I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards has added a separate Bluegrass category to this year's nominations. Bluegrass is booming, what with everybody from Dolly Parton to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' movie, O, Brother Where Art Thou?, cashing in. Brian Kneuven, the barkeep at Kaldi's downstairs, my contemporary music mentor, first alerted me to the rebirth of Bluegrass when he started noticing the McCoury Boys or Jerry Douglas, the modern master of the Dobro, sitting in with Phish.
On days when I show signs of wanting to retreat to an afternoon of Benny Goodman instead of hearing new sounds, Brian shakes his head at me and says "Jer' Bear's dead now." This is usually enough to snap me back into exploring the present instead of going home and wallowing in Western Swing.
I took to Bluegrass like a duck to water, myself, back in 1971, when I walked into Aunt Maudie's (then at 1207 Main St.). Jim McCall and Junior McIntyre were partnering a Bluegrass band called The Appalachian Grass. On the night that I first saw them, that hard-driving banjo, the chucking of the mandolin, Jim McCall's perfectly nuanced rhythm guitar and the high vocal harmonies made the music move like a fast locomotive. I was just like those prim church women in the picture show, after they heard the Foggy Mountain Boys. I was struck dumb.
People always tell me I should get out more, but what happens is I get out and I don't go back. A few months later I already had a job singing with the band, and we were on the way to Florida.
David Cox was from Wolfe County, Ky., and was playing mandolin at the time I started singing with the band. Jim McCall and mandolin player Earl Taylor were natural partners. They had been playing in Baltimore with a banjo player named Walter Hensley. Their singing was good — keen and high — but their personalities didn't jibe. Earl Taylor turned out to be the first Bluegrass performer at Carnegie Hall. Then he got a major record label. His Stony Mountain boys, their names and their stories, are nearly as plentiful as Bill Monroe's. I don't remember the circumstances, but Jim and Earl must have been on the outs because David was playing mandolin and occasionally singing harmony, his face contorted, his embarrassment obvious.
"I moved to this country several year' ago," he said in as natural, as charming a Southern accent as I had heard in awhile. "When we first come up here, we came down that hill and looked at Cincinnati. I started a'crying and buried my face in Daddy's shoulder. 'Oh, Daddy,' he said, 'Please don't stop here. Go on further up the road.' "
They eventually did move to Middletown for good, but not until after the farm years in Campton, Ky., were really over. There, David had chores to do and got paid a nickel a week to do them. "What did you do with your nickel?" I asked David.
"Well," he said, tapping out a fresh Marlboro, "I rode in the back of the wagon to town, and I went to this little place with a jukebox. I put my nickel in, and I played a Bill Monroe tune like 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' or 'Rose of Old Kentucky.' Then I found the wagon and rode home till the next week. I did it ever' week like clockwork."
"Didn't you ever want candy or something?" I asked, but he scowled at me like I'd uttered heresy.
"What would I be a'wantin' with candy when there was Bill Monroe?" he replies. "Of a' evenin', I set outside on the front porch and watched my mother pick the guitar. She taught me 'Rosewood Casket' and some old Carter family songs."
When he talked about his mother, he invariably picked up a guitar and started strumming melodies of murder and mayhem. I never knew any picker to like morbid songs as much as David did. He would play "Maiden's Prayer" at the drop of a hat, with a droning sound on the mandolin or kill off "Pretty Polly" with a curl of his lip. Then he'd turn around and play a song he called, "I'll Be With You When the Bass Are on the Nest," to demonstrate his sensitive side.
Jim McCall, originally from Virginia, traded a guinea hen and a nest of eggs for his first banjo, then hung it up for good once he'd heard Walt Hensley. Junior McIntyre's dad, who was known as Boatwhistle, played bass in the band Jim, Earl and Walt eventually formed in Baltimore. Junior would go along in the car. He was too young to go in and listen, but he heard the music from outside.
"The banjo was the loudest," he said, "and there wasn't any doubt in my mind that that's what I wanted to play."
I knew the feeling. Today we have Bluegrass players who are as slick as seals: the bandmembers Chris Thiele, Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek are virtuosos on their instruments in a way the Appalachian Grass didn't need to be. Jim, David, Earl and Junior were the real thing.
One of my favorite stories about that band was when they went to New York to be on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scout Show.
"How did you like New York?" I asked David once.
"I didn't care for it a bit," he said. "It made me nervous, all them horns honkin' and people screamin' and all them people a'wantin' money. You know what?"
"What?" I asked.
"Ever' one of them people knowed we was from out of town!" ©