You know how music can bring back a flood of old memories, emotions and even certain smells or tastes? Building Pandora’s Progressive Bluegrass station totally did that to me. I was introduced to the genre by way of San Francisco’s beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – an annual weekend-long concert in Golden Gate Park featuring traditional bluegrass bands, non-traditional bluegrass bands and everything in between. I’ve been attending almost every year since its 2001 inception. Because the event always happens the first weekend of October, just listening to David Grisman, Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers, Carolina Chocolate Drops or Robert Plant & Alison Krauss brings back all kinds of autumnal vibes – the shedding trees, a crisper coastal air and darker beers.
The first time I’d ever heard there was a music genre called “progressive bluegrass,” I admittedly envisioned the guys in Rush playing banjos and fiddles. Up until then, the only time I’d ever heard the word “progressive” used in relation to music was when describing prog-rock. Bob Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 – this was around the same time that The Byrds’ first album was released. So if adding amplifiers and drums to folk created the term “folk-rock,” why wasn’t progressive bluegrass simply named “bluegrass-rock?” While curating the songs on this genre station I learned why. Not all progressive bluegrass involves the simple addition of electric guitars and drum kits. In fact, most bands comprising the genre still adhere to playing classic acoustic instruments. But what’s progressive here is that these musicians have decidedly moved beyond the purists’ parameters of the traditional stringband blueprint to explore new and different possibilities.
Take for example Nickel Creek. On their Grammy awarded fourth album This Side, they cover “Spit on a Stranger” by the 1990s indie rock band Pavement. Of course that’s not traditional bluegrass by any means. Had they just stuck with recording “Orange Blossom Special,” the 1938 fiddle song written by Ervin T. Rouse, it would have been. But an entire population of pickers and grinners has played that old song countless times. If covering more contemporary songs with old-timey instruments is to be labeled progressive, so be it.
But there’s still a lot more to progressive bluegrass. Back in the late 1960s, Dillard & Clark were taking that sun-soaked California country-rock sound and stripping it down to an acoustic, mountain stringband foundation with the occasional pedal steel thrown on top. And then there are guys like Ricky Skaggs. Well actually, there isn’t anyone like Ricky Skaggs. As a seven-year-old Kentucky kid, he played mandolin with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs – three pioneers of traditional bluegrass. But he’s also played with Bruce Hornsby, The Raconteurs and Phish; creating music that’s really only bluegrass in texture and tone.
Speaking of Phish, one thing that likeminded bands have in common with bluegrass as a whole is the penchant for improvisational jamming. In this way progressive bluegrass is a great middleman between traditional stringband styles and good old, festival-friendly jam-rock. The blending of jam-rock and bluegrass can be traced back to the early 1970s when the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia picked up a banjo and recruited musicians from the bluegrass band Muleskinner to form Old & In The Way. Along with David Grisman on mandolin, Peter Rowan on guitar, Vassar Clements on fiddle and John Kahn on bass, the band would pick new life into old traditional standards like their namesake tune as well as “Pig in a Pen. But they’d also cover The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and “Panama Red” by The New Riders Of The Purple Sage. It works both ways. Get a bunch of clean-cut musicians playing traditional bluegrass songs, and it’s considered traditional. But should those musicians play the same songs with longer hair and freakier clothes like Clarence White, Nashville West or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, then it’s considered progressive bluegrass or “newgrass.” But all this hair-splitting and nitpicking aside, we invite you to hit play on Pandora’s latest genre station, Progressive Bluegrass. Because really, what’s in a name? At the end of the day, it’s all about the music.