Are Great Bluegrass Songs Born That Way?

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Bluegrass music sure has a lot of great songs (I’m including “songs” and “tunes”). Over the years, many have emerged as popular favorites, some to a degree that they have fallen out of favor. My personal favorite example is “Rocky Top”. From the time I first started going to bluegrass festivals (early to mid-90’s) it was made clear to me that nobody plays that song because it’s so overplayed. Ironically, it’s so overplayed that nobody plays it.

So as songs fall into the “hackneyed” bucket, other songs rise to fill the void. Every bluegrass band worth its salt pores over obscure recordings by the Masters (Monroe, Martin, Stanley, etc.) to find a heretofore overlooked gem. And sure enough, bands often do find some unfamiliar material to spring on delighted audiences.

But there are a lot of bands, and Monroe, Martin and Stanley aren’t doing a lot of new recordings anymore. So it’s a statistical certainty that it’ll be tougher and tougher to find classic material to surprise anyone. What to do? Well, you can write your own songs of course, and there have been a lot of great songwriters doing just that. The best of these songs find their way into the “standard” bluegrass canon, eventually.

Some bands “grass up” songs that didn’t start life as bluegrass songs at all. Sometimes, this is done so well, the listener is surprised to find out where the song came from.One of the masters of this is Del McCoury. He and his band have covered songs by artists from Tom Petty (rock), Richard Thompson (folk) and Robert Cray (blues) – with great success, in my opinion. Other artists have made bluegrass songs out of Rolling Stones songs (“Wild Horses”, “No Expectations”), and somehow, Joe Val made a terrific bluegrass song out of Brenda Lee’s “Comin’ on Strong”!

I have seen some opinions offered that non-bluegrass cannot be bluegrass, no matter what. I think that’s preposterous – if it has bluegrass instrumentation, bluegrass rhythms, bluegrass harmonies, how can it NOT be bluegrass? If it sounds like bluegrass, how can it not be bluegrass? (Walks like a duck, talks like a duck…)

I admire the musical insight it takes to hear a song from other musical genres and re-imagine it as bluegrass. My bandmate Lynn Quinones heard the Beatles’ “Rain” and heard a bluegrass context, and now that song seems like an bluegrass old standard to me.

I think a great song is like a negative from a great photographer. You can take that negative and change the contrast, the size, the cropping and get a variety of interesting photographic prints. The prints will evoke a wide range of emotions from different people, even if they all came from the same negative. A really well written song will have a melody and a story that will withstand imaginative interpretation. A good example of this, I think is John Hartford’s rendition of Monroe’s “Little Cabin Home on the Hill”. He took Bill’s wonderful simple melody and chord pattern, and overlaid the melody on a bunch of chords that gave that song a new flavor, while still preserving the charm of the original.

What other great songs out are going to find new life as bluegrass songs, I wonder? “War Pigs”, maybe?

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