At the D.C. Bluegrass Union’s fourth annual festival in the Washington suburbs, it was something old, something new, something borrowed and everything bluegrass.
The old – in terms of longevity, not physical age – was Larry Sparks. The new was Bud’s Collective, winner of DCBU’s band contest Friday night.
Borrowed? That would be Washington’s rich tradition in bluegrass, which the DCBU is working hard to rekindle. In the 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s capital was a hotbed of bluegrass, with the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene regularly playing the busy club scene and anybody who was anybody in the genre dropping in on the way up or down the East Coast.
Bluegrass? Bluegrass was everywhere Friday night and Saturday. Since year one, when Mountain Heart’s headlining performance chased some listeners away in disgust, the festival lineup has been heavy tilted toward traditional bluegrass bands. That was also true in the jams. Not a Wagon Wheel to be heard all day, but if I had to pay two bucks each time I heard somebody sing that he “lost all my money but a two-dollar bill,” it would have been an expensive outing.
This year, Larry Sparks held down the headliner slot. It’s a special year for Larry, who started touring 50 years ago and enjoyed a stint with the Stanley Brothers before launching his own band in 1969.
After a run like that, you might think Larry would be ready to dial back a bit and trade the “Lines on the Highway” for a chance to ride his John Deere tractor a bit more. You’d be wrong.
Ten years after a well-received 40th anniversary album, and a regular output since then, Larry is hard at work on a CD to commemorate his golden anniversary as a picker and singer. The album, due out this fall on Rebel, will be mostly new music, he told me.
Then he said, “We’re also pre-planning the Larry Sparks 60, a little bit ahead of time. And maybe Larry Sparks 70.” Yeah, he chuckled when he said that, but only a little. I don’t think I’d bet against him.
As in a marriage, you need a little luck and lot of talent to make it for 50 years in bluegrass. And Larry did it without ever dipping his toe in Nashville’s waters, just to see what the big pond was like. “I was busy making my living,” he said in his just-the-facts delivery. “The music was good to me, and I didn’t want to change things, you know? As long it works, don’t fix it.”
Larry said he never set out to be a 50-year picker near the top of the bluegrass ladder. He just wanted to see if a music career would work. “It worked, and I’m glad it did, because if it hadn’t worked, I would’ve missed out meeting a lot of great folks,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Bud’s Collective, a band of friends from the Winchester, VA, area. Buddy Dunlap, the band’s elder statesman, is a ripe old 27. He got the itch to play bluegrass from an uncle, and shared it with his younger brother, Jack, who is 19. They have a tight, traditional sounding band with friends Cody Brown, 23, Gina Clowes, 25, and Gaven Largent, who is just 16.
Buddy, who writes some of the songs the band performs, has big plans for a bluegrass in the barn series on his farm. His day job, raising grass-fed cattle, is reflected in the title of an instrumental he wrote for the band, called Grassfed.
In between is one of those feel good stories that you run across now and then on the bluegrass trail. Danny Paisley, now in his mid-50s, started out playing in his father’s band. He took over the outfit, now billed as Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, when his father died and has been making a go of it ever since.
Recently, Danny has been joined on stage by his son, Ryan, who is 13. It’s not as much of a gimmick as you might think. Ryan plays a pretty solid mandolin, chopping with authority and not afraid to take a break now and then. But it’s the sheer joy of watching this father and son share the stage, just as Danny did with his dad years earlier.
Ryan’s grin is infectious, and his sense of humor is quick and sharp. When I asked how long he would let his dad stay in the band, he said he’d let him slide a bit, but that Danny had better not ask for a raise. When that happens, son said, “He gone.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that some day at the D.C. Bluegrass Union festival and elsewhere, fans will be lining up to listen to Ryan Paisley and the Southern Grass. Maybe with Larry Sparks on the same bill, marking his 60th or 70th year in the business.
It’s a good thing to have a February festival to chase away the winter blues. And it’s a wonderful thing to see that the old and new of bluegrass are both going strong.
Video interviews with Larry Sparks, Buddy Dunlap and Danny Paisley are forthcoming.