String Bands: Bluegrass and Beyond

A Curmudgeon Column

Music Features DelFest
String Bands: Bluegrass and Beyond

DelFest, the annual event hosted by Del McCoury, is often described as a bluegrass festival, even though only a minority of the acts are traditional bluegrass bands. Many a casual observer assumes that any band dominated by banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, dobro, mandolin and/or fiddle is a bluegrass act. But these instruments were wielded effectively before Bill Monroe invented bluegrass, and they’ve been used skillfully in many styles since his death in 1996.

It would be more accurate to describe DelFest as a string-band festival, one that, this year, included not only hard-core bluegrass act such as the Junior Sisk Band but also jam-bands such as Trampled by Turtles, honky-tonk singers such as Sierra Ferrell, old-time acts such as Price Sisters and folkie singer-songwriters such as Peter Rowan. The term “string-band” provides a larger umbrella that all of these acts can fit under—and a number of recent records demonstrate the diverse uses these wooden, stringed instruments can be put to.

One of the highlights of this year’s DelFest was the group led by Jason Carter, the much awarded fiddler in the Del McCoury Band. But this year, his second solo album, Lowdown Hoedown, revealed that Carter is also an impressive singer—as good a baritone as his bandmate Ronnie McCoury is a tenor. It’s not just that Carter can hit the notes; he knows how to tell a story, especially when a song is as evocative as John Hartford’s “The Six O Clock Train and a Girl with Green Eyes” or Shawn Camp’s “The Queen of the Nashville Night.”

The album emphasizes the old-school country roots of Carter’s vocals by welcoming such guest singers as Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley, both longtime collaborators of Carter at Nashville’s Station Inn. The fiddler holds his own in such company and thrived on the DelFest stage with no famous guests, just two of his bandmates in the Travelin’ McCourys (Cody Kilbey and Alan Bartram) and two members of the East Nash Grass (Gaven Largent and Cory Walker). The results are so impressive that Carter should treat this venture as more than an occasional side project. He proves that these acoustic instruments can be more than nostalgic or virtuosic; they can draw you into characters as timeless as the mountains.

The Infamous Stringdusters are a post-modern bluegrass quintet. They have almost the same instrumental line-up as Flatt & Scruggs (dobro, guitar, bass, fiddle and banjo but not mandolin), yet the Stringdusters were co-founded by three students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music who love the Grateful Dead as much as Bill Monroe. The Stringdusters nod to their roots and prove their bona fides on a new EP, A Tribute to Flatt & Scruggs. These versions are well executed but don’t add much to the brilliant originals.

All six songs clock in at less than four minutes. When the group played “I’d Rather Be Alone” and “Down the Road” from the EP at DelFest, however, the arrangements began faithfully but soon stretched out well past the six-minute mark, incorporating Dead-inspired improvisation. That approach of bridging past and present was much more revealing and would have made for a more satisfying recording than this one.

If you want to hear some traditional bluegrass from 2020s, you can’t do much better than David Parmley, who was also at this year’s gathering. He was just 15 when he joined the Bluegrass Cardinals, newly formed in 1974 by his father Don Parmley and one of the best examples ever of West Coast bluegrass. David got the best possible string-band education in the Cardinals and graduated as a superb singer into the Continental Divide. After a long hiatus, the 64-year-old has relaunched his solo career with two singles from a forthcoming album, What’d I Miss?

Unlike many bluegrass singers who favor the fast and high, Parmley likes the slow and low. He can handle uptempo material, as he does on those likable singles: “All Dressed Up” (#1 on several bluegrass charts) and “West Virginia.” But at DelFest, he excelled on country ballads such as “I Don’t Go Around Mirrors,” a hit for both Lefty Frizzell and Keith Whitley. Parmley gave it such a tasteful, understated reading that he proved this music needn’t be frantic; it can be patient and dramatic.

Robbie Fulks operates in several different modes, including rockabilly rumbler, folk-troubadour chronicler and honky-tonk warbler. But he grew up as a bluegrass picker in North Carolina, and he returns to those roots periodically, as he does on his new album, Bluegrass Vacation. Fulks is as prolific a songwriter as he is reliable, and for this project his 11 new songs sound as if they’ve been handed down in some forgotten holler, uncle-to-nephew and nephew-to-niece, till all the glitches and modernisms have been polished away.

“Longhair Bluegrass” is a memory of a 1973 New Grass Revival concert when a 10-year-old Fulks first glimpsed the possibilities of a modern bluegrass. Half of the NGR (Sam Bush and John Cowan) are on hand to help Fulks record the song here. Jerry Douglas, David Grier, Ronnie McCoury, Shad Cobb and more add an instrumental luster to the other tunes. And a handful of these competitions—“Molly and the Old Man,” “Angels Carry Me” and “Momma’s Eyes”—carry such a wrenching ache that they deserve to become part of the string-band canon.

String-band music is a uniquely American invention, a combination of Europe’s fiddle and mandolin and Africa’s banjo as well as the musical traditions that came with those instruments. Much of the repertoire of Appalachian string-band music can be traced directly to centuries-old songs from Ireland, Scotland and England. Few albums showcase those origins as compellingly as Martin Hayes & the Common Ground Ensemble do on the new album, Peggy’s Dream.

Hayes grew up in County Clare on Ireland’s rural West Coast, and his technical command of the fiddle won him six All-Ireland Fleadh Championships, four in the junior categories and two as an adult. He soon parlayed that muscular agility into an emotional mastery that allows him to evoke deep melancholy and deep contentment with only instrumental music. His new group (piano, cello, concertina, acoustic guitar and fiddle) blurs the line between string-band and chamber music, creating cinematic harmonies that bolster but never obscure the performance of each song’s leading actor: Hayes’ fiddle.

Nothing illustrates the strong bonds between Celtic and American folk musics better than Hayes’ version of “Aisling Gheal.” If this gorgeously haunting tune, played with such knowing restraint on the leader’s violin, sounds familiar, it’s because the theme is the source of the great American folk song “Shenandoah,” recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, from Paul Robeson to Charles Lloyd. This is the sound of longing for home, from one side of the Atlantic or the other, and it works especially well in its original string-band setting.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin