Sure, I love the sound of bluegrass music. The twang of the banjo, the swing of the fiddle, thump of the bass, and a G-run, perfectly executed. High lonesome harmonies and the perfect phrasing of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and Ralph Stanley – who can resist?
But there’s another huge part of the allure of bluegrass – the stories contained in the songs. I’ve written of this before. I love the imagery of a forlorn fellow who does nothing but “roam around and look for you my dear”. I love the grimly cheerful nostalgia for a place on Rocky Top where strangers might go, looking for a moonshine still, but they never come back. They shoulda known better, right?
I love the simple story of love lost in “Handsome Molly”, whom the narrator only seemed to see once a week in church, and somehow got a promise of marriage, onlyto be rebuffed. That Molly may have been “handsome”, but she was fickle. Nevertheless, my heart goes out to this fellow.
What about “Tenbrooks and Molly”- a unique, chorusless masterpiece that captures the excitement of horse racing in simpler rural times. No professional jockeys here, nor mint juleps, roses or post race drug testing. Just good old fashioned “bet my hoss can outrun your hoss” stuff. Priceless.
What’s even more amazing, Frank Wakefield captures the same excitement in an instrumental mandolin tune in “New Camptown Races”!
Listening to these great songs is a thrill, sure, but those of us who also play bluegrass know the joy of channeling other lives through these songs. I can get lost in the poignant heartbroken sentiments in “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”. Rick Cornish personifies stubborn denial of heartache when he sings “T for Texas”. Lynn Quinones becomes that proud offspring of a hardworking mother when she sings “Give Mother My Crown”.
I see it time and time again at jams. People call the songs they know they can sing, but especially, they call the songs they can feel, and for those three or minutes, they wear another skin.
Now, some folks choose their songs solely on how well they hit the notes, and don’t bother to get to know and feel the lyrics – considering them just words to be memorized. Those people are missing out on a terrific emotional journey. Don’t they WANT to see the mental pictures of the people and situations in these songs? It’s a low risk and high reward adventure, people!