Out of the Shadows
What images spring to mind when you think of country music? Cowboy hats, pointed boots, and spurs? Hair piled high and long lacy gowns? Whatever your associations, they’re bound to be shaped at least partially by the genre’s golden years when the Grand Ole Opry reigned supreme and country-pop crossover songs had a distinctive twang that set them apart from other tunes in the Top 40.
Nowadays, mainstream country and pop genres overlap each other more than ever. For performers this means crossover potential and a chance for broader appeal. All fine and well, but that leaves lovers of old-school country having to dig deeper to find the earthy sensibility that likely drew them to the genre.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, this notion of creating country stars the way we now create pop stars didn’t exist,” says Berklee alumnus and Mississippi native Charlie Worsham ’06 over the phone from Nashville, where he’s made his home since leaving Boston. Worsham’s band KingBilly is the subject of an upcoming reality series filmed for the Great American Country (GAC) cable network. “When art and commerce intersected, it had a profound effect on country music, mainly because the labels involved found success marketing to the 15- to 24-year-old demographic. I think that speaks volumes to the increased popularity of Americana and bluegrass hybrids; folks are hungry for it. They’re reacting to the sincerity of the older styles.”
Indeed, left-of-center terms like roots music, alt-country, and Americana likely resemble something much closer to your inner template for country music, but you’re not going to hear these genres on commercial radio. The fans have spoken, however, and even without radio’s help these new varietals (which often blend coffeehouse folk with elements of bluegrass) are suddenly commercially viable.
“Within the vast tapestry of country music, bluegrass and all of its offshoots are thought of as being less commercial elements,” says String Department Chair Matt Glaser. “Yet oddly enough it’s from those idioms that the most commercially successful people in Nashville have emerged. Things have come full circle; what was originally a very noncommercial, modest, folk-based offshoot of country music has now produced people considered to be at the pinnacle of the field. It’s one of those interesting turnarounds.”
MP&E Professor Stephen Webber concurs. “Purists would argue that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is definitely not a true bluegrass record, but it sold 9 million copies, and you just can’t ignore that,” he says. “It bridged a gap of accessibility and opened up new doors to a huge audience. Whatever you want to call them, these new hybrids are definitely divorced from commercial radio. O Brother and artists Nickel Creek, Béla Fleck, and Alison Krauss, suddenly made bluegrass appear young, hip, and sexy.”
Berklee has kept pace with these changes by adding banjo and mandolin to its list of principal instruments. “I don’t want to oversell the changes-in-the-curriculum part of this, because they’ve been quite modest,” cautions Glaser. “There’ve been a few additional courses added and the ability to accept banjo and mandolin players, but overall the curriculum at Berklee remains similar to what it’s always been: flexible and able to match changing tides. So this is just one of many important new trends in music that the college has striven to represent. We’ve consistently tried to have a string department that’s unlike that of a conservatory. At Berklee, string players can study all kinds of music, whereas at a conservatory, you really can study only classical music. We’re very proud of that,” he says.
Berklee’s slow-cooked embrace of country music styles began back in the mid-1970s, when guitar professor Mike Ihde pioneered the school’s first country ensemble, Flat Rats & Sail Cats, a group that has since performed 102 consecutive semesters and given rise to some formidable talent, including National Bluegrass Banjo champion Hiro Arita ’89, Marc Muller ’83 (who’s played pedal steel with Shania Twain), National Finger Style Guitar champion Pete Huttlinger ’84, and bluesy mama Susan Tedeschi ’91.
The ensemble’s steady success demonstrates a consistent curiosity about country music on behalf of the student body for more than 30 years, but Ihde clearly recalls having to cultivate those interests on the DL. “In the seventies, Berklee was very much a jazz school. Even rock players weren’t getting treated like ‘real’ musicians,” he says. “Country music was essentially nonexistent on campus. There were no ensembles, classes, or labs where it was offered, and if any of the faculty played country, they kept it a secret. That’s all changed now, but in the seventies I was kind of flying under the radar, leading my ensemble and teaching the Country Guitar Styles Lab that used my book of the same name,” he adds. Ihde’s book was a ground-breaking departure amid the college’s ongoing flurry of jazz manuals.
