Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bluegrass for Beginners

While every other blogger is busy posting the new Girls track (which is awesome even though I'm not a huge fan their last album) or the M83 song (less than awesome), and whatever else is generating a buzz, all I can think about and listen to at the moment are bluegrass tunes. If Bluegrass was a season, it'd be summer. It is best enjoyed outside, preferably near a river and a campfire. Recently, I've been voluntarily taking heavy aural doses of mandolin and banjo. I had a hard time resisting doing a jig while waiting for a train when my favorite Trampled by Turtles song came up on shuffle. What I'm poorly trying to say is that this weather/music combo is perfection. Not to mention the summer always brings multitudes of cheap (as in free) and enjoyable folk/bluegrass festivals. I happen to have fond memories from childhood of my mom dragging my sister and I to some local festivals. Sure, it was the first time I saw women with armpit hair, but it was a healthy dose of something new and different and some of the first live music I ever saw which might explain my obsession with the combination of fiddle, mandolin, and banjo.

Also if you see enough bluegrass bands you'll start to build up a nice repertoire of cheesy banjo jokes which I always laugh at. Keep in mind that I also enjoy popsicle stick jokes.
Q: Why are there no banjos on Star Trek? 
A: Because it's the future.

Q: What do you hear when you throw a banjo off the empire state building? 
A: applause

Q: Why is the banjo player a fiddle player's best friend?
A: Without him, the fiddle would be the most hated instrument on earth.

I get that people hear the word "bluegrass" or "banjo" and cringe and think of yodeling, un-ironic plaid and beards, and too much twang. I'd love to correct that misconception. If you've shied away from this type of music in the past, I urge you to see it live because that's where it shines. What I always find interesting is that when I'm asked about my favorite live act or some of the most talented musicians the names on the tip of my tongue are generally bluegrass related. Here's a little primer which is in no way a complete representation of modern bluegrass bands you should give a chance.
Slightly funnier than Steve Martin playing the banjo
This is the easiest place to start. There is a ridiculously huge amount of songs in a series called Pickin' On where bluegrass bands cover popular songs from indie rock to classics and everything in between. My steadfast favorite is Iron Horse covering Modest Mouse songs, it's absurdly good.
Iron Horse - Ocean Breathes Salty
Trampled By Turtles live at Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011
Photo Credit: Michael B
Easily one of my favorite overall live acts is Duluth, Minnesota's Trampled by Turtles. They absolutely rock out better than 98% of the rock bands I've seen, despite the fact they are on stage with a banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. They keep their sets high energy from start to finish. Their mandolin player, Erik Berry, wears overalls and a cowboy hat and pretty much steals the show. My favorite song of theirs is from last year's Palomino album. Here is a HearYa live session recording:

  Wait So Long

Chris Thile is ridiculously talented and best known for his mandolin skills and for being a part of The Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. He is currently promoting and touring with his latest project with Michael Daves. The album Sleep With One Eye Open includes 16 traditional songs which is a great place to start for a bluegrass beginner.
  Chris Thile - Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground

The Duhks are very easy to love which maybe has something to do with the fact they're Canadian.
  The Duhks - Down To The River by Sugar Hill Records

I don't know how much this counts as bluegrass, but there's a banjo so whatever. This happens to involve two insanely wonderful and underrated bands Balto and Hip Hatchet performing at Badlands. "I'm on Fire" is a favorite Springsteen song of mine and I've fallen for many covers of this song, especially the Shakey Graves one, but this one is a close second.

Obviously I've left out a lot, but you can expect a Bluegrass for Beginners Part II, III and maybe more. Feel free to leave a comment about your favorite bluegrass bands.

Oh yeah, if you actually care about this I very quickly put together a nice little package of some favorite bluegrass/ banjo/ alt-country songs all zipped up for you using only what I have stored on my work computer so don't judge the lack of depth too harshly. Download it here. No track list so you can be pleasantly surprised.

If you want indie approved folk type music check out Music Savage's wickedly good Newport Folk Fest mixtape.


  1. Excellent selections. I'm always glad to see blogger bluegrass love.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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