We are at an interesting time in the world of contemporary bluegrass music, especially at the intersection of the more traditional side of the aisle and those who are eager to take the style in new directions. Proponents of the latter often prefer to describe their approach as “progressive,” a somewhat self-flattering term that implies an improvement over what had come before. And perhaps that is why the word annoys artists who have studied just as much and worked just as hard to master a different and older way to play bluegrass. Maybe we need a better word for this modern style that relies on the influence of rock and pop music as much as it does the Appalachian traditions that formed the basis of the music in the 1930s and ’40s.
But one thing’s for sure, this newer music is here to stay, with a great many adherents in the large audiences that flock to jamgrass festivals, the many pickers who perform it aggressively, and the commercial concerns that support them both. These two different camps can get along fine with one another, with more and more events combining both sorts of acts on a single bill. But there are cultural differences that pop up, as when the folks sitting in lawn chairs are surprised by a sudden influx of younger people who rush the stage as soon as they favorite jam band comes on.
The IBMA, our industry’s trade organization, most decidedly does not seek to limit any specific definition of bluegrass, allowing the membership to do so by the votes they cast for annual awards, and in the various committees that invite artists to showcase during their convention.
In the end, most lovers of bluegrass music simply enjoy what appeals to them and skip what doesn’t, as they would in any other genre. But the passion for defending one’s own camp is a fascinating aspect of bluegrass, perhaps indicating the degree to which its devotees identify with and deeply embrace the music.
What does all this have to do with Matthew Davis and his new single? Well… Matthew is an example of an extremely talented young man who is equally at home in either garrison, with the skill and technique to cause jaws to drop at the old time bluegrass pickin’ out behind the body shop, just as much as he would at an extended Dead-inflected jam at a busking site downtown. His command of the playing of the masters like Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe is as solid as his knowledge of the fingerboard, his awareness of his scales and arpeggios for free form improvising, and his willingness to go out on a limb live on stage.
In short, he’s one that both sides can embrace, enthusiastically. As can those who enjoy most any sort of music, well played.
Of late Matthew, only 20 years of age, has been touring with a group called Circus #9. He is the band’s lead singer and banjo picker, and excels in both areas. He studies music at the University of Michigan where he also plays with an experimental string quartet called Westbound Situation. His virtuosity on the 5 string is a wonder to behold, and he’s a personable and good looking kid to boot!
Davis has a new album, Outlander, due to hit this week featuring his own original music. He raised the necessary funds using a crowdsourcing campaign, and will celebrate its official release at Nashville’s Station Inn on Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m.
A first single from Outlander is shared today with our readers, Nantucket, a banjo instrumental in a contemporary fiddle tune form that shows his mastery of both the 3-finger and single string styles of banjo playing – and a strong compositional sense as well. Plus you can hear his grasp of both traditional and modern music at the same time.
He is supported by Grant Flick on fiddle, Jacob Warren on bass, Jed Clark on guitar, and Ethan Setiawan on mandolin.
So what do we call Matthew Davis and his innovative banjo music? He calls it “original bluegrass/new acoustic banjo.” That sounds just fine to us.