The newest performers inducted into IBMA’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame finally and definitively answered the big question in bluegrass.
The question: Traditional or progressive?
The answer, with today’s announcement of the pending induction of the Johnson Mountain Boys and New Grass Revival, is a resounding yes. I’d like to think that Bill Monroe, whose music was wildly progressive before it became the tradition, would be proud of them all.
The Johnson Mountain Boys, with soulful lead singer Dudley Connell channeling Carter Stanley, perhaps the best bluegrass singer ever, was traditional with a capital T. Fans who only know Connell through his current gig with the Seldom Scene don’t get to hear much of the repertoire on stage, but when it’s just him, his friends and wife Sally Love Connell, the songs of the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and the JMB echo long into the night.
Connell, mandolinist David McLaughlin and fiddler Eddie Stubbs were the core of the group during the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, along with Richard Underwood and Tom Adams on banjo and Larry Robbins, Marshall Wilborn, and Earl Yager sharing bass duties. They stopped touring full time in 1988, after averaging more than 200 dates a year, but still kept limited engagements until 1996.
Their accolades include a pair of Grammy nominations, including At The Old Schoolhouse, a live double LP released by Rounder when the band ended full-time touring with a show in Lucketts, VA. It’s still one of the best live bluegrass performances captured on vinyl. All nine of the band’s recordings belong in the collections of serious bluegrassers.
New Grass Revival was at the opposite end of the spectrum. No matching suits and string ties for these guys. And on any given night, you were likely to hear more jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock influences than echoes of Monroe or other first generation grassers.
Argue all you want about the definition of bluegrass – and plenty of folks still do – but Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, and Curtis Burch helped breathe new life into the music with their 1972 Starday Records debut. They weren’t the first pickers to play progressive bluegrass, but they were among the best, and their music influenced many of today’s on-the-edge bands.
There were a few personnel changes in the early years, as Butch Robins came and went on bass, and John Cowan came. The band’s final years, 1981-1989, featured the solid quartet of Bush, Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn.
Bush’s work with the Sam Bush Band, Cowan’s stint with the Doobie Brothers, Fleck’s solo career, and Flynn’s session work keep them in the conversation individually, but made reunions rare. One of them yielded a truly magical moment – a one-song celebration at MerleFest in 2007. The song was Townes Van Zandt’s White Freight Liner.
Individually, the bands represent important slices of the bluegrass pie and are more than worthy of inclusion in the best of the best. Together, they ARE the bluegrass pie. Part of the magic is that the select panel of bluegrass veterans who determine who gets in to the Hall of Fame demonstrated, albeit perhaps unintentionally, that there is room for everyone under the bluegrass umbrella.
Because of the coronavirus, the awards show and the rest of World of Bluegrass will take place online this fall. But the prospect of these two bands performing in some fashion makes the show a must-see, no matter how you see it.
And the prospect of at least a few reunion shows next year in front of live audiences gives us something to look forward to after these dark days.
My wild idea – and there are a hundred thousand reasons why it probably won’t happen – is a joint billing somewhere. If it does take place, I hope to be there. I want to hear Dudley Connell and John Cowan sing together, even it’s in the green room.