Brother, Jugs, & LSD: Mountain Music Comes Full Circle
Friday night, late July 1973, four 20-year-old hippies from Long Island go see a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden, parts of which are included in The Song Remains the Same. Immediately after the show, they exit Manhattan and drive six hours to Watkins Glen.
It's a small town nestled in the Finger Lakes of New York state, where they hold a Grand Prix car race. On this summer day, 650,000 music fans show up to see The Band, the Grateful Dead, and the Allman Brothers. Despite the size of the crowd, it's an absolutely beautiful day that begins with the Dead playing for nearly five hours.
Late in the afternoon, while The Band is onstage, a thunderstorm hits, dropping the temperature some 15 degrees in one hour. All we have are the clothes on our backs, so into the mud we crash, sunburned and tired from too much of everything.
At some point in the night, I wake to the sound of the Dead and the Allmans jamming the night away and a huge bonfire fueled by the wooden Porta Potties circling the crowd.
Thursday night, mid-April, 30 years later, backstage at the Old Settler's Bluegrass Festival 2003. Jen Obert, the doe-eyed blond fiddler with Cooper's Uncle, asserts, "We don't just have a band. We have a scene."
A month or so earlier, an e-mail alerted a couple old hippies at The Austin Chronicle that the Thursday happy hour with Cooper's Uncle at Stubb's was drawing a consistently large crowd. It seems a group of Deadheads was gathering every week at the local barbecue joint to hear this fledgling bluegrass band. Apparently, they were getting better every week.
There's a picking party near Wimberley, at the home of famed banjo player Alan Munde. Munde is best known as a mainstay of Country Gazette, a highly influential progressive bluegrass outfit from the Seventies that laid the groundwork for what became known as "newgrass." Originally from Oklahoma, he's settled in Central Texas and since 1986 has taught in the Bluegrass & Country Music Program at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.
One Toke Over the Line
Beside a long table groaning with food, two circles of players are seated among the trees in the back yard. The one featuring Munde keeps things pretty traditional, while the other leans toward folk, pop tunes, and blues. Sitting in a hammock almost dead center between the two groups, I stare up at the stars as the music whirls ever more spirited and intoxicating. No one wants it to end.
I'm reminded of a young woman standing in line between sets at one of the String Cheese Incident shows in Waterloo Park last summer.
"I'm so happy right now," she turns around to gush at a complete stranger. "It's been too long since I've had a dose of String Cheese, and I needed to see them sooooo bad."
It's Thursday night, and that means the free weekly "String band" show at Threadgill's World Headquarters. The South Austin Jug Band is having their record-release party and draws 500 people to the outdoor stage/tent at the Riverside eatery. Every inch of grass sports some sort of sandal.
Paging Jim Kweskin
This band of five young locals, handsome and talented all, started out raw and unaccomplished a couple of years ago. Now, they're a finely tuned machine. Playing almost every night for months on end will do that for you.
They delight in telling the story of how they won the bluegrass competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001. They point out that what they're doing isn't bluegrass. They're not a jug band either. They take songs from Walter Hyatt, Bob Wills, Jimi Hendrix, and Townes Van Zandt, plus some they wrote themselves, and make them something else, perpetuating the tradition of all great Texas musicians.
SAJB proudly claims to follow in the footsteps of Uncle Walt's Band, a group of hot pickers from the Seventies that included Champ Hood, father of their first fiddle player, Warren Hood. They also mention the Threadgill Troubadors, another group of locals with the chops to bend rustic styles any way they wanted.
Two days later at the Continental Club, the Onion Creek Crawdaddies, Meat Purveyors, and Damnations rip it up. It's only the second time the Crawdads have played the South Congress speakeasy, and on the first couple of numbers, they seem tentative. Then the slow-building crowd gets it: It's another young local quintet with its own take on bluegrass, one incorporating Cajun rhythms, a touch of mariachi, and a Led Zeppelin cover.
It's a raucous good time, and the harmonies recall a frat-house sing-along. These guys, who resemble the friends of Wally and the Beav all grown up, are having fun, and folks who are there to see the Meat Purveyors are smiling ear to ear. It's a breakthrough gig, and the band is a little starry-eyed and breathless afterward.
Let's consider Nickel Creek. Three twentysomethings with Southern California roots. All won a variety of instrumental contests in their teens. They started as a bluegrass band 13 years ago, but their sound now incorporates a variety of influences from alt-rock and fluffy pop to the traditional. At last count, they've sold 1.3 million albums.
A recent TV series on new roots music aired on the Sundance Channel, one segment focusing on Nickel Creek. They were cute and fun-loving, but serious about the music, making no excuses to the hardcore bluegrass fans that scoff at them. Most importantly, it showed their audience to be incredibly young. When the band played a high school gym, young girls filled the front rows with faces comparable to those in the audience at the Ed Sullivan show when Elvis made his first appearance.
What's happening here? Where did all those fiddles and banjos and mandolins come from all of a sudden? The obvious answer, one given by more than a few of these fresh-faced musicians, is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack to the Coen brothers film that sold several million copies and launched more string bands than all of classical music.
Seymour Guenther is a booking agent with the Nancy Fly Agency here in Austin. He worked for the venerable folk label Flying Fish in Chicago before moving to town. He and his wife Nancy work with Texas artists like Don Walser, Toni Price, Johnny Gimble, and Ruthie Foster. They also book the South Austin Jug Band and the Two High String Band, two acts that are part of this new generation of string grass. Seymour acknowledges that there's something going on here.
