There is a quality to good bluegrass music that just isn’t available in other music. The players are amazingly talented, as the tunes are often quite quick with intricate picking lines. The sounds of the bass and mandolin as they fill in the sounds where a drum kit would go, the riffing of the guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin make a sweet, sweet music to my ears. To me, that high and lonesome sound of bluegrass connects the earthly to the heavenly. The lyrics often cover deep tragedies (although often deserved by the subject of the song), cries to Jesus, and a little revelry.
Some good examples include “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Richard John Thompson):
“…Said James to Red Molly / Here’s a ring for your right hand / But I’ll tell you in earnest / I’m a dangerous man / I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen / I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine / Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22 / And I don’t mind dying / But for the love of you / And if fate should break my stride / Then I’ll give you my Vincent to ride / Come down, come down Red Molly / Called Seargent McCrae / For they’ve taken young James Adie for armed robbery / Shotgun blast hit his chest / Left nothin’ inside / Come down Red Molly to his dying bedside…” (check this one out on the Del McCoury Band album Del and the Boys)
“Mother’s Only Sleeping”:(Bill Monroe)
“Mother’s not dead / She’s only a-sleepin’ / Just patiently waiting / For Jesus to come / The birds will be singing / While Mother lies sleeping / They will sing o’er her / As the grave sinks away” (You can check this out on Ricky Skaggs album History of the Future.)
I aspire to be a genuine picker myself – I have played guitar 16 years now, but only in the last couple have I tried playing bluegrass. I don’t think I can officially say I qualify as a bluegrass picker until I play with some other bluegrass folk – playing alone hardly counts.
Bluegrass has kept me into my guitar as I have grown ever so weary of the old guitar worship music I’ve played for so many years. I played the old music first because I liked it, but then more and more simply because people wanted to hear it, even if I didn’t want so much to play. I have pretty much stopped playing those songs in the last year or two. I had gotten to a point where they seemed manipulative of emotions, in some ways, a strange ‘erotic’ form of church music. There are times when hearing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” made me want to scream. (As Amy pointed out to me one time, somewhat jokingly, “Isn’t the altar guild supposed to do the shining?”) Hymns and chanting really suit me much better for worship.
Ironically, a friend from my old church, who is the drummer in the choir, called last night and invited me to come and play at a New Years Eve party at my old church… after I had written the above. It was a nice thought, but I have almost zero desire to play some of those songs now.
Anyway, I’ve found myself wondering what Orthodox Bluegrass would be like. The very thought brings a smile to my face.
Happy Nativity Eve!