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It Finally Dawned On Me To Start Listening To Bluegrass! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, August 4, 2014

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Daughter Casey and I held our second Women's Banjo Camp in July of this year and one of our returning campers (age 75!) blew me away with a remark she made. Her playing had improved so much over the past year that I congratulated her in front of the class. After I finished heaping it on, she stunned me by saying, "It finally dawned on me to start listening to bluegrass! It's made a huge difference." I thought that was so profound that I grabbed a marker and wrote it down. Another woman added that she had been listening to bluegrass on Sirius Radio "all the time" and pointed out, "It soaks into you!" Indeed it does!

I rarely think to tell folks to listen to bluegrass because I assume, if they are playing banjo, that they are already listening to it. Wrong! Many people come to the banjo simply because they like the sound of the instrument. ("My granddad played one." "I heard it on Andy Griffith." "I heard it on the Beverly Hillbillies.") These newbies are pretty much unaware of the large body of bluegrass songs and tunes that make up the bluegrass repertoire. Does this make it harder to learn bluegrass? You bet your sweet bippy it does! (And thanks to Laugh In for that line!)

Here's a short list of some of the albums I think are essential to listen to if you want to start developing an understanding of the bluegrass repertoire. 

NOTE: I realize that this list is very men-centric. This is mostly because I learned my bluegrass from men. (There are many reasons for that. Read my book, Pretty Good For A Girl!) And, of course, Earl happened to be a man. Bless his heart! So, off the top of my head, these are the recordings that come to mind. I welcome suggestions of recordings of "classic" three-chord bluegrass songs (suitable for beginning jam sessions) that have been done by women--in women's keys. In other words, someone needs to re-do the Bluegrass Album Band albums (mentioned below!) in women's keys! (And while it would be all kinds of fun, I hope it doesn't have to be me!) 

Foggy Mountain Banjo LPFoggy Mountain Banjo (the Bible of bluegrass banjo; all instrumental) Yikes! I didn't realize this was so COSTLY! It's really, really good, so I would pay the $30 for a used copy. But, maybe with some hard looking, you can find one cheaper. Songs include: Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, Lonesome Road Blues, Fireball Mail (all these taught note-for-note on our two Beginning DVDs), Sally Goodwin, Ground Speed, Home Sweet Home, Reuben (all taught on various DVDs), along with Sally Ann, Little Darlin' Pal of Mine, Bugle Call Rag, and John Henry. Maybe you can shop for these individually. Any versions would be good to listen to, but Earl's are THE BEST!

Foggy Mountain Jamboree (Earl's tuner songs and some classic vocals) Still available at a reasonable price.

Flatt & Scruggs: The Complete Mercury Recordings: I just remembered (thanks to Google) that these amazing recordings have been reissued. This album is worth it for two songs: The original recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown (please listen to it!!) and Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms (ditto). Earl at his best! All the other songs are fantastic, too, but most have now become what Eddie Stubbs calls "deep catalog." Which means they are not likely to be played in an intermediate jam but very likely to be played in a jam with a group of  Scruggs fanatics like me and Casey and Red and Chris and Mike and John, and Hig and the Flint Hill Flash!  

The Bluegrass Album Band: All volumes have good material, but the first album, The Bluegrass Album (1981) and Bluegrass Album, Vol. 2 (1982) are the strongest for initial learning purposes.

The Original Carter Family: Look for CD releases that have these songs on them: Bury Me Beneath The Willow, John Hardy, Crying Holy Unto The Lord, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Worried Man, etc. I found the Original Carter Family a little hard to listen to at first, but they are worth learning to like! And for words, this is about as "authentic" as you can get! And Sara Carter is a fabulous lead singer! And Mother Maybelle's lead guitar playing is so good that even Earl (and everybody else) wanted to copy it!

Will The Circle Be Unbroken: The original, first 3-disc set that came out in the early '70s. SO MUCH GOOD STUFF. A HUGE influence on me, song-wise. "I'm a rolling stone, all alone and lost, for a life of sin, I've paid the cost..." (Just one of the many songs that comes to mind. I still know tons of words.) And "Who did you say it was, brother, who was it fell by the way? When whiskey and blood run together, I didn't hear nobody pray..." Oh, my! Such good music! With chit-chat in between songs: "How does it go, Vassar?" And then Vassar launches into Down Yonder....