“That notion of ‘silly hillbilly music’ still lingers, but people stop arguing once they see the chops involved in playing it,” he says. “It’s not a bunch of no-tooth guys hanging out on the porch. My job as a teacher has always been to show my students what else is out there. And it’s gotten a little easier. We’re seeing more students coming here with the idea of possibly pursuing these styles of music. It’s not considered backwoods music anymore.”
Boston: The Bluegrass Epicenter?
Another way of measuring student enthusiasm for country lies in the continued success of Berklee’s annual spring break pilgrimage to Nashville, an event that Liberal Arts Professor Pat Pattison began as an informal get-together more than 20 years ago. “Thanks to Stephen Webber, every trip has surpassed the previous one, even when I thought that would be impossible,” Pattison says. “Stephen ratcheted the trip up when he joined 15 years ago and introduced the whole MP&E emphasis. A lot of remarkable folks in Nashville strongly support the trip and share their expertise and wisdom with the students.”
Since then it’s become one of the hottest tickets on campus. With only 120 slots available, a lottery selects the lucky travelers. Nashville’s large Berklee alumni community participates in hosting the trip, which culminates with the entire group sitting in on an all-star recording session. Last year, Vince Gill topped the bill; this year it was Delbert McClinton.
Glaser’s point about Berklee’s modest curriculum changes is all the more striking when you consider the impact, which has spawned a local music scene he characterizes as “on fire.”
“Boston has become the epicenter of an amazing scene,” Glaser says. “Some of the best young mandolin and banjo players in the world are now studying at Berklee. These kids have an incredibly high bar set in their minds for what’s required of them. They really strive to play their instruments with the utmost technical perfection at all tempos and in all keys. They play around the clock, assume that they should be able to improvise in a variety of styles, and have very highly developed listening skills. But even beyond Berklee, four of the American Grand National Fiddle champions are now living in the Boston area; it’s their base of operations. They didn’t go to Berklee, but as professional musicians they’ve discovered that Boston is really the place to be. I always tell people it’s so bizarre that this city has become the Texas contest–style fiddling epicenter of the United States. You’d think it’d be Austin or Dallas, but it’s actually here.”
But even before the college added banjo and mandolin, it was cultivating acoustic string talent that’s gone on to achieve fame on the outskirts of bluegrass: fiddlers Casey Driessen ’00 and Carrie Rodriguez ’00, cellist Rushad Eggleston ’01, mandolinist Joe Walsh ’07, singer Natalie Maines ’95, songwriting team Gillian Welch ’92 and Dave Rawlings ’92, and banjo player Chris Pandolfi ’03—just to name a few.
Developing Bluegrass Pedagogy
And if the Grammys are indicative of mass consciousness, it would appear that the mainstream has begun to discern the difference between hard work and a hayride: Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s Americana tour de force Raising Sand took home all five awards for which it was nominated this year (including the Album of the Year award) and also happens to be chock-full of Berklee alumni contributions, from mastering engineers Gavin Lurssen ’91 and Vanessa Parr ’04 to drummer Jay Bellerose ’87. While Raising Sand isn’t a bluegrass disc, it incorporates numerous virtuosic string styles and qualifies as roots-based Americana through and through, with a beguiling southern gothic twist. Simple pickin’ and grinnin’? No way.
“There is no ‘simple music,’” says Professor Dave Hollender, an accomplished bassist and five-string banjo player who also leads Berklee’s bluegrass ensemble. “You can’t learn to properly play bluegrass instruments in three months, six months, or a year. I liken it to the skills required to play classical compositions. I’m troubled by the lack of understanding of what bluegrass really is. O Brother isn’t really bluegrass, and what Alison Krauss does isn’t really bluegrass. But if these pop hybrids get people interested in investigating further, that’s fantastic.”
True bluegrass is a gritty, rustic musical sport requiring an instrumental mastery that many nonmusicians find surprising. That said, it’s not nearly as big a stretch as one might assume to include bluegrass and related hybrids in a curriculum that built its reputation by incubating jazz dynamos.
