts in the 1940s to incorporate fiddle tunes with Scotch-Irish ballads, blues, jazz and gospel. Monroe toured with an all-star team of both bluegrass talent and country bumpkin names: guitarist Lester Flatt, banjo picker Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and virtuoso bassist Cedric Rainwater. Flatt and Scruggs later went on to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, where the latter showcased his own distinct 3-finger banjo style on the dizzying "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," in our eyes the alpha and omega of hoedown songs, the honky hip-shaking counterpart to last week's funk jams. The Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin carried on B-Grass' frenetic rhythmic tradition while mixing their own high and lonesome Virginia country roots into the fold. Since then, bluegrass artists have shifted and adapted to new generations while preserving traditional standards in style and spirit.

Though we aren't bluegrass experts, even aficionados have trouble explaining the difference between it and country. Generally the differences lie in instrumentation: In bluegrass, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle all trump the guitar in terms of importance. As we see it, bluegrass requires virtuosic skill on one of the three aforementioned instruments and a high forlorn singing style. Modern country, on the other hand, requires just a pedal steel guitar, a sob story, a wannabe blues falsetto and a bottle of Jack. Obviously, some bluegrass fans have chips on their shoulders.

Although contemporary bluegrass honors its history as often as Civil War reenactors do, new artists still find ways to innovate and cross genres. Fiddler Alison Krauss of Union Station fame has moved seamlessly into country and blues. Obviously her singing prowess (and foxy looks) help bring new listeners to bluegrass, but her forays with Yo-Yo Ma and Robert Plant show the genre's capacity for appropriation. Chris Thile has achieved similar success with his progressive bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers-so much so that in 2007 he was named BBC's Folk Artist of the Year.

Like many coastal dwellers, our first introduction to bluegrass came courtesy of the Soggy Bottom Boys of "O Brother Where Art Thou"-whose songs were voiced by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and not George Clooney, contrary to popular myth. Stanley's voice alone is an instrument of breathtaking range, capable of driving everything from burning foot-stompers to ballads of a supernatural quality. In this diversity, Stanley reflects the versatility of bluegrass as a whole, a genre that uses a wide range of instruments but also has a bizarre capacity for covering utterly non-bluegrass songs and still sounding pretty good. These covers frequently offer improved versions of the originals, like "Baby One More Time" by John Kamman. It may just change your opinion of Britney Spears' songwriters. But lest we lead you astray, bluegrass musicians are far from running out of ideas.

Yet for us, bluegrass' main appeal lies elsewhere. As Joel Sidney, Cal grad and author of an honors thesis on Bay Area bluegrass, says, "The music has an authentic, down to earth feeling," which, unlike most acoustic music, sounds good played at any speed. But we can't say it as well as can comedian cum banjo picker Steve Martin: "The banjo is such a happy instrument-you can't play a sad song on the banjo."


Watch Nick and Derek duel with their banjos at [email protected]



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