Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe

Many of us in the United States often think of bluegrass as an American music, or even just a Southern music. However, as quite a few prominent bands, scholars, and even the name of our trade association will tell us, that’s not exactly true. One international hotspot for bluegrass music is the Czech Republic, which is detailed in a new book from Dr. Lee Bidgood. Based on both field research and the personal experiences of Bidgood, an ethnomusicologist and associate professor within East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe, is set for release in October 2017 from the University of Illinois Press.

According to Bidgood, he first became interested in international bluegrass music “through the mandolin world after hearing of builders like Čapek and Lebeda, and then of bands like Druhá Tráva and Fragment.” His decision to study and document how many people in Central Europe have interacted with and adopted this style of music came after spending time in the Czech Republic and participating in their music scene.

“I approached writing this book as a performer, a researcher, and a teacher, the roles that I have as a professor at ETSU,” he says. “First, I thought about why people in the Czech Republic have taken up bluegrass, then looked at the historical background that made it possible for them to access bluegrass sounds and technologies, and then I focused on how they learn it. I found that while some Czechs like Radim Zenkl and Druhá Tráva are heavily modifying bluegrass sounds, there are many bluegrassers over there who play nothing but hard-core traditional material!”

The book is the culmination of about a decade of research and participation in the Czech bluegrass scene. It follows both Bidgood’s dissertation and the release of a 2014 documentary film, Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music & The Czech Imagination, which was a collaboration between Bidgood and another ETSU faculty member, Shara Lang. Some readers may recognize the title from having watched it on PBS, after it was picked up and aired on several stations nationwide, or from its showing at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass Film Festival. Bidgood says that in the book, he focuses on both problems that Czech bluegrassers encounter, such as the language barrier, as well the things they do well, including making instruments and establishing strong musical communities. “I hope that folks who read this book will come away with a new sense of how bluegrass is music that can thrive even as it is adapted, re-located, and translated into new situations,” he says.

While Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe is not yet available for purchase, it can be pre-ordered from Amazon. For more information, visit the University of Illinois Press online.

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About the Author

John Curtis Goad

John Goad is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, with a Masters degree in both History and Appalachian Studies from ETSU.