Of Bluegrass and Beatlemania18 October 2013
If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing The Lonely Heartstring Band play a set, then you know that they have widely surveyed the song catalog of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. This must have made choosing just a handful of these compositions for their new EP a tough call. The record is a hit in my book, but one of my favorite Beatles covers failed to make the cut. I’m therefore pleased to offer it here as something like a bonus track:
Over time, music gets encoded into a culture in two ways: either it gets passed along and reinterpreted as folk music or it gets canonized and transformed into a classical form. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first U.S. tour and the efflorescence of Beatlemania stateside, the Fab Four’s legacy remains a work in progress. It’s safe to say that we’ll still be listening to the Beatles in another fifty years, but will we be singing their songs around the campfire or studying them in college?
The notion of some ancient, ink-stained wretch like Yers Truly pondering such a question with regard to the Beatles would have seemed beyond strange to the mobs shaking to “Twist and Shout” in the 1960’s. After all, back then, even the Beatles’ songs moved up and down the charts, enjoying great popularity to be sure, but also eventually being supplanted by the Next Big Thing. That feeling of evanescence is worth keeping in mind as you have a listen to this:
That is the Charles River Valley Boys playing a reunion set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (yep, the same event where we shot our videos of the Lonely Heartstring dudes). The venerable group was on hand to receive a Heritage Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union. During the Folk Scare of the early 1960’s, the Charles River Valley Boys were the primary flag bearers for bluegrass in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. After recording a few albums of straight-ahead bluegrass and traditional string band music, the group got the notion to make a record featuring Beatles tunes done in the style of bluegrass. Thus the album Beatle Country was born.
That was in 1966. Think about it: when the Charles River Valley Boys recorded “Help!”, the song had no comforting patina of nostalgia. At the time, it was simply part of the soundtrack of the moment. So though we recorded our videos with the CRVB and the LHB but a few hours and a couple hundred yards apart, and though they cover many of the same Beatles tunes, we have to imagine that the two groups bring very different perspectives to the music.
Beatle Country was certainly not the first instance of a bluegrass band covering pop songs. As noted bassist, songwriter and journalist Jon Weisberger has pointed out in commenting on one of my earlier posts, “Bluegrass acts were doing songs written or popularized by other acts, including from genres other than country music just about from Day 1.” That said, I’m having a hard time digging up an earlier example of an entire bluegrass record devoted to the work of one pop act. If anyone can point me toward dicographical entries I have missed, I’m all ears. Reno in Vegas: The Rat Pack Meets Bluegrass! has a nice ring to it, or perhaps Cline Time: The Music of Patsy and Curly Ray Cline.
Since the appearance of Beatle Country, this kind of concept album has become a veritable subgenre of bluegrass. Everyone from AC/DC to Journey has gotten the bluegrass treatment. There have been not one but two entire albums devoted to faithfully translating The Moody Blues into The Moody Bluegrass. Back when there were still record stores, our local emporium had a bin devoted just to cover projects such as these.
Whether or not such genre splicing is your cup of tea, I urge you to pay attention to The Lonely Heartstring Band. These guys may be Beatlemaniacs of the first order, but they have too much musical talent and too much of a feel for bluegrass to define themselves strictly as a Beatles cover band. Indeed, the most electrifying track on their EP is their devilish take on “Ole Slew Foot” (which you can download along with the rest of the record from Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-like basis— click here to see details).
“Old Slew Foot” has plenty of bluegrass credibility, having been played by the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and in the hands of the Lonely Heartstringers, the song sounds like it was brought down from the mountains. But guess what? The earliest recording I’ve found of “Slew Foot” was made by Johnny Horton in the late 1950’s. Horton’s take on the song is pretty much straight-up rockabilly. At the end of the day, then, what defines music as bluegrass has less to do with origins than with sound. Perhaps that’s what Tony Rice (a picker as adventurous and iconoclastic as any) meant when he recently concluded his moving speech at this year’s IBMA awards with this statement: “It’s our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.”
The performance by the Charles River Valley Boys demonstrates one way that bluegrass continues to “grow and flourish, “ and that’s by families passing the music on from one generation to the next. The “Boys” are joined onstage by Ashley Lilly, the daughter of guitarist Everett Alan Lilly. Everett Alan is in turn the son of Everett Lilly, half of the seminal bluegrass duo The Lilly Brothers. Seeing young Ashley on stage with her dad is a poignant reminder of how few degrees separate any of us from the “true vine” of bluegrass.
Yer Pal— Curly