As those of us in the United States celebrate Independence Day today, what better music to accompany our cookouts and fireworks than bluegrass? Nothing goes with the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air quite like the ring of a banjo. Here are a few of our favorite songs to celebrate the good old red, white, and blue(grass).
I’d Rather Have America – Jimmy Martin
Set to a swaggering groove with a mean banjo line, Martin declares that no country in the whole wide world can quite live up to “my homeland where I’m free.” Don’t you even dare give him Iceland’s icy cliffs or Korea’s muddy lands – he don’t want ‘em. It’s quintessential Martin; not many other singers have the attitude to pull it off.
Come Home Good Boy – Dale Ann Bradley
A poignant number from one of the best voices in bluegrass, this song finds a mother both coming to terms with her son growing up and, at the same time, asking him to return home from war. “Lord, he just learned to drive and he’s not old enough to vote,” Dale Ann sings, “but the army says they’ll take him, he’s big enough to make a stand, and they’re sending our good boy to a foreign land.” It’s a touching reminder that, even though they might be just soldiers to us, the men and women serving overseas are someone’s sons and daughters.
How Long is This Train – Dan Tyminski
“On a cold November morning, in a gentle mist of rain, there’s just so many reasons people wait to meet a train…” The old man in the song – who the singer doesn’t really want to be bothered by – slowly reveals that he’s waiting for one last reminder of a son who gave his life for his country. Tyminski packs the vivid lyrics with emotion as he takes one simple moment and fills it it so many layers of meaning.
Pray for the Boys – Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
Ernie Thacker sings lead on this song from the early nineties, taking the role of a soldier asking for prayers from home. A solemn tone and simple, yet moving, images of battle drive his point home. This version has slightly different lyrics than the Flatt & Scruggs cut from the 1950s (as well as the recent Earls of Leicester version), and less of the Gospel quartet sound.
America the Beautiful – The Osborne Brothers
The sparse arrangement here allows Sonny’s picking to stand in the forefront. He’ll have your hand over your heart and a tear in your eye, no doubt. Perhaps one of the most memorable images of Sonny playing this song was at the 2001 IBMA Awards, just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Back in the USA – Jim and Jesse
From their tribute to Chuck Berry, Berry Pickin’ in the Country, this is a bouncy, fun tribute to the little pleasures of life in America – skyscrapers, freeways, and hamburgers sizzling on a grill. Even though a lot has changed since Berry first wrote the song in the 1950s, it’s still a glimpse at a slice of life that most people around the world don’t get to enjoy. And check out Allen Shelton’s banjo!
Me and Paul Revere – Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
A cleverly written take on the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, Steve Martin penned it after reading an updated history of Revere. It’s a strong, factual song with a bright, clear sound, told from the point of view of Revere’s horse, Brown Beauty. That sounds like a humorous premise, but it’s actually earnest and sincere.
Freedom, Family, and Faith – Mountain Faith
After Mountain Faith’s appearance on America’s Got Talent in 2015, they were invited to perform for the troops overseas. They wrote this song upon returning home from their trip to Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar. It’s a testament to traditional American values – hard work, standing up for who you are, and living honestly – and supporting “the brave men who keep us safe.” It’s an uplifting, cheerful song, led by Summer McMahan’s sweet vocals.
New Freedom Bell – The Country Gentlemen
At first listen, this song might seem simply a tribute to American freedom through the use of images like the Liberty Bell. However, it’s actually about the Freedom Bell, which was given to the city of West Berlin from the people of the United States in 1950 as a symbol of anti-communism. Prior to its placement in West Berlin, the bell was taken on a tour of 26 cities in the United States, during which 16 million people signed a “Declaration of Freedom” that was also later displayed with the bell. It’s an interesting bit of history from a time period not often discussed in bluegrass music.
This is My Son – Cherryholmes
Cia Cherryholmes gives an impassioned vocal performance on this stirring song that finds a mother gaining a deeper understanding of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross when she sends her only son off to war. “This is my son, my only son, and I give him up for a people who don’t care that they’re free at the cost of his life,” she sings, and you can feel the pain and worry in her voice.
Wave On Old Glory – Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys
A brand new track from Ralph II’s first release as the head of the Clinch Mountain Boys, this song is a homage to the strength and persistence of America and its most recognizable symbol. It’s a solid, straightforward patriotic song that’s likely to become a standard at Fourth of July and Memorial Day festivals.
Battle Hymn of the Republic – The Masters
This instrumental bluegrass version of the popular patriotic song is from the 1997 album Laid Back by a group appropriately called “The Masters” – Eddie Adcock, Josh Graves, Jesse McReynolds, and Kenny Baker. Stately banjo from Adcock opens the tune, though when the full band (which also included Martha Adcock and Missy Raines) joins in, it has more of a bouncy, lively feel than most cuts from other genres of music.
Bonus Track: Guitar Picking President – Jimmy Martin
No matter what your political beliefs are, it’d be hard to not get behind Congress singing a good ole country song, right? Doodle-de-do, doodle-de-do, do-do-doodle-de-do!