Ka-ching…With Twang – Bluegrass Music in 2021

Bluegrass – the mountain music form invented by Bill Monroe a few generations ago and advanced by the equally trailblazing duo Flatt & Scruggs – has a hardcore following who protect the sound and try and advance it.

Every few years someone pops up and makes headway outside the genre. Nickel Creek were teenagers who brought some vim to the genre in the 2000s, around the time that Dan Tyminski’s voice was put into the mouth of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, which introduced huge audiences to Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss. Steve Martin has used his celebrity to bring his comedy fans into the genre, and is as acclaimed for his banjo playing as for being a ‘wild and crazy guy’.

The International Bluegrass Music Association are the flagbearers for the genre, ‘honoring tradition and encouraging innovation’ as the IBMA says on their site. Based in Tennessee, they have a Hall of Fame which in 2021 inducted Alison Krauss. She joins New Grass Revival, Tom T Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, John Hartford (Gentle on my Mind), The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and so many more. Rhonda Vincent, picked as a recent Opry member, is sure to follow soon, as is a regular Female Vocalist of the Year, Dale Ann Bradley. She was formerly part of the supergroup Sister Sadie. They have just been named Vocal Group of the Year for a third year in a row.

Bob Harris introduced me to Molly Tuttle, the first woman to win the IBMA award for Guitar Player of the Year (in both 2017 and 2018). In 2019 that award went to Billy Strings, who repeated the feat a few weeks ago and did even better by accepting Entertainer of the Year, which was won last year by Sister Sadie. I recommend both of their self-titled albums, which showcase excellent musicianship and vocal distinction.

Billy, even above Sister Sadie, is the sound of contemporary bluegrass. His album Home impressed many, while he teamed up with Luke Combs in 2020 on the well-meaning tune The Great Divide. Luke hasn’t named Billy as one of his support acts for 2022, probably because Billy is playing his own headline shows to promote his album Revival.

Starting at aged four as a kid in Michigan, he played with his dad at parties and got involved in jam sessions. (The man was actually his stepdad as his birth father had overdosed on heroin when Billy was two.) The house became an ‘all-hours drug den’ and Billy’s guitar would turn his parents’ focus onto him rather than the mess surrounding him.

Meanwhile he started to appreciate virtuosi of the rock guitar like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, learning about heavy music and answering to the nickname Boomer. At 14 he left the den to better himself; another 14 years later and he counts the great Bela Fleck as a friend. ‘This music needs a fresh jolt once in a while from someone who comes in from a different angle,’ Bela says of ‘lightning rod’ Billy, who has spoken about the racism inherent in the bluegrass scene.

His Native American auntie gave him the new moniker, which stuck when he moved to Nashville five years ago. At that time he gave up alcohol too, something he told the New York Times. You know you’re a big deal when you get a Times profile: ‘He has zigged and zagged between the form’s antediluvian traditions and rapid-fire improvisations…all within songs with hooks so sharp that he seems poised for crossover stardom.’ His lyrics contain ‘disarming simplicity’, while he is engaged to be married to his tour manager.

The album itself should bring in rock listeners much as the somewhat psychedelic rock of Home did. At 16 tracks, it looks like a rock album. Some moments, carefully chosen, opt for woozy production techniques and I imagine every review of this album mentions the closing lines of Heartbeat of America (one of those tracks): ‘Now I’m seeing music that nobody else can see/ With all the colors like a symphony surrounding me’.

The two impact tracks were In The Morning Light and Fire Line. The former is a love song to his fiancee, ‘a wonder to behold…captivating’ even though ‘I’m not sure that I deserve the love that I receive’. The latter has elements of Pearl Jam in Billy’s growling about how he’ll ‘drain the rivers dry’.

Elsewhere it’s straight-up, faithful bluegrass where fiddle, percussion and guitar mesh brilliantly. Red Daisy crams a lot of notes into 160 seconds, while The Fire On My Tongue (‘is for those who die young’) and Hellbender are both enormous fun, even if they make drinking seem like the last thing you want to do when times are tough.

The closing minute of the nine-minute opus Hide and Seek, which features some dissonant fiddle and some chromatic guitar lines, quotes a text message sent by a friend before their suicide. I was also struck by Love And Regret, a reminiscin’ song where the guitar matches the lyric: ‘The house of silence in the light of the moon brings to me a sense of ease’. Verse three brings owls, coyotes and ravens, as well as a namecheck for Gentle On My Mind writer John Hartford. I hope people are introduced to the album through this song, as it’s a winner.

Ditto Nothing’s Working, a modal lament with a pentatonic, folky feel (‘she’s feeling dismal…take time to listen to the quiet ones’) and there’s an anthemic quality to Leaders, with its singalong refrain and simple campfire riff. Ice Bridges reminds me of Grappelli and Reinhardt, with its gypsy feel.

The Assembly Hall in Islington next March 26 or 27 will be the place to be. It is, of course, returns only.

Sierra Ferrell, meanwhile, comes to the genre with the album Long Time Coming, which is on the esteemed Rounder Records that puts out folk and roots music from all sorts of artists. Surrounded by flowers on the album cover, we are ushered into Sierra’s world.

Sierra tags Billy in as well on the song Bells In Every Chapel, a waltz where his nimble fingers stand in for the subject of the song, a guy who was ‘the one for me’. There’s clarinet and trumpet as well as mandolin on the Norah Jones-y At The End of the Rainbow, which must have been a lot of fun to record and ends with Sierra begging to be given a man’s love.

West Virginia Waltz properly evokes the title, conjuring images of ‘true love waiting’. Far Away Across The Sea repeats a Cubano rhythm and Buena Vista-ish trumpet part, while Silver Dollar is a toe-tapper with a neat fiddle part and Give It Time goes heavy on the banjo, steel guitar and old-fashioned harmonies.

The opening track is called The Sea, which begins with a theremin-sounding sawed bowed instrument before glockenspiel and fiddle come in. The production, as with the track Why D’Ya Do It, reminds me of Pink Martini, with a gypsy-jazz feel. The Sea slides into the light bluegrass of Jeremiah, which is delivered with a vocal full of character and charm, similar to those of the First Aid Kit girls or Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. In Dreams is alt-country rock with a charming siren vocal from Sienna (‘won’t you sit down…you look so tired’) and backing harmonies from the inestimable Sarah Jarosz. I replayed it instantly, twice.

There are touches of the greatest songsmiths (Dylan, Mitchell, Carlile) on Made Like That, a song of fidelity which is soaked in three-part harmonies and T-Bone Burnett-style percussion to frame the lyric. ‘I’ll fix all of your bridges I have watched you burn to the ground’ is some line. The song has a sad coda where Sienna sings of leaving West Virginia, which leads into the closing track Whispering Waltz. The song is elemental, with water, fire and earth all present, with the narrator in tears and heading to the river ‘with the ashes of a letter’. It is disarmingly simple and I reckon she could sing this a cappella like a folk song.

Sierra has realised her sound, one which her voice is compatible with. Live, she will be as sublime as Billy Strings, and she is also on these shores in January with two gigs at the tiny church in St Pancras in London and one at the Celtic Connections jamboree up in Glasgow. The London gigs are sold out and I expect BBC Radio Scotland will carry the Glasgow gig.

She’ll be back.

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