Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music

It’s been over 30 years since Bluegrass: A History by Neil V Rosenberg was published; in it he covers bluegrass music up to about 1983. Other authors have made contributions that document bluegrass music in different ways; they include Barry Willis with the over 600-page America’s Music: Bluegrass (1997) – sub-titled A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers –  and Bob Donaghey with his Bluegrass Yearbook (1999), closer to a pocket book in size and designed for the festival-goer. 

So, are we ready for another history of bluegrass music? I think so. 

Adding to the library of books about bluegrass music is Craig Harris, whose love of bluegrass music began in 1968 when he ‘bought’ a Flatt & Scruggs record; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, unwittingly handed to him in error by the record store assistant. 

Like many, Harris was captivated by the sound of Scruggs’ banjo, enjoyed the Bonnie & Clyde film and the CBS TV program The Beverly Hillbillies, and grew to love the drive and the sound of bluegrass music. 

His interest in bluegrass music developed, due in part to several road trips from New York, where he grew up, to Florida, with his parents, sister, and brother, during which he looked forward to the stretch south of the Mason Dixon line that his father called Tobacco Road. “We could tune the radio to ‘hillbilly music.’ I loved the music’s drive, its harmonies, and its infectious rhythms. It was a beautiful hue in the global spectrum of sound.”

In time Harris found a way to play percussion with musicians from every tradition, including bluegrass instrumentalists and singers. 

For 26 years he taught music in public and charter schools; at the same time was much in demand as a writer… 

“For more than four decades, I’ve interviewed musicians and written articles and reviews for newspapers including the Boston Globe and magazines including Global Rhythm, People, Village Voice, and Folk Roots (Froots). I wrote regularly for Dirty Linen for more than twenty years. On the internet, I was the All Music Guide’s folk and world music correspondent for more than a decade.”

Harris has several published books about folk music, including The New Folk Music, published in 1992, and The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music (2014, revised in 2017 for the paperback edition). 

Additionally, he was the initial staff photographer of the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival and at the Falcon Ridge Festival, working there since its inception thirty years ago. “I’ve spent summers in the photo pits of the Philadelphia Folk Festival (this year will be my 36th), Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, and Rhythm and Roots Festival,” Harris adds. The 63 photographs used in his new book are all from Harris’s time in the photo pits at those and other events, achieving what Bela Fleck calls the “wow factor!”

Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music is the product of 25 years of interviewing, amounting to 130 hours of tape recordings, and extensive research. 

It is arranged chronologically from Bill Monroe in 1927 to the Earls of Leicester today. Highlights include entertaining facts and anecdotes about Flatt & Scruggs, Del McCoury, Doc Watson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and more.

Harris expands on that ….. 

“Nearly every step from Appalachian fiddlers and bluegrass banjo players to Americana experimenters is covered. Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Ralph Stanley’s sons recall their fathers, while a who’s who roster of pace-setting artists including Mac Wiseman, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, Byron Berline, J.D. Crowe, Tony Trischka, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas share memories. Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, and John Cowan speak about the New Grass Revival and their individual growth since disbanding. Pete Wernick and Tim O’Brien talk about Hot Rize and its offshoot, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. Jody Stecher, Richard Greene, and Chris Hillman (New Riders of the Purple Sage) discuss the West Coast scene. Rodney Dillard (the Dillards), and John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) look back. Roland White (Kentucky Colonels, Nashville Bluegrass Band), Gene Parsons, Chris Hillman, and Roger McGuinn retrace the tragic journey of White’s brother, Clarence, from flatpicking wunderkind to electric folk-rocker with the Byrds. T. Michael Coleman, Jack Lawrence, and David Holt remember Doc Watson. Bob Carlin recalls John Hartford. Ben Eldridge, Phil Rosenthal, Dudley Connell, and Coleman trace a near half-century of the Seldom Scene. Tim Stafford (Blue Highway), Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown recount Alison Krauss’ phenomenal rise. Previously unavailable interviews with Krauss, and the late Watson, Hartford, and Mike Auldridge add to the narrative. Abigail Washburn, Sierra Hull, Danny Barnes, Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show), Nolan Lawrence (the Hillbenders), Anders Beck and Paul Huffmann (Greensky Bluegrass), and Woody Platt and Graham Sharp (the Steep Canyon Rangers look at the music’s current state while Dale Ann Bradley, Michael Cleveland, and Larry Stephenson speak of enduring traditions. The old-time music stream is traced by John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers), Mac Benford (Highwoods String Band), Judy Hyman (the Horse Flies), Frank Lee (the Freight Hoppers), and Bruce Molsky.”

Many of these acts are featured in this video ….

Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music is now available from the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., and the author, direct, as well as the normal outlets on the high street /mall and from online suppliers. 

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. (May 1, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1455624012
ISBN-13: 978-1455624010
Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches 

Well-respected banjo picker of nearly 60 years-experience on the instrument Pete Wernick says in conclusion:

“This well-researched volume reaches deep into the roots of bluegrass and follows its long journey to the modern age.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.