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Publication Date: Friday, April 05, 2002
O bluegrass, where art thou?
O bluegrass, where art thou?
(April 05, 2002) Local association sees increased interest in the music
by Candice Shih
What kind of music has an audience of both "overeducated urbanites" and "rural people," is a cross between blues and Celtic music, and has been voted the ninth most popular genre in the nation?
It's not a riddle; it's bluegrass.
Although certainly not a product of the Bay Area, bluegrass is surprisingly popular here. The region is second only to the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area in terms of bluegrass-record sales. (Granted, both are more populous than Lexington, Kentucky, for example.)
But, bluegrass enthusiasts living in Mountain View don't have to travel to the southeastern United States to hear authentic, live bluegrass music. Redwood Bluegrass Associates (RBA), based in Mountain View, brings it to them.
Advocates for bluegrass
Founded in 1991 by Vance and Barbara Townsend, the volunteer organization has labored to raise the bar in the production of bluegrass concerts and educate those interested in it. Motivated in part by standards set by the International Bluegrass Music Association, RBA set out to change the public perception of bluegrass.
Peter Thompson, RBA's secretary and publicist, said the group has started incorporating the use of theaters, reserved seating, high-quality sound and lighting systems, and a more formal dress code into its concerts to "move away from the bale-of-hay, hillbilly kind of image."
Vance Townsend, who spearheaded this effort, said the concerts have drawn "the traditional people that went to them but brought in new people that wouldn't have gone to other shows."
Thompson admitted that bluegrass is "an inclusive kind of music," since audience members at bluegrass shows are often amateur musicians themselves.
However, RBA has made efforts to expand its base of support by sponsoring workshops and consistently producing shows in the non-festival season. Even before the success of the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack, there was a "slow but steady growth," said Thompson.
Diversity of a different sort
Outreach efforts by RBA have evidently proven successful. Attendance at a bluegrass show now tops 200. And, younger people in the area are giving the music a try, thanks in part to RBA's strong relationship with string teachers at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.
Recently, a 14-year-old fiddle "phenom" opened an RBA show where Thompson said about 75 teenagers were in the audience. "The younger audience keeps the music alive and growing," he said.
"There's a lot of gray beards as well. People get hooked on it. The age range is definitely wider now than when I was first involved in this area (in 1992)," Thompson said.
Gender diversity in the bluegrass community is apparent, too, at RBA shows. Thompson, who is married to bluegrass musician Kathy Kallick, said, "Much of the most exciting bluegrass these day and the past 20 years is made by women. It's the key factor not only in keeping the music alive but taking it to new places."
Although women and the MTV-age set have embraced bluegrass, the musical genre has not been able to span many cultures yet. Thompson said he only sees a "smattering of African-Americans in the crowd" at RBA shows and concedes that "it's not a multi-cultural experience."
One might expect to see more African-Americans at bluegrass shows since it's a derivative of blues, a traditionally African-American musical genre. But, its invention in the 1940s is attributed to Bill Monroe who was Caucasian-American. The genre has subsequently had a difficult time shedding its hillbilly image.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" has not done much to help this problem, said Thompson.
"I'm not a big fan of the movie mostly because of the blasted fake beards . . . still the hillbilly stereotype. There's a lot of cheap shots. But, at times, the music is presented with a certain amount of dignity. I liked the fact that they used traditional bluegrass. That's what propels the film," he said.
Besides, sales of almost five million "O Brother" albums did not hurt the bluegrass industry. Since the popularity and acclaim of the soundtrack, attendance has been slightly up at RBA concerts.
Last show of the season
RBA will close the season with Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass at the First Presbyterian Church in Mountain View on Saturday, April 13 at 8 p.m.
Paisley, a guitarist and vocalist, has been playing for 50 years. His band is composed of his sons, bassist Mike and guitarist Dan Paisley, who both also sing, banjoist and vocalist Bobby Lundy, fiddler T. J. Lundy, and mandolinist Donny Eldreth.
Bob calls the music they play "straight-ahead old-time bluegrass, like from the 50's or 60's."
"The vocal combination is really exciting. When they sing together, it gives me chills," said Thompson, who heard them five or six years ago. "The rhythm section is unbelievable. It gives any rock band a run for its money."
Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass do a variety of songs old and new, although the style, in general, is old. About half of their songs are originals and the other half are arrangements of older songs.
"They tinker with the traditional form rather than subverting it," Thompson said.
For more information about the Redwood Bluegrass Associates and tickets to the show, visit www.rba.org or call 691-9982. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 on the day of the show, and half price for children.