One might say that becoming a bluegrass virtuoso was simply written in the stars for Buddy Merriam, a mandolinist originally from Hartford, Connecticut. Although he had played guitar since childhood, he became interested in the mandolin after seeing Frank Wakefield perform in 1972, choosing to pick it up as a second instrument. Then, while attending the first Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York, Buddy developed a fascination with the mandolin style of Bill Monroe, after he was unfortunately struck by lightning standing in front of the stage, causing him to lose his hearing. Having lived to tell the tale, Buddy’s hearing eventually came back around and he began studying the techniques employed by Monroe. He eventually formed his own musical group, Buddy Merriam and Back Roads.
Since 1980, Buddy has worked with this group of musicians to spread his own form of bluegrass throughout the country, performing at the Grand Ole Opry on different occasions and even making an appearance at the grand opening of the Bluegrass Museum and Hall of Fame. Buddy has also done more for bluegrass music than merely performing at different venues within the United States and abroad. Besides being the host of WUSB 90.1 FM’s Blue Grass Time radio show in Stony Brook, New York, he has also released a book of some 30 original mandolin tunes entitled Back Roads Mandolin, Vol. 1.
He got the idea for creating Back Roads Mandolin after becoming sick. Fearing death at the time, he realized that his music would be lost unless he were able to pass the songs down to new generations of pickers. Armed with his Monteleone Grand Artist and Gilchrist mandolins at his side, Buddy Merriam has produced over five hundred original tunes which, according to his website, are “presently being transcribed and recorded.”
In this re-release of his first book, he includes tablature (which the first edition lacked) and sheet music for thirty original compositions ranging in scope from pieces highly influenced by Monroe’s playing to other forms of music like gypsy jazz tunes. While most of his pieces are in the 2/4 time signature, which is most familiar to bluegrass musicians, there are also waltzes and hornpipes as well as other compositions which are in the more obscure 4/8, 6/8, and 6/4 times. Some interesting titles include the highly Monroe-esque Back Roads Breakdown, Procrastination, and Gypsy Tears of Joy.
While Merriam and Lou Martin (who did the transcriptions for the book) caution against the use of tablature over standard notation in the book’s introduction, they also state that “standard notation is itself often inadequate to the task of truly accurate representation.” Nevertheless, it’s clear that Back Roads Mandolin has been gone over with a fine tooth comb, as it even includes pick directions and song descriptions where needed in order to help convey the rhythmic feel of each musical piece.
Currently, Merriam is performing with The Mandolin Experience, a group featuring members of his regular band, Back Roads, along with a second mandolin player. He also has six CDs on Lily Pad Records exhibiting his work.
For more information on Buddy Merriam’s music, visit his website, www.buddymerriam.com. If you enjoy Back Roads Mandolin, look for additional volumes which are planned for the near future.