Watching the great coverage from DelFest this weekend, I was struck by the inescapable fact that Del McCoury, a true second-generation bluegrass icon, is going out of his way to put his imprimatur on the jamgrass, newgrass, alt-grass, hippie grass, whatever-you-call-it grass scene exemplified by the majority of acts booked at his recent festival.
One can imagine some of Del’s die-hard traditionalist fans cringing at the site of him jamming on stage with Yonder Mountain String band, but there it was. A number of questions arise.
Is it is an “only Nixon could go to China moment,” or more in keeping with the way early bluegrass artists recorded rock and roll music after Elvis hit, and again during the great folk music scare of the 1960s?
Will these two different sides of the “bluegrass” coin continue to face in opposite directions? Or will an expanding audience for the music make for some grand reconciliation?
Either way, it’s an interesting dynamic, one we may not fully understand until it all shakes out over time. One thing’s for sure, however: absent Del putting all these acts together like he does, a lot of folks who came to see Yonder Mountain or Emmit Nershi might never have encountered Sierra Hull or Dailey & Vincent, and vice versa.
Their music is of a pre-bluegrass style, but played with the typical bluegrass instruments. Many of the songs are familiar standards (Uncle Pen, In The Pines, Footprints In The Snow, If I Should Wander Back Tonight), but the sound is more Charlie Poole than Flatt & Scruggs.
You can pick up the vibe of the music from the cover photography, which shows the group dressed in late 19th century Reconstruction attire. Their sound resembles nothing so much as what that photo portrays – a group of friends who get together to enjoy the only sort of music available to most folks at the time – music they made themselves.
The Wronglers are based in San Francisco, and serve as the musical outlet for Warren Hellman, the acoustic music philanthropist who puts on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival each year at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The festival has become an international destination event, in no small part because Hellman picks up the tab, offering the music free of charge.
Warren is on banjo, and plays in a primitive clawhammer and single-stroke style. He is joined by Krista Martin on fiddle, Bill Martin on mandolin, Nate Levine on guitar, Collen Browne on bass and Heidi Clare on fiddle. For Heirloom Music, they are partnered with Texas singer/songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who is as comfortable in this environment as if he had just been brought forward in a time machine.
In fact, the whole group approaches these songs with the same loyalty to the old ways, and not in a holding back or playing down sense. It truly sounds like these folks stepped from the pages of a music history book.
How would the snake dancers at DelFest or the moms and pops at a typical bluegrass festival react? Good question.
Audio samples for all 14 tracks can be heard in iTunes.