Shades of Bluegrass

Gillian Welch and Split Lip Rayfield celebrate -- and upend -- tradition at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Bluegrass is one of those slippery genres born in the rich, dark loam of Rural Americana. You could call it the bastard child of the Grand Ole Opry, the white man's backwoods blues, or even country jazz. But however you try to pin it down, the music dodges any such constraints. Like an unruly but lovable mutt that's been kicked out of the litter to fend for itself, bluegrass is the real outlaw country. Largely ignored by commercial radio, it's a road-warrior art form played by do-it-yourself lifers, establishment outsiders who take their songs directly to the people. After decades on the dusty touring circuit, a few elders have emerged as bona fide superstars. Senior string-pickers Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, and Del McCoury now essentially define the genre's tradition with their old-timey styles, which are precisely what the next-generation players try to emulate — and defy.

The producers of San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the premier event of its kind on the planet, understand this dynamic. Which is why, for their fifth year of programming, they're packing five stages with no fewer than 50 widely varied bands for two full days of free, outdoor concerts. And while it might be curiously appealing to see the genre's icons or even high-profile no-grass performers like Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris, experience says that the festival's honest-to-God action will be found on the smaller stages, among the nonplatinum indie names such as Gillian Welch and Split Lip Rayfield. These younger musicians stand out for their radical personal approaches to the bluegrass aesthetic: Welch and her longtime partner, David Rawlings, who's an authentic grits-and-bacon-style six-string slinger, play in astonishing slow-motion, while the Split Lip quartet leans toward a tough-as-nails punk-derived sound. Though their respective musics explore polar extremes, both acts manage to give props to the genre's traditional values while embracing its renegade DIY spirit.

Welch and Rawlings represent the revolutionary downtempo side. They sing memorable melodies and strum purdy geetars as if they were kicking it on the back porch trading yarns about how times used to be so much simpler way back when. Their beautifully arranged, evocative songs (from mining anthems to ballads about that classic killer morphine) draw substantially from the well of old-folks Appalachian culture. But it's not the Nashville-based musicians' expert writing that has made them the darlings of the recent altcountry/folk/bluegrass revival; rather, it's their languid delivery, a deep-dark and slooooow — yet scrupulously measured, steady, tuneful — aesthetic that makes their music exceptionally dreamy, almost beyond belief, compelling simply because it's so different from anything else out there.

On the opposite end of the knee-slapping spectrum, there's Split Lip Rayfield, a strings-on-fire foursome of cheeky finger-pickers from Kansas, whose guitarist, Kirk Rundstrom, insists in the group's press materials that “we're not really a bluegrass band.” Fans of the latest album, Should Have Seen It Coming (Bloodshot), may disagree. The punk element in Split Lip's attitude is arguably just an update on old-time's rebel roots. Combine this with four-part, twangy harmonies and tightly woven, furiously paced banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and gutbucket bass jams, and you've got hellbent, gen-u-ine bluegrass, plain and simple. Plus, ain't no one can deny the rough-country grooves of tracks like “Truth & Lies,” “Lonely Man Blues,” and “Redneck Tailgate Dream.”

Indeed, there's tradition in the songcraft of these here next-generation players, even while they're staking claims on original terrain, not unlike their forebears. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Gillian Welch, Split Lip Rayfield

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