I want to like bluegrass. I have failed.

I want to like folkie bluegrass music.  I really do.  I love the artistry, love the sound of the mandolin.  I’m impressed by virtuoso playing.  I like the melancholia.  I love Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the old farts.  I like old country, The Carter Family, even Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn.  I want to like what’s coming out now.  I keep trying, I do.  But I keep getting bored.

I feel like I’m betraying my roots to say so.  But I can rarely get past a second listen of most bluegrass albums.  They’re so damned repetitious.  They emphasize the playing over the songwriting, over the words, and I ultimately can’t stand the way the same riffs come up over and over again.  And they bring to mind the folk clubs where I’ve seen these musicians.   They are staid, respectful places, full of intense listening, ponytails, very few whoops and hollers, and no dancing.  This isn’t what it was supposed to be about.

I was curious about what some women bluegrass players were up to, and I received in the mail some CDs to review.  Man, I wanted to like them, I really did try.  And I did, first listen.  Sometimes, I was blown away at the sheer energy and technique.  But as I played them again, I was just left sort of empty and even vaguely depressed by the fact that I wanted just…more. 

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Corinne West is a bluegrass player whose CD Second Sight left me neutral. Her musicianship–her picking–impressed me; her lyrics and the repetitious nature of the songs kind of…bored me on later listens. She seems sweet and sincere, likely kind, and this abundance of honey ultimately disinterested me.  Maybe I have too much punk in my background, but if I’m going to listen to bluegrassy folk, I want the smart, mean edge of Richard Thompson or the sheer transcendent voice of Sandy Denny.  I’ll want something truly melancholic, angry like Lila Downs.  (The contrast was apparent on West’s Spanish language song “La Macorina,” which seemed to be nearly recited, without feeling.  I kept thinking what that song would be with Lila’s sad silk tones).  A bluegrass purist would say, “Well, clearly you’ve just cited musicians that are hardly real bluegrass.”  That’s the problem, folks.  Bluegrass isn’t pure, ought not to be pure–it’s always been a big hodgepodge of the down and out backwoods rural culture.  It ought not to be held into artificial boundaries.  Corinne West is beautifully accurate, controlled, positive, and I wanted something to slip.

All that said, if you like extremely energetic banjo picking, she’s got it in a song like “Gandy Dancer,” where the notes scatter all over up and down; I just blocked out her voice and paid attention to the pickin’.  That’s the best way to approach music like this.  If you like pretty, check out “Second Sight,” with its “needle and its eye—yi–yi–“ refrain.  Each individual song demonstrates intricate prettiness, and is best played in a mix of more adventurous tones by other people.  As a whole, her CD becomes monotonous.Second Sight

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Shifting into a more country vein, let’s talk Rhonda Vincent.  Wow.  Now here’s a chick that scares me.  She is an “All American Bluegrass Girl,” with all that this may mean–she’s the real thing.  She’s patriotic as hell, she’s “proud of where she’s been,” which is Missouri.  She’s immersed in the Grand Ol’ Opry tradition, which is kind of cool, given the way country music seems to have let go of its bluegrass/true twang roots.  There’s a lot of Southern kick-ass defensiveness, and, as I said, people like this scare the hell out of me.  I have the same background, and they always seem to be pissed off at me.  I think that Rhonda would be, too–somehow I don’t think this is a lady who’d move to Denver and drink espresso in the chrome coffeehouses the way I like to do.  So….I respect Rhonda Vincent.  She’s a true believer–she’s not saying this All American crap to get over–she really, and I mean really, supports the servicemen while picking like a madwoman.  There’s also the occasional gospel, as on “Jesus Built a Bridge to Heaven,” a pleasant, rocking song that is nice but unexceptional.  But she never loses her  energy–a song like “Ashes of St. Augustine” on All American Bluegrass Girl skips along all of the hard-driving spectrum.  In fact, many of her songs on this CD hit this breakneck pace–so much so that it’s exhausting.  Rhonda, calm down once in awhile, hon, we know you can play.   So I was thinking.

            Rhonda takes a more melancholic tone in Good Thing Going, her new CD on the trad folkie label Rounder Records.  Her voice and its slippery twang take off on “I’m Leaving,” even getting into a little yodel.  The song “I Give All My Love to You” is a country ballad, but pretty boring (“it’s you and me together/but today I’ll make you mine”–yuck!).  “Just One of Kind” starts out with the line “within the prison of my soul/locked within my troubled mind” and goes on to talk about the “plain old fashioned boy.”  Okay, I’m thinking that this is a bid for big Nashville success, and as good as all that vocal work and fingerwork I have to say, er, please no.  Give me that old style mania.

I’ve found myself wanting to hear a simpler kind of country music.  And as much as I like Gillian Welch, I don’t mean her.  She’s too sophisticated, urban.  I’m meaning the gritty, pissy stuff.  Gretchen Wilson, sometimes Shelby Lynne when she’s not getting all slick on us.  Sure, the technique might not be crazy good and in your face.  But at least the girls got some balls. 

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