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New grass
The Benders, David Peterson & 1946, Mark Simos, and Barn Burning

Rock and roll gets more attention because it’s louder. Blues and jazz because they’re older and more influential and, like rock, have venues where fans regularly congregate. Pop because it’s trendy, or trying to be. But one of the most interesting styles making its own low-key headway in the Boston scene is bluegrass. This sound from the Appalachian South has been gaining in popularity in recent years, and a spate of new albums offer proof of the diversity and health of the music in New England. The Benders, David Peterson & 1946, Mark Simos, and Barn Burning all have new discs that present different sides of the current bluegrass boom. Simos and Peterson hew close to tradition; the Benders and Barn Burning fall under a broad sway of influences from the Band to the Jayhawks and the Ramones.

The style — long the runt of the country-music litter — has more than a toehold on the underground today. Thanks to the success of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Are Thou? and its multi-platinum-selling soundtrack, as well as the millions of albums sold by the fairy-tale princess of contemporary bluegrass, Alison Krauss, the genre has broken through to the mainstream. As a result, "more people are discovering bluegrass again," says Ken Irwin, one of the founders of Cambridge’s Rounder Records, the country’s most prominent bluegrass label. "Unlike the first generation that heard the music while growing up in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, log cabins and country churches aren’t part of their experience, so how the contemporary audience and young musicians relate to the music is very different. Some of them might have nostalgia for the past and feel an earlier world might be a nicer place to live, but today most artists are writing and singing about the things they and their fans can relate to."

So we hear groups like the Benders warbling about drug-fueled binges and harmonizing the refrain "Liquor is your best friend" on their new Mountain Radio (Pig Pile). Over the course of three albums, the band’s sound has become more traditional, which means this could be their first CD to find a place in the hearts of even hardcore bluegrass fans. The initially sloppy, punk-fueled approach has tightened and been replaced by something closer to that of genre pioneers like founder Bill Monroe and his contemporaries the Stanley Brothers. The banjo/guitar/mandolin front line of Bow Thayer, Jabe Beyer, and Sean Staples races with more precision and speed than before, aided by deft touches from Tim Kelly’s dobro and Nolan McKelvey’s bass. And their sonic imprint is now entirely acoustic. The group used to play as if they were trying to raise hell with the historic drumless, all-acoustic bluegrass architecture, singing and rocking like bratty punks. Now, though still penning irreverent lyrics that would make fundamentalist teetotalers like Monroe glow red with anger, they seem to be embracing classic arrangements that appear part of the genre’s natural evolutionary course.

OF COURSE, evolution can be overrated. David Peterson & 1946 hold to the tried-and-true bluegrass sound. Although Peterson now lives in Nashville, where his group is an emerging force on the traditional-music scene, he was born in Massachusetts and was introduced to the style by a deacon at his church. As with so many old bluesmen and mountain musicians, the draw of both music and religion was strong in his life. Although he learned to play in living rooms in his teens, he was aiming for a life in the church, but he couldn’t shake the grip of singing and picking his guitar. He moved to Nashville in 1995 and put together his hard-swinging retro ensemble four years later.

On stage, Peterson and his crew indeed seem sprung from 57 years ago. They wear vintage clothing and all sing around one pill-capsule-shaped ribbon microphone. And though Peterson comes from the same generation that launched shoe-gazer rock, he and 1946 pride themselves on an old-fashioned standard of showmanship. "There’s a lot of movement," he says. "We’ll have every kind of harmony, every instrument will be featured, and we’ll do everything from breakdowns to waltzes to gospel quartets. From the moment we hit the stage until the moment we leave, the audience is going to be entertained."

Peterson applies the same æsthetic to his group’s debut, The Howling Blue Winds (www.1946band.com). There’s a clarity and an easy, relaxed swinging quality — one hallmark of a great bluegrass band — to all 12 cuts, from the low-down country preaching of Carter Stanley’s "A Drunkard’s Hell" to Roy Acuff’s "Freight Train Blues," where Peterson strains his voice aiming to mimic the scream of a distant locomotive whistle. There’s plenty of space for this collection of mostly classic numbers to unreel thanks to Peterson’s decision to play at a lesser velocity than did the music’s originators. It’s his sole concession to modernity — the stamp he can call his own. And though his voice isn’t quite tenor enough to approximate the "high and lonesome" vocal sound that Monroe and the Stanleys made one of the genre’s calling cards, he puts across the sense of awakening in Tom T. Hall’s "New Pair of Glasses" and the sad wanting in "Midnight Tears" across.

WATERTOWN-BASED PERFORMER Mark Simos also hews close to tradition. Make that traditions. The title track of his new Crazy Faith (Devachan) blends textural slide guitar with soul organ, and it flows like a contemporary folk song. A tune later, his sound changes radically for "Stopping at the Gate/Take Me for Longing." That number is powered by Celtic fiddle, and the phrases Simos sings in lilting, arching lines show the connection between traditional Irish music and bluegrass. The instrumental "One Thing Leads to Another" straddles Celtic and American mountain fiddling. And the album — a song cycle that explores the connections between love and spiritual faith — ends with a number that country-music trailblazers the Carter Family would have felt comfortable singing 70 years ago.