“A lot of the early commercial country music was heavily influenced by jazz,” Glaser asserts. “The great guitar players that ended up on many of those records were essentially great jazz men, so there’s a real natural connection between Berklee’s jazz history and some aspects of country music.” And Glaser should know. He’s spent his career straddling the two genres. He’s the ringleader of the Boston-based group the Wayfaring Strangers and did graduate studies on controlled improvisation in Texas contest–style fiddling.
When Berklee President Roger Brown delivered the keynote address to the International Bluegrass Music Association last fall, he outlined parallels between bluegrass and bebop, tracing both back to a shared birthplace and time (visit www.berklee.edu/ news/213/president-brown-goes-blue-grass). But while jazz went on to become intellectualized and widely studied, bluegrass remained underground. Ostensibly, this is what’s allowed ignorance to fester: a basic lack of understanding and a missing linguistic component with which to explain the inherent complexities of bluegrass.
“There’s great knowledge and musical depth to [bluegrass and traditional music] styles, but they’re lacking a verbal component,” Glaser says. “People look down their noses simply because the guys wear cowboy hats and say ‘I dunno, I just play the tune this way.’ Meanwhile, they’re playing something that’s like Bach. If Bach said, ‘I dunno, here’s my music,’ it would still be worthy of study, right?”
Spurred by the surge of interest, Glaser will devote the remainder of his Berklee career to further broadening these areas of study. Now in his 28th year at the college, he will step down as the chair of the String Department to become a faculty member focused solely on teaching overlooked styles of American music.
“There really isn’t a pedagogy with which to teach these string-jazz improv styles,” says Glaser. “And that’s the essential thing I’m interested in helping the college develop: ways to codify and explicate the techniques and improvisational styles of music beyond that of jazz.” Hollender agrees, saying, “Jazz pedagogy has already been highly developed, but there are comparable levels of musical integrity in these other styles, and yet they don’t have the verbal architecture. Virtuosity as it relates to jazz has always been there. Our goal is not necessarily to crank out bluegrass players, but rather to help create a new breed of adventuresome musician that can apply these learned strengths to idioms outside of bluegrass.”
Another sure sign of shifting attitudes at the college was the appointment of Mark Simos to the Songwriting Department, a development that Glaser characterizes as testament to the school’s growing recognition of the legitimacy of bluegrass and other roots and roots-derived musical idioms. Simos, who has penned four tunes recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station, has an affinity for old-time, Celtic and bluegrass styles that’s evidenced not only by his various recordings and outside projects but also by his having launched the Appalachian Old-Time Ensemble, which populates by word of mouth. Even so, Simos is willing to put his musical preferences aside to ensure that students are flexible and adaptable, prepared for a wide array of musical scenarios.
“Most young ‘neo-trad’ players in these various roots styles are composing instrumental tunes and songs drawing on these traditions,” says Simos. “I see an increasing number of them in my songwriting classes. As a songwriting teacher, I like to draw on great song examples from these traditions just as I draw on any other styles, old and new,” he says. “I try not to proselytize for the particular styles of music I’m most familiar with; I hope my students feel free to bring in music in any style. Yet I do think some knowledge of these traditions is essential if one is to be culturally informed about the sources of contemporary popular music. The Beatles listened to Buddy Holly, who listened to Bill Monroe; Jerry Garcia began as a bluegrass banjo player; Bob Dylan was steeped in folk-music models and repertoire. To innovate as a writer and artist, you sometimes need to reach back further and deeper to source material that gives your music a distinctive edge, a connection to the wellsprings.”
Those that still firmly believe bluegrass and folk-rock weren’t meant to be bedfellows won’t likely see clear to the positive impact of changing perceptions both inside and outside the Berklee community. But eradicating ingrained stereotypes isn’t something that happens overnight.
Associate String Professor John McGann sums it up nicely. “I don’t believe in the ghettoization of styles,” he says. “And I think there’s a danger in this notion of haphazardly attempting musical hybrids because all too often, the players have no vocabulary in the style they’re attempting to assimilate. But the positive side of all this is that when something becomes a mainstream cultural breakthrough, it often provides a gateway that leads people deeper, perhaps asking themselves, ‘Who do my heroes worship?’ They can trace the lineage back, and some of them won’t like what they find. But it’s important to try to put this music into a historical context, and I firmly believe that in the end, music can do no evil, only good.”