Dear Mr. Parks,
My work as an 18-wheel big-rig truck driver (Peterson) requires me to stay attentive for long stretches of time. Since I abhor the stimulants used by other practitioners of my trade (coffee, caffeinated tea, and soda pop), I like to pack in a case of CDs with fast-paced music to keep me alert on my long hauls. Obviously, in this line of work, grogginess might be fatal in its extremes. Could bluegrass work for me?
Since I have so few opportunities to correspond with truckers or people who make their living in travel, I’d like you to help me iron out the details of a little study I’ve been working on.
In recent years there’s been a rash of up-and-coming acts scoring notoriety in the bluegrass community that all have road- and travel-related band names. In fact, in the past decade or so, bands that play in the American vernacular styles of bluegrass and/or old-time music and allude to travel in their names have garnered far more critical and popular acclaim than the great majority of bands with names that do not. So, why is this?
In all its aspects, early bluegrass was manifestly about ancestral and geographical identity. Successful bluegrass acts of yore would name themselves by applying the following rote formula:
“[Proper Name (us. that of the band leader/lead singer)] and his/her/the [adj., descriptive of the weather of the region of Proper Name’s birth, or a color] [land formation/other geography particular to said region] Boys.”
This tradition comes straight out of first-generation bluegrass acts, bands that were most productive from the mid- to late-1940s through the sixties, roughly (Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, and of course the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys). An example of a name that wouldn’t fly during that era would be The Soup of the Universe Band, which, it’s plain to see, fails on several levels as a bluegrass name in the traditional style. You don’t know who’s singing, where they’re from, what the weather and terrain are like there, or what their favorite color is. But today you’ve got bands like Open Road, Blue Highway, and in old-time music The Reeltime Travelers, whose music clearly indicates that they are sufficiently steeped in their respective musical traditions, yet who eschew the standard naming formula used by their predecessors in favor of these curious, unidiomatic travel-related names.
Here’s the dubious part: these are some of the most popular acts on the scene today. Open Road was nominated for the Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Blue Highway has won Album of the Year, Emerging Artist of the Year, and awards for instrumental performance at IBMA over the past five years. And the Reeltime Travelers were the Showcase Band for the 2002 awards. So to me, the casual appreciator and inexpert traveler, it seems like there’s some intrinsic connection between these travel-related names and success in bluegrass today.
I’m not saying there’s any kind of plot. But bluegrass and old-time have always been about travelling, so what gives? Why are these newer bands so improbably à la mode? Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a tune recorded in 1949, was first popularized as chase music in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and it’s been widely circulated that Bill Monroe wrote "Blue Moon of Kentucky, " (now the state song of Kentucky), sitting in the window seat of his touring limo in 1940 (technically a pre-bluegrass point in time). This is where you come in, Jeff. What I’d like you to tell me is if there is some sort of concept-driven music being made by these newer bands that somehow nails the experience of traveling, that experience you know so well, in a way the old-timers couldn’t. You, Jeff, professional rambler that you are, are in a unique position to confirm or refute this theory, and so I beg your assistance. These discs should be played with a bass level of about five. Treble of about seven. Godspeed, Jeff, and send any response forthwith.
CDs to take on your next long haul:
Bill Monroe: The Columbia Sessions
Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys: Foggy Mountain Banjo
Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys: Good ’n Country
Open Road: Cold Wind
Blue Highway: Still Climbing Mountains
The Reeltime Travelers: Reeltime Old-time Stringband Music