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We've Lost that Loving Feeling: What Happened to the Music?

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Mountain MusicEmmylou Harris pointed out years ago that the soul is lost in today's music. We've lost that front porch or livingroom essence of the music. Today, it is polished, spit-shined, buffed and massaged into what the band/producer perceives as perfection. In the process, we've lost the soul. Why do Charlie Poole, Hylo Brown, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, Appalachian and Hillbilly bands endure today more so than many of the top bands in the last 20 years? Because they have that extra piece that isn't comprised of notes or recording techniques. Some of the finest music didn't have the luxury of fancy recording studios, expensive microphones, exotic digital "effects" systems, etc. What they did have is a dimension that has been lost as artists strive for the perfection. They don't realize that their perfection is what hurts their sound.

Before Bill Monroe created Bluegrass music, very similar styles already existed. 3-Finger style banjo existed before Earl Scruggs invented it. Listen to Tom Paley, Snuffy Jenkins, Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Doc Boggs and other banjo pioneers for examples. Lester Flatt's drop-thumb method of guitar playing didn't even use a flat-pick yet that is today's method du jour and it is always entertaining to listen to people attempt the Flatt G-run sound but play the guitar differently. William Lake gets it and is doing a fine job in recreating that Flatt guitar sound.

Part of the problem is that with today's exposure to top bands being blown wide open by the digital age, a false sense of security has evolved. Make an album just like the top album and it will sell. These are the albums I try and avoid. I first recognized the problem distinctly when female artists started pouring out albums with the Alison Krauss sound (Tina Adair, et al). Some tried so hard to emulate even her voice that their albums were almost clones of Alison's voice. A total turn-off for me. Today, there are way too many bands that all sound the same. I understand that they are following the model of what sells but it isn't selling for the long haul. Sure, over time, they all evolve into their own musical personality but for now, way too many are all the same.

It is when these bands do evolve into their own unique blend of music, voices and personality that they really take off. Some go their own direction and others try and follow tradition. There is no right or wrong -- it is natural evolution of music. Some bands can really bring a new perspective to Bluegrass. That's where the fire in this style of music lies. That's its future and surprisingly, it's future roots.

Some bands over the years just popped onto the scene and blow you away. The SteelDrivers, Seldom Scene, Charlie Waller, Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway are just a few that made one sit up and take notice of Bluegrass. Founded in tradition, a unique sound, lacking all the polish, even having grit, they survive the test of time. A band's sound is, to my ears, more pleasant when they are just starting out than it is after they have recorded a couple of albums and have been on the road for a while. Some of my favorite Bluegrass albums will never be award winners because they lack the cosmetics that much of today is using to cover the imperfections. Maybe they're trying harder or they're testing the waters. Whatever it is, their early music flows naturally and freely.

There are those talented artists that can pull it off. Lonesome River Band being one prime example. Sammy Shelor's banjo has "it." That pick a microsecond before the beat works and he does it effortlessly. That intentional and musical "imperfection" is just perfect! While other banjo players can play his songs, they can't do it his way. All the members of LRB have that special "touch" and this is why LRB gets awards while others that may sound the same just aren't the same.

Blue Highway has solid roots in the Appalachian region and you can hear it. It has the soul and the essence. It's played right by a superb group of musicians that know when too much is too much and when not enough is not enough and how to balance it all together into a real Bluegrass sound. It's no wonder that this band has remained a favorite for over two decades. Their collection of awards and their popularity across the nation attest to their staying power. It doesn't get much better than this when you're looking for "that sound" that keeps the music alive.

The importance of the Big Bang of Country music by Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia can not be over stated. From the well known Carter Family to the Stoneman family and from the Stamps Quartet to the Smyth Country Ramblers, the foundation of what was to become Bluegrass was well laid and established. Another musical evolution of hillbilly Appalachian Mountain Music would be shaped and molded later by Bill Monroe. These early recordings of the country mountain music of Appalachia, captured for a broader distribution and broadcast, probably did more for today's music than even Bill Monroe himself. The foundations of Bluegrass were all there in those hills and hollows surrounding the mines, mills, factories and farms. If you're trying to capture the soulful essence of the music, that is squarely where it is. More long-enduring country and Bluegrass artists came from that region of the country than anywhere else. There's a reason. Bands that can retain that piece as well as the mechanics of playing the notes and singing are the bands that make it for the long run. They're the few that capture my attention and keep me listening.

In the days of vinyl and only vinyl, I learned to follow the labels. From Bluegrass to underground European rock, following the labels took me on uncharted paths of music that I never regretted. There are those labels today that peak my interest. Patuxent Records, Rural Rhythm's "Heritage Collection" and Mountain Home Records are always worth checking out. Rounder and Rebel were certainly primary labels to follow during the mid 80s and 90s. Others have come and gone including Turquoise, Flying Fish, and a host of others. Generally the artists on these labels were artists to explore and hear. Some made the big time and others didn't however, it was rarely, if ever, boring. The music on these labels during their respective peak times is music to be cherished, even today.

The soulful sound is there. You may need to look for it but, its there. If you want it live, you'll need to venture into the territory where it was born and where it is still healthy and growing today. Some of the bands aren't even real bands -- they're more of just some good friends who get together regularly to perform. Maybe this is why festival campground jams are such an important part of Bluegrass. Why some buy their tickets yet never venture to the stage area. They have found their true nirvana of Bluegrass enlightenment.

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