Monday, February 18, 2008

Bluegrass Coverfolk: The Joe Val Festival
(Covers of Elvis, Waylon Jennings, The Grateful Dead, Steve Goodman, Gospel and more!)



By most popular definitions, bluegrass isn't folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, today's bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it's true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the "folk" forms of American music.

Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers -- all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn't help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music's poor country cousin. The covers you'll find featured in today's post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you're not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.




To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960's New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it's a good way to whet one's appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it's a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past two years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter (Claire Lynch, Miller's Crossing) to gospel (The Bluegrass Gospel Project, David Parmley), from old-school (Seldom Scene) to new school (The Grascals, Steep Canyon Rangers). It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it's a genuine pleasure to share their work with you. (PS: I've saved the best of the bunch for the bonus song, so don't forget to read all the way through.)


As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. If you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

Today's bonus bluegrass artists stand alone, because they deserve it:

  • The SteelDrivers, Higher Than The Wall (orig. Patty Loveless)
      Though this song was first recorded by Patty Loveless on Your Way Home, Higher Than The Wall was written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton of roots/blues bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, so it's not technically a cover. But discovering this band at this year's festival was by far the most incredible musical experience I have had in months, and I just couldn't resist sharing this live track. I cannot recommend any music higher than the new self-titled album from The SteelDrivers. Heck, I'm so impressed, I'm going to totally break the cover mold: here's a second original song of theirs from that same live session.
  • The SteelDrivers, If It Hadn't Been For Love (original; live 11/2006)


    Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: fuzzfolkie Mary Lou Lord, covers of Donovan songs, and a review of SXSW 2002 Best New Artist Caroline Herring's new album Lantana. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

  • 26 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    Lonesome On'ry & Mean - written by Steve Young, believe recorded before covered by Waylon

    boyhowdy said...

    Thanks for the "correction," anonymous!

    Note, for readers: the world of originals generally assumes that the first recorded version of a song is the "original", though even this can be a shaky standard, one which we'll surely revisit here on Cover Lay Down.

    As such, the question of originals/covers is trickier in the country/bluegrass world, where it is much more common for an artist to 'sell" their songs, but later record them on their own. Wikipedia isn't clear on which came first, so I'm going to leave the post as-is unless anyone can find me some evidence either way.

    Clay Eals said...

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    Joel @ Postmodern Sounds said...

    I agree with your characterization of the problem of "originals" and "covers" in the country and bluegrass world. The concept of cover only really fits (for me) when talking about genres of music where the songwriting and the initial recording are inextricably linked. I find this mostly in the rock and singer/songwriter traditions. For country and bluegrass, as well as (particularly vocal) jazz, songs are much more open to (re)interpretation without having to deal with the baggage of someone else "owning" the song. When Tony Bennett records jazz standards, no one calls them "covers."

    In this post, I'd really only call "Viva Las Vegas" and "Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean" covers. Even though they were both popularized by singers other than the writer, they're the only songs here that are very specifically associated with one specific performer.

    boyhowdy said...

    Joe hits upon a "popular as vs. original" standard that I like (and use), and it's one I've been talking about (off-blog) with some of the other coverbloggers; not to tip our hand, but I'm hoping that we'll be producing something relatively definitive sometime in April which will address this issue with more depth.

    I'll say more about this when the time comes, to be sure. But in the meantime, readers take note: because in MY experience, the Grateful Dead version of Don't Ease Me In is popularly definitive, I would count that song in my own list of "which are true covers" in today's post, while Joe does not.

    If nothing else, doesn't this anecdotal evidence tells us that the Steve Young/Waylon Jennings question is just the tip of an iceberg, here?

    Joel @ Postmodern Sounds said...

    I must admit that my failure to include "Don't Ease Me In" in my list of which I considered covers is because I'm not familiar with the song, either by the Dead or by anyone else.

    To take it a step farther, what about the case of the local honky tonk band I saw Friday: they did BR549's cover of Charlie Daniels's "Uneasy Rider." A cover of a cover? What about "Cocaine Blues," which they called a Johnny Cash cover but I heard as being very similar to Hank III's version?

    Does it matter that I don't even know who wrote either of these songs? Cash didn't write "Cocaine Blues"; I know that for sure. Daniels might have written "Uneasy Rider," but I have no idea without digging out a CD with it.

    LynchieFaeAberdeen - aged 58 said...

    Thanks for a load of great music - especially the SteelDrivers.

    Why aren't the biggest band in the world yet?

    Their music and vocals are magnificent...best I've heard in a long long time...and I'm really old.

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