Essay written for Annie Leibovitz's American Music book
Know this. Bill Monroe was a hipster, and bluegrass, the music that he invented, is the Southern rural equivalent of bebop. Like jazz, it's an experimental art form that, at it's best, balances on a knife edge, constantly pushing ahead musical frontiers while never turning its back on the centuries of tradition that gave it life. Monroe used to talk about the "ancient tones." Echoes of Ireland and Scotland and Africa. He believed that they could be heard in the hollers of his native Kentucky if only you knew how to listen. Then and only then are you ready to pick up a mandolin, a fiddle, or a five-string banjo and bring the music down from the mountain.
When I arrived in Nashville, in 1974, I fell in with the Texas Crowd, a motley crew of expatriates drafting behind the Outlaw Movement of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. We were loud, proud, well read, and we didn't keep regular hours. We imported our own culture, hand-creasing our hats and congregating in each other's homes to cook chicken-fried steak, chili(without beans), and Mexican food. When we went out, we traveled in packs, occupying the entire front bar at the Exit/In or the back room at the Gold Rush, across the street. We lived on the margins of the mainstream music business, but we saw ourselves as above all of that. It was our own little hillbilly version of Paris in the twenties, and we were the new bohemians. As cliquish as we were, we occasionally encountered kindred spirits in the night. There were songwriters from both Carolinas who shared our left-of-center vision. There was the Memphis contingent and various assorted refuges from New York and L.A.
And then there were the bluegrass players. The had their own thing going on, up by the park at the Station Inn and downtown at the Old-Time Pickin' Parlor. From a distance they appeared unapproachable and aloof, stoic when they performed onstage, communicating by means of sideways glances and barely perceptible nods and winks. Up close, they were even more intimidating, speaking softly when they spoke at all, in a language all their own. In a word, they were cool…and advance level of cool that we had never encountered before.
We were fascinated. So we hung out and we listened and after a while, when we kept coming back, night after night, and we didn't request "Rocky Top" or "Fox on the Run," the players began to warn up a little. They appreciated the serious listeners scattered among the tourists and they cultivated that audience on a personal level. We got it and they got that we got it. Most of the paying customers were out-of-towners who had been told that if they went to the bluegrass joints they could hear "real country music" played by real live hillbillies. They hooted and hollered when the banjo pickers and the fiddlers landed their solos, but they didn't truly appreciate the dark beauty in the music, the dignity and artistic integrity that oozed from every pore of the musicians. They were clueless, but they paid the cover charge and therefore they were welcome.
Not that we were ever insiders. As much as we had lived and breathed music and art for all our lives, in the bluegrass world we were merely voyeurs, relegated to the sidelines, where we could only look on in awe. We were fans and patrons and some of us would become real aficionados, but never in our wildest dreams would we step up to the microphone and take our solo, our fifteen seconds of glory, and then slip back into the rhythm section to the barely discernible approval of our peers. These were musicians who had made a conscious decision to dedicate their lives to an art form and lifestyle that offered only two promises: that they would never master their craft and that they would never get rich. The were the purest artists that we had known or would ever know.
I flirted with the high lonesome sound from the time I began making records in the mid-eighties. I built my first two albums around the drone of a bluegrass G chord. My third and bestselling record to date, Copperhead Road, opened with a sampled bagpipe and attempted to marry mandolin to hard-rock guitar sounds. It included a track recorded in London with the Pogues and another with the "newgrass" super-group Telluride. With each record I rocked a little harder and toured a little farther afield, and I continued to shamelessly steal from every exciting new form of music that I encountered, but again and again I returned to bluegrass for inspiration. I lost my way out there for a while but when I found the trail again my old friend Peter Rowan was waiting to lead the way.
It was Pete who showed me the Tao of bluegrass. He had been a Bluegrass Boy and toured with Monroe and stood on the mountaintop at the Master's side and listened. It was Pete who took me out to meet Bill Monroe himself during a break in the recording of Train A Comin' and then, a year later, invited Bill to hear Pete, Roy Huskey, Jr., Norman Blake, and me play the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. That night I played guitar behind Bill Monroe while he and Pete sang "Walls of Time" and "Uncle Penn." Somewhere in the middle of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," it dawned on me. I was doing it. I was no longer a spectator. I was standing behind the Master and I was playing bluegrass.
It took a few more years for me to summon up the audacity to actually write and produce a record for traditional bluegrass instrumentation, but when I did I returned to the source. "The World Famous Station Inn," as the sing out front declares, was and is Bluegrass Ground Zero, so I suited up and showed up on Tuesday nights to sit in with the Sidemen, and amalgamation of players from some of the best bands in bluegrass. They were patient and gracious teachers to a man. The rest of the week, I'd hunker down at the house in Williamson County and write. When the songs were finished, I recruited the best bluegrass band on the planet to help me make The Mountain, a record that to this day stands as the most profound learning experience of my career. Later that spring, when I took the stage at the Station with the great Del McCoury Band for the first night of a sold-out six-night stand, there were whispers that I had "gone bluegrass" and would never touch and electric guitar again. Some things never change. There's always somebody in the crowd who doesn't get it.
That night stands as the pinnacle of my career, and even today when I listen to the board tapes I'm amazed that I was ever part of that music that I once considered out of my reach. We stayed up all night reveling in our triumph and accepting congratulations from friends and families.
Then the sun came up, and in the light of day I looked in the mirror and I knew that even if I could fool some of the people that listened to bluegrass some of the time, I was still a tourist, too restless to focus on the music that I loved most in the world to ever keep up with the men and women who had dedicated their lives to it.
I toured the world with the McCoury band and then immediately went to work on Transcendental Blues, a return to recording with my own brutally loud little four-piece band, and it felt good to be home. There was one new bluegrass song that I had written during the Mountain tour, so I put together a bluegrass band of my own. For two tracks, I traveled to Dublin to record with Sharon Shannon and her band, some of the best traditional musicians in Ireland, and was not surprised, this time, to find that the experience, as great as it was, made me neither Irish nor traditional. I did manage to incorporate some of what I learned in my adventures into what I do best and to keep my ears and my heart open for any new sound that I might encounter in my travels. And then I hit the road again.
So, what am I looking for out on the long straight highways and across the ocean?
That's easy, I'm just listening for the ancient tones, and once I've learned to listen, I mean really listen, I'll come down from the mountain and make a record as loud as New York City and as lonesome as the Cumberland Gap. Then I can die, Believe that.