Bluegrass and Families

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She’s brave, I thought.  I could never be that brave.  I sat in the audience under a shade tree at the Kings River Bluegrass Festival watching Oak Grove, the Schwartz family band. As a newcomer to bluegrass, I never encountered a family band with whom I could identify before.

Gail played bass and was a mother just like me.  Bob, the patriarch, strummed rhythm on the guitar, and I later learned that he was an attorney.  He obviously found a way to incorporate music into his life.  Nathan the oldest brother, picked the mandolin, and Max the younger brother plucked the banjo. The most astonishing was 9-year-old Tessa standing no more that 4’5” fiddling like a professional.

In the middle of the concert, Max set his banjo aside and took the bass from his mother.  Gail stepped up the microphone and sang a classic rock tune.  Yep, I thought, she is definitely brave I complimented Gail when I met her after the show, and told her I could never sing on stage. She looked me in the eye and said, “If I can do it, anybody can do it.” Bob gave us a copy of their first CD for free.

I was skeptical.  The Schwartz family seemed far too exceptional for just anybody to be able to do it.  Nevertheless, they planted a seed in my mind–a seed that took root soon after the Kings River Bluegrass festival.

I continued to attend more festivals with my family that year and I discovered something unexpected:  Oak Grove was the norm and not the exception.  I heard so many stories about how grandparents taught songs to their grandkids, or how siblings formed bands, or childhood memories about playing in nursing homes that I lost count.  Gail was right, anybody could form a family band. I may as well hop on the bandwagon and join the fun.

CBA’s family-centric community certainly has played a pivotal role in my personal life.  It also got me to thinking about the role CBA’s families will play in the future of bluegrass.  

Historians like to say that the past is the best predictor of the future.  I decided to delve into the past in order to get a glimpse of bluegrass’s future.  I started with the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe.

Monroe’s musical development began at an early age when his siblings insisted he play the mandolin.  He was the youngest of eight siblings. His older brothers, Birch and Charlie, already played the guitar and the fiddle.  They needed a mandolin player.  Bill was left with no choice.  He resigned himself to the instrument, and it is safe to say things turned out all right for Bill in the end.      

    If Bill Monroe was the Father of Bluegrass, then Earl Scruggs was the definer of bluegrass.  He popularized the three-finger banjo–a picking style that is one of the most defining characteristics of bluegrass music. His father, older brothers, and older sisters all played banjo and guitar.  Learning to play the five-string was as natural as learning how to walk. Like Monroe, Scruggs would have never turned into the banjo player he became if it weren’t for his family.

Chubby Wise owes his success to his father, who played the fiddle. He backed up his dad with the guitar or banjo until he was 15 years old. Then Chubby switched to fiddling.
    Vassar Clements, another legendary fiddler formed his first stringband with two of his first cousins, Red and Gerold.

The list doesn’t end there.  Clarence White’s father, Eric LeBlance played the guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica surrounding his kids in bluegrass music.
Tony Rice joined forces with his brothers Roland and Eric Jr. to create a trio called Three Little Country Boys when he was 10.

Rhonda Vincent began her career when she was a child in her family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show.

The 21st century also has its list of successful bluegrass family bands. Cherryholms won IBMA’s Entertainment of the Year Award in 2005 and the Anderson Family Band played at Hardly Strictly in 2009.

Today the California Bluegrass Association is the largest bluegrass association in the world. It is chalk-full of family bands:  The Tuttle’s with A.J. Lee, The Dim Lights, The Blue “J’s,” the Barefoot Quales, and of course, Oak Grove.  Future bluegrass stars are already on the rise.  Think Molly Tuttle, A.J. Lee and Dana Frankel, for example.  How about Max, Nathan and Tessa Schwartz? And there are the Gooding siblings and the Quale brothers.  

    The future of bluegrass looks pretty .

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