Starter Kit: Progressive Bluegrass

Thanks to horrible radio country and Trump voters, anything with twang nowadays gets written off as bad music. The truth is: the broad realm of Americana holds many underrated gems of music that are worth your time. There’s plenty of subgenres to cover from alt and gothic country to the great contemporary folk artists of today but this is a METAL BLOG. Metal has a lineage of technically proficient instrumentalists and compositions of epic proportions so today, we are going to be introducing our readers to progressive bluegrass.

Bluegrass generates most of its interest from technical ability, even in its most traditional veins. Generally, the genre operates a lot like jazz: different configurations of instruments improvise solos on standard tunes. There’s mostly likely an upright bass and some light percussion like tambourine or washboard in the rhythm section, treble instruments like fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar taking solos, and multi-part harmonies in the vocals. Bluegrass generally borrows from the same sources as country and folk: Scottish, Irish, and English folk music, African American spirituals, and blues. Progressive bluegrass started, like progressive rock, in the late 60s. While, the compositions never really reached the complexity of prog rock, the idea was the same in the beginning: the chord progressions got more complex, it started borrowing from other genres most notably jazz, modern rock, pop, and classical music, and the lyrics became deeper.

The Dillards – Wheatstraw Suite (1968)

Bluegrass was included in the huge resurgence of more progressive Americana music in the 1960s along with folk and country. The Dillards were one of the first bands to start adding new elements to bluegrass. Their fourth album, Wheatstraw Suite, marked the beginning of their shift from traditional bluegrass to a more complex and blended style that would open up the door for bluegrass artists in the years to come. The album is about 50 percent original, another progressive element for a bluegrass band. Think “the 60s meets bluegrass.” There’s harmonies straight off a Byrds’ record, Pet Sounds-style production and instrumentation, the saccharine sincerity of Buffalo Springfield, and the hooks (and even a cover) of the Beatles. There aren’t any mind-blowing solos or strange time signatures, at least by metal’s standards, but there is a rich and pleasant tenderness to the album that easily shatters bluegrass stereotypes of bland, plaid-shirted grandfathers picking away on a porch.

 

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – Self-Titled (1990)

Bela Fleck’s importance to bluegrass, especially bluegrass as high art, cannot be overstated. Going from 1968 to 1990 is skipping a lot of great bluegrass artists like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Seldom Scene, Doc Watson, Sam Bush and Alison Krauss, but this is a starter kit, and Bela Fleck is absolutely essential. Fleck took the banjo, an instrument played mostly by amateurs, small time musicians, and a small handful of masters and made it into a well-respected concert instrument. He has played with other big name musicians like Chick Corea, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Garcia. The guy plays anything from Bach and Beethoven to Miles Davis to commissioned concertos. Fleck has been recording prolifically since his twenties, but his 1990 debut album with his side band, The Flecktones, is progressive bluegrass at one of its most experimental and finely performed moments with a sound right in the middle of jazz and bluegrass.

 

Punch Brothers – Punch (2008)

In today’s bluegrass realm, there reins but one master: Chris Thile. Much like Fleck took jazz fusion and combined it with bluegrass, Thile used his classical training to write a new chapter for bluegrass. Thile started his bluegrass legacy in a different progressive bluegrass band, Nickel Creek, who, despite not achieving the same levels of complexity and relying much more on pop hooks, are still worth a curious listener’s time. The band formed as a side project and only became The Punch Brothers after they debuted “The Blind Leaving The Blind”, a 4 part suite about Thile’s divorce and the centerpiece of this debut album, at Carnegie Hall. The album serves a serious contrast to everything presented in this starter kit thus far. It is a heartbreaking and long-winded epic of crushed dreams. The Punch Brothers raise the bar past Fleck’s instrumental innovations and as well as The Dillard’s incorporation of pop music. It is at the same time a work with all the complexity of the greatest chamber music by Brahms and Debussy and an accessible work with all the recognizable melancholy of modern indie and emo. It will surely capture you in the anguish.