And finally, if you've got tons of money to spend: Flatt & Scruggs: 1948-1959 (4CDs). This is the Bear Family Boxed set. Great music, great liner notes. Big price.

Of course, listening to any and all bluegrass is a good thing!

You may be asking, "Where is Bill Monroe? Where is Jimmy Martin? Where are the Stanley Brothers? Where are Hazel and Alice? Where is Wilma Lee Cooper? Where is the Stoneman Family?" You get a gold star if you even know who these people are! And all these folks are great to listen to. (The Stanley Brothers are probably my all-time favorites next to Earl!) But, as beginning bluegrassers you can't digest it all at once. So, my list is quite banjo-centric with Earl in the first three slots and the last one, and J.D. Crowe, who played the banjo on the Bluegrass Album Band discs, in the third slot. Monroe and the Stanley Brothers can be a little hard to appreciate initially, so I'd save them for your second round of listening. And Hazel and Alice are awesome, especially their original songs, but even their hard-core bluegrass material, generally speaking, is not your standard three-chord, easy-to-play bluegrass. Again, though, listen to it all. My suggestions are just for starters.

Where to buy this music? Let me give a shout out to County Sales, the long-time bluegrass record distributor from Floyd, Virginia. They are online now and have tons of Flatt and Scruggs material, including lots of "live" shows on CD and TV shows on DVD. They are incredibly knowledgeable about the music and you can put your trust in their descriptions and evaluations. Founder Dave Freeman is in the IBMA Hall of Fame. I also found their website easy to get around on, which is a big plus to me! But there are also plenty of other good, online places to shop. And I know many of you will be downloading these songs, which is great!

So, enjoy your foray into listening to some early bluegrass. It is this early three-chord bluegrass that makes this music "accessible" to anyone with a guitar and banjo and the willingness to do the work. Notice I didn't say "easy," I said "accessible." And the more you listen, the more you start to hear. Dig in!

7 comments on “It Finally Dawned On Me To Start Listening To Bluegrass! By Murphy Henry”

banjojim915 Says:
Monday, August 4, 2014 @4:41:25 PM

"Strictly Instrumental" with Doc Watson and Flatt and Scruggs should be in there. I met Earl in 1972 and asked him about that album. It was already out of print. He said he thought he had some in his closet and to give him my address. A few weeks later I got "Strictly Instrumental " in the mail with an invoice for $4.95 which I sent off a check right away.
Still have the invoice. Ah the old days!
Jim Bertolin

coalcracker2 Says:
Tuesday, August 5, 2014 @5:53:36 AM

Thanks so much for the references Casey, especially for tapping into the "newbie" banjo segment. I was one of the individuals you noted as simply enjoying the sound of the banjo and not associating it with the world of bluegrass music. I'm a late bloomer (moldy-oldie) but since I've started taking lessons, and, with the historical information provided by a fantastic instructor (Ira Gitlin), I'm developing a genuine interest and appreciation for this music for numerous reasons. Good choice of words by the way ... "accessible" ... "easy" is ain't, but worth the effort!!!
Thanks again.

johnny5000 Says:
Tuesday, August 5, 2014 @8:11:28 AM

I recently bought Foggy Mountain Banjo and Will The Circle Be Unbroken on vinyl, and I don't think I paid more than a few bucks for each one. I see a lot of bluegrass records for sale at record shows, often for very cheap. And my local library has a lot of bluegrass CDs as well. Just a few options to look into.

TennBlues Says:
Tuesday, August 5, 2014 @11:38:53 AM

I really appreciate your advice and found that by own feeble efforts improved considerably when I started listning to Blue Grass, especially live at festivals. I have question about listening to recorded Blue Grass. Should one focus on the overall sound or focus on the finer details of attrractive licks,etc.?

TennBlues Says:
Tuesday, August 5, 2014 @11:41:50 AM

By the way, I'm an old fart who doesn't understand a lot of this internet world. How do I use your feeds?


pickn5 Says:
Wednesday, August 6, 2014 @4:07:47 AM

Murphy, thank you for your advice. It always hits the nail on the head. I need to heed your advice and listen more than I do. I will make the effort.

caseyhenry Says:
Thursday, August 7, 2014 @4:41:42 AM

Hi Tim,

You should focus on both, but not all at once! The more you listen to a track the more the specific licks will start to jump out at you.

The feeds are just if you use a feedreader, I think, so you probably don't need to worry with them.

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