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Cherryholmes and Bluegrass Power Chords

18 October 2010

Autumn may be the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but here at Second Cousin Curly, it’s also “Season of Cherryholmes.” I’ve already expounded on the Cherryholmes juggernaut (click here for that entry), but I’ve got lots more music to share from this talented group’s appearance at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival.

Here’s a brand new tune from the ensemble’s latest album, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. The composition— co-written by BJ Cherryholmes and his younger sister Molly— is called “Tattoo of a Smudge.” The title refers to the permanent ink that collects on the sides of musicians’ hands after they have been signing a lot of merchandise at shows. Doesn’t that clear things up? I’ll let the music speak for itself—

Listening to  Cherryholmes going to town on this tune got me to thinking about a musical trope that has become a fixture in contemporary bluegrass, something that I call the “bluegrass power chord.”

Before we go any further, let me anticipate a question that might come up with regard to the following clip, namely, “Was I drunk when I made it?” Friends, in truth, I was stone cold sober, but this doesn’t exactly get me off the hook, since I’ll be the first to admit that the video makes very little sense. After gassing on this summer about the pernicious influence of percussion in bluegrass and other burning issues, I had decided that my proper place was behind the camera. I know I should have staid the course in this regard, but the current topic required a fair number of examples, and once I had settled upon a musical show-and-tell format, I didn’t see how I could avoid putting my ugly mug— Oh, just have a look and see what you think…

I’m less concerned about looking like a lunatic* here than I am about failing to make my point. You see, having committed to treading the boards once more, I was determined at least to get through the whole exercise as quickly as possible. As a result, I raced through the various musical excerpts, making it very hard for even the attentive listener to grasp my point.

Be that as it may, I still believe there is a case to be made here. Watch Sandy Cherryholmes hitting those chords in the first video clip, or turn the dial to the Bluegrass Channel on satellite radio or some other outlet for contemporary bluegrass, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Whereas bluegrass up until around 1970 was marked by a steady backbeat punctuated by the occasional lick or fill from the rhythm guitar, today’s music features surging rhythms that are often quite tightly arranged. That caesura that you hear in Ricky Skagg’s version of “Walls of Time”— the little hiccup where the whole band seems to take a collective breath— is a common stylistic device for contemporary groups like The Steeldrivers and Blue Highway.

As the carol goes, “Do you hear what I hear?” If so, when exactly did bluegrass get that extra rhythmic punch? Where did it come from? Send me your thoughts, and should you try to make one, let me know how that “bluegrass turntable” works out. A word of caution, however: try it out first on your old Bay City Rollers LPs and keep those bluegrass heirlooms on the shelf.

Yer Pal— Curly

*Self-flagellating postscript: Precisely why I was drawn like a moth to immolate myself on the flame of exhibitionism is a matter I’ll be taking up shortly with my bluegrass therapist, Dr. George Dickel.

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4 comments

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  2. [...] band has become one of the most popular acts in bluegrass. I’ve already commented on the band’s technical virtuosity and its puzzling mix of piety and razzle-dazzle. There’s one key ingredient to the group’s [...]


  3. [...] to bluegrass blogger Second Cousin Curly, this fierce, Grammy-nominated tune is based on the Sharpie smudges left on musicians’ hands [...]


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