Crazy Faith is less a bluegrass disc than a melting pot of old-time styles. But Simos comes by his fusion naturally. He explains that he came of age as a fiddler and guitarist in the San Francisco Bay area, "where there was a traditional scene that embraced all kinds of music, from bluegrass to blues, Cajun, Balinese, old-timy stuff, Balkan, Irish, swing, country. Most musicians played in several different styles, and there was a real sense of adventure and exploration." Now he’s a formidable presence in bluegrass, Celtic, and old-time music circles. "In the old-time world, I’m considered a fiddler and tune writer. In Irish music, I’m known as a guitar player and accompanist. In the bluegrass realm, I’m known mostly as a songwriter. I am playing more bluegrass now, but in traditional bluegrass, the standard of virtuosity is so fierce that to call yourself a bluegrass flatpicker, you’d better be ready to spend a couple hundred hours woodshedding."

Nonetheless, it’s bluegrass where Simos enjoys the biggest reputation. Alison Krauss — who has a voice so sweet, clear, pure, and powerful, it seems capable of ferrying lost souls to Heaven, and was a prize-winning childhood fiddle prodigy to boot — has recorded four of his songs for her gold- and platinum-certified albums; the best known is "Find My Way Back to My Heart," which became a single and video from her So Long, So Wrong (Rounder). Her local fans will get a chance to hear Simos do these songs himself soon: he’s assembled his own bluegrass group, Mark Simos and the Dangerous Boys (named after a number on Crazy Faith), and will be playing regularly at Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge. He’ll also be appearing in the area with Childsplay, a fiddle orchestra of more than 20 pieces that brings together bow-and-string players from all styles and generations.

"One of the exciting things about the Boston bluegrass scene is that there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on," he points out. "There’s a group of players who are 18 to their early 20s who’ve been exposed to all kinds of music and are forming their own bands in town." Simos says one factor that’s drawn younger players into this music, despite only a thimbleful of airplay on local college stations, is the sincere, direct way it delivers its messages. There’s also a network of traditional-music camps for teens and youngsters that have sprung up around the country where everything from Celtic music to blues and bluegrass gets time in the spotlight. "These hot young players grew up in these camps, and when they go to college, they look for a musical environment that welcomes more diversity." In Boston, Berklee and the New England Conservatory’s improvisation department, along with clubs and pubs that will host traditional music, may be magnets for this generation.

NOT THAT BLUEGRASS doesn’t have deep roots in the Boston area. After seeing Bill Monroe perform in local coffeehouses and hearing the recordings of Grand Ole Opry trailblazers like Uncle Dave Macon, Harvard student Bob Siggins and typewriter repairman Joe Val formed the area’s first major bluegrass band, the Charles River Valley Boys, in 1958. For a decade they ruled the local scene’s roost, playing often at the legendary Club 47, which begot Passim. They made their national recording debut with an album of ’grassed-up Beatles covers. A decade after they disbanded, the mandolinist Jimmy Ryan picked up the torch with his ’grass ’n’ rock outfit Blood Oranges, and he soldiers on as a solo artists and sideman. So in Boston, bluegrass and genre blending have been inseparable almost from the start.

These days, there are well-established national artists who draw on elements of bluegrass for their music while sidestepping the country-genre or the traditional-music tag. The Jayhawks and Wilco, and Uncle Tupelo before them, are perhaps the best known. Providence’s Barn Burning fall in with this school. Their debut, Weatheredbound (Catamount), mixes mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, and acoustic guitar with the un-bluegrass sounds of electric bass and drums. In "Streetlight," the acoustic instruments are used to build tension, the more subtle, organic sounds of fiddle, mandolin, and banjo playing against the drive of the chords and the big beat and the caw of the electric guitar.

Singer Anthony Loffredio contemplates the same spiritual and romantic issues bluegrass vocalists have addressed for generations. But his voice is shaky and infirm in a way that’s more appealing to indie-rock fans than to hardcore bluegrass listeners. And the way the rhythm section and the electric instruments wallop along keeps Barn Burning’s sound more earthbound than the blend of virtuoso acoustic sonics and high vocal harmonies that gave historic bluegrass its sense of uplift — the feeling that the music was bound for a higher place, sailing the winds of the human spirit. Barn Burning and their more established brethren seem an evolutionary dead end. The next step away from their sound would be a return to outright rock, country, or bluegrass, unless they suddenly fall for ragas or start scratching the Stanleys’ LPs on turntables. A cynic might say it’s the Byrds all over again. But what comes next isn’t up to the cynics. It’s up to a new generation of players, who may take these musical traditions in unexpected and interesting directions of their own.

Childsplay with Mark Simos perform three shows at the National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Road in Lexington, on December 6 and 7; call (617) 354-1673 or visit www.childsplay.org. Mark Simos and the Dangerous Boys make their debut at the Cantab Lounge, 738 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, on January 20; call (617) 354-2685. Barn Burning play Toad, 1912 Massachusetts Avenue in Porter Square, on December 11 and Pa’s Lounge, 345 Somerville Avenue in Somerville, on December 13; visit www.barnburning.net.


Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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