If, like me, you are a senior citizen, the period of your lifetime has coincided with the development of bluegrass music from its early years. I first became aware of something called bluegrass in the early 1960s, but my initial knowledge and understanding of the genre was a bit vague. It was American, it had something to do with folk music, and it was played fast! It was quite some years before I learned that the first bluegrass band, as we think of it today, hit the stage of the Grand Ole Opry on the night of Saturday 1st December 1945. Earl Scruggs had just met Bill Monroe and played for him in a hotel room in Nashville that afternoon, in a meeting arranged by Bill’s fiddle player Jim Shumate. Ironically, Lester Flatthad been enjoying playing in the band without a banjo player (Stringbean had been gone a few weeks by then). He recalled, “Bill told me on stage there was a banjo player backstage wanting to try out for the group. I told Bill, as far as I was concerned, this fellow Scruggs could leave his banjo in its case.” Of course on hearing ‘this fellow Scruggs’ Lester immediately changed his mind and told Bill to hire Earl whatever it cost!
Such was the beginning of this classic band, as remembered by Jim Shumate and documentedby Tom Ewing in his encyclopaedic history ‘Bill Monroe – The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man’. We are very fortunate nowadays to have a wide range of biographies, reminiscences and scholarly accounts of the history of bluegrass which can fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge and understanding. But the earliest sources of information were magazines and journals, and none were more accessible or valuable than ‘Bluegrass Unlimited’. First published in 1966, this monthly magazine is still flourishing and is essential reading for keeping up with the current scene. The driving force behind BU from its earliest years was Pete Kuykendall, who became the editor in 1970 and continued in the post until hedied four years ago at the age of 79. ‘Bluegrass Unlimited’ became known as ‘the bible of bluegrass’, and Pete is sadly missed as one of the four co-founders of the magazine. As if that was not enough he was in addition a fine musician, playing mostly banjo and recording under the name of Pete Roberts; and he wrote some excellent songs that have become bluegrass standards.
Such was the influence and importance of ‘Mista Pete’, as we are told he was affectionately known in the BU office, that many of us wondered what would be happening to ‘Bluegrass Unlimited’ after his death. We learned last year that from November 2020 BU was to be published under the banner of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. When the November issue arrived I was sure that Pete Kuykendall would have been the first to congratulate the new publishers, writers and editorial team. Clearly they have been inspiredby the reputation and achievement of this venture initiated by ‘Mista Pete’ and his small group of co-founders in 1966. The number of pages in each issue has doubled. There is a new website with access to all sorts of material including an expanding archive of publishedarticles, lots of old photos and a library of podcasts, together with teaching videos and jam tracks for musicians. I am personally very pleased to have been able to download a detailed two-part article about the banjo player Johnny Whisnant by Walt Saunders, originally published in BU in 1970. ‘Bluegrass Unlimited’ is advancing on all fronts as we progress through the twenty-first century. Amazingly the basic annual subscription has not risen since the new format, and you also get all the benefits of the evolving website plus a weekly email newsletter with links. I’d go so far as to say that anyone with more than a passing interest in bluegrass music should support this continuing project by subscribing!
As a lifelong amateur picker I’m particularly pleased to see the attention given to the needs of learners in the ‘new’ BU. Mandolin player John Reischman is featured in the latest issue, on the cover and with a long feature article inside. Reflecting on learning how to teach, he says, “I (now) have a better idea of what people will be receptive to at different levels …… Your typical student is not at a professional level. And just a little thing from, say, teaching basic double stops to someone who’s only playing fiddle tunes can be really eye-opening to them.”This is a teacher who knows his craft. I am personally encouraged by John’s awareness of musicians’ injuries and his acceptance of how age can affect our playing – without affecting our enjoyment of what we do!
The very fact that you are reading this piece on a web page is a reminder of how the internet has changed our musical world. Bluegrass has a major presence online which has made a huge difference to all of us who love the music. However, the internet is still complemented by our record collections – I’ve lost count of the number of LPs, CDs and tapes in my collection at home. And I have only to glance at the shelves around the house to be grateful for all the books and other publications (including Tom Ewing’s book on Bill Monroe mentioned above) which have informed and enthused me over the years. ‘Bluegrass Unlimited’ has been and continues to be an essential. If you are not a subscriber yet, do yourself (and bluegrass music) a favour and subscribe now!