"The only other places in the U.S. that anything similar is happening are in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest," he reports. "There's nothing like this in the East or Midwest."
In Colorado, there are more bluegrass festivals than there are summer months. Acts from the Rocky Mountain state, like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, play a variation of bluegrass that's a lot less pure than some of the new Austin acts. But they've been around for a decade or so and have developed a rabid, grassroots following nationwide.
String Cheese played three sold-out nights at Waterloo Park last summer, headlined the Austin City Limits Music Festival last year, and return to the festival in September. In a way, the Colorado bands have filled the void created when the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia died in 1995. While the other members of the Dead tried to figure out what to do next, the jam-band scene, which had been growing steadily, kicked in like your first dose of LSD.
For more than a decade now, bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, and the Dave Matthews Band have drawn stadium-sized crowds. Fueled by the Internet, any roots act with a tendency to improvise has drawn a life-sustaining fan base.
The Continuum Remains Unbroken
The Yonder Mountain String Band, the Colorado-based group that headlined two nights at the Old Settler's Music Festival this year, are a perfect example of how the word spreads. The band's Web site ( www.yondermountain.com) drives home that very point.
"Taking bluegrass where it's never gone before, Yonder Mountain String Band has, in just four years, accomplished what many bands dream of achieving in a lifetime. Expanding on traditional bluegrass arrangements and ballad-oriented songs, the banjo, guitar, upright bass, and mandolin quartet is known for their high energy, creatively improvisational shows.
"The sound appeals not only to traditional bluegrass aficionados, but to acoustic music, jam-band, and rock & roll lovers as well. Whether plugged in or gathered around a single microphone, these four let it rip, creating dance-friendly and stunning performances. Though still a young group, YMSB has gained a venue-packing fan base, and along the way has garnered a phenomenal buzz."
It's fitting these bands follow in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead since the seeds of the group were sown in Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, which featured Garcia on banjo. Look beyond the tie-dye, peasant skirts, and dreadlocks of this new generation of jammers and their audience, and it's clear something genuine is happening. Anyone who dismisses it out of hand misses the point.
Of course it's not the same, but it's all part of a continuum. It may be a cliché, but it's true: The circle remains unbroken. Some are following in their parents' footsteps, others just feel it deep down in their soul. Isn't that the way it's always been?
The quiet, generally shy banjo player for Cooper's Uncle, James Dinkins, speaks in reverential tones about lessons he took from the Bad Livers' Danny Barnes. Meanwhile, the band's dreadlocked mandolin player, Tyler Balthrop, has taken to heart pointers from the Two High String Band's Billy Bright. It's not unusual for members of the Crawdads, Two High, and Cooper's to jam away an afternoon.
Delusions of Banjer
For ages, bluegrass was just another form of folk music around Central Texas. Touring acts infrequently stopped here, and the only place to hear it on a regular basis was at Artz Rib House on Sunday afternoons. Sure, there was the occasional festival put together by the Central Texas Bluegrass Association, but its success, by any measure, was mixed at best.
The Old Settler's Bluegrass Festival nearly didn't survive a flood at its original site in Round Rock, but it's grown respectable since it moved out to Driftwood near the Salt Lick. Only recently was "Bluegrass" dropped from its moniker, replaced with "Music."
According to festival producer Randy Collier, it will enable the festival to grow. Since the festival hasn't solely featured bluegrass acts for some time, he felt that it would be less confusing for his audience. Still, with a focus on bluegrass-informed acts, it's an important part of Austin's music scene and will be for some time to come. It should be applauded for bringing the likes of the Del McCoury Band to Austin on a consistent basis.
There's more bluegrass-influenced music being made in Austin these days than at anytime anyone can remember. From the Meat Purveyors' brand of musical mayhem to the Greencards (two Australians and an Englishman), who possess impeccable chops, and the marvelous musicianship of the Two High String Band or cloud of dust raised by the Weary Boys, acoustic music thrives locally nearly every night of the week.
Maybe the Austin scene is ahead of the rest of the country on this, maybe not. One thing is certain, however. No matter how much people complain about how much better it used to be around here, Austin and the music scene, at least from the musician's point of view, are still jamming.
South Austin Jug Band, South Austin Jug Band
Austin Album Sampler
Onion Creek Crawdaddies, Barn Burners & Bathtub Bourbon
Weary Boys, Good Times
Bad Livers, Delusions of Banjer
Meat Purveyors, All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail
Two High String Band, Insofarasmuch
Jammin' on the Web
Places to Go, People to See
Stubb's, Thursday, 6:30-8pm: Cooper's Uncle
Threadgill's World Headquarters, Thursday, 8-10pm: String Band Thursdays
Artz Rib House, Sunday, 2-5pm: Central Texas Bluegrass Association Jam
Acts to Track
Chatham County Line (Raleigh, N.C.)
Hackensaw Boys (Charlottesville, Va.)
Old Crow Medicine Show (Nashville, Tenn.)
The Wilders (Kansas City, Mo.)
Split Lip Rayfield, Never Make It Home
The Del McCoury Band, It's Just the Night
Ricky Skaggs, Bluegrass Rules!
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Grateful Dead, The Very Best of ... (due Sept.16)