Best in bluegrass? Not Tenacious D, certainly

Tenacious D fans may find it satisfying, but the bluegrass-styled tribute to D’s work is far from the heights of bluegrass, or even the heights of the odd marriage of rock or blues and bluegrass.

Bluegrass is a uniquely American invention, probably not really well defined until Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers started recording it in the first half of the 20th century. Bluegrass is an instrument set as well as a style of music — it usually should include guitar, mandolin, and banjo and bass. Solid bluegrass also includes a Dobro. Fiddle is optional, drums often detract from the music but may be added. Autoharp is an occasional addition — the Carter Family used autoharp with good effect, though they were not exactly in the middle of the bluegrass path.

The late Dick Dabney wrote an article for The Washingtonian in the 1980s that I have been unable to track down, in which he well defined for us lay people what defines bluegrass: The song is a story with consequences. Bad things happen, and people are sorry for the occurrences. Good things happen, too, but that’s to be expected.

Putting bluegrass instrumentation to Tenacious D tunes just doesn’t measure up to Dabney’s criteria, I fear.

Bluegrass could have a role in history classes, selected carefully. Below the fold, I’ll suggest some things you may want to listen to.

We’ve all heard Bill Monroe’s version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I’m sure it’s in the back of your mind somewhere. My first serious introduction to bluegrass was through Linda Rondstadt’s use of good bluegrass musicians for her albums. The Seldom Scene’s players contributed to several Ronstadt songs, and I sought them out. They were difficult to get in Salt Lake City in the 1970s, but when I moved to Washington, the Bluegrass Capital of the World, I was happy to discover the Scene playing every Thursday at the Birchmere in Alexandria. That led me to Buck White, and that led me to Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, and it was all wrapped up with Jerry Gray’s old shows at WAMU-FM.

Here are some discs you should seek out, assuming you don’t live in the Washington, D.C., area, and assuming you know nothing at all about bluegrass:

Old and In the Way: Vassar Clemens, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia. That lineup should speak for itself, and if it doesn’t, you need to study up a bit.

Seldom Scene, Live at the Cellar Door: One of the earlier lineups of the band, with John Duffy in his most obnoxious glory (he’s great, but he pushes it; Jerry Lewis fans who are pained by too much Lewis will understand). I’ll have to check to be sure, but I think it was later that the Scene added “Lay Down Sally” and “After Midnight” to their list. It’s a bluegrass stretch that a great band like the Scene makes work.

Ricky Skaggs and great guests, Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe: A fun introduction featuring non-bluegrass artists going back to their roots, with a good backing bluegrass band and Ricky Skaggs leading the way.

I may have to get back to this topic, and specify which Ronstadt albums and which Emmy Lou Harris albums one needs, and add some more. Bluegrass is loaded with great performers, most of whom take their genius into other venues on occasion to great acclaim (think the Byrds and Roger McGuinn). There are some great historical tunes in most bands’ repertoires, too.

And we haven’t even mentioned Oh Brother! Where Art Thou?

7 Responses to Best in bluegrass? Not Tenacious D, certainly

  1. Cliff says:

    I have Dick Dabney’s article published in October 1981 in the Washingtonian, a month before his death. If you’ll post your email, we can discuss how I can get it to you.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    I’d love to have an online version of it, or even a hard copy. I don’t think the Dallas library will have it.


  3. Cliff says:

    To the Author:
    I have, or may be able to track down, the article by Dick Dabney if you are interested.


  4. Mikey says:

    If you’re still looking for less serious examples, The Austin Lounge Lizards have several bluegrass-styled songs (bluegrass is even explicitly mentioned in their official blurb). Their instrumentation certainly follows the criteria above. “That Godforsaken Hellhole I Call Home” is probably my favorite.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    You’re right. I was posting on the run — it needs to be updated. Beatlegras is better on the Beatles, I think, than the Dustbowl Cavaliers is on Tenacious D — but, Kenny, get back here with your view of the thing. You’re a fan of Jack and Kyle, and consequently probably a much better judge than I of whether they do right by the D. They don’t do right by bluegrass — which isn’t really much of a criticism. Bluegrass is a new convention, and it generally does best when it gets bent out of its comfort zone — when Duffy brings in a J. J. Cale song, when T-bone Burnett uses it for a movie score, when the Dixie Chicks make it mainstream country and give it a leftist political twist, when it gets electrified, etc., etc.

    [I corrected the spelling of Beatlegras in your post, Kenny, and gave a link. Hope you don’t mind.]


  6. Kenny says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t say anything about the Beatlegras album that mom has, how do you feel about that? I haven’t heard the Tenacious D album, but I’ll probably go look for it.


  7. Brett says:

    I would add the recent Dolly Parton bluegrass albums as a worthwhile listen as well. I haven’t heard the Tenacious D thing, but in general I approve of that sort of mash up. Hayseed Dixie does several albums of AC/DC bluegrass that I think are fun and I have long dreamed of doing some classic punk songs as bluegrass covers. Music needs to be played with in order to prevent it from becoming stale. Doesn’t mean that everything works out, but if people stop playing with it and put it into a glass case it becomes a relic of what it once was.


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