Jimmy Martin and the High Lonesome Sound
Over at CounterPunch there is an excellent article about a musician you may not know written by a philosophy professor who's thought about things along lines that never occurred to me before. It's an appreciation of "King of Bluegrass" Jimmy Martin, who passed away this spring, but author Michael Neumann unwinds Mr. Martin's story in to a nice piece on the history of music along the Appalachian folk music/country music/rock n' roll spectrum. He even considers Elvis Presley within the country music paradigm (one of my favorite party tricks) and the catalyst Elvis and the birth of rock n' roll turned out to be for the budding, northern Yankee folk music scene.
People think of bluegrass as more authentically old-time than "country music", and in a way this is true. But bluegrass is actually a modern music that didn't come about until the 1940s as certain musicians, such as Mr. Martin and his bandmate, "Father of Bluegrass" Bill Monroe, reached back and reworked older styles, including Appalachian folk music and fiddle tunes from Ireland and Scotland, elevating them with a professionalism and a virtuosity that set bluegrass very much apart from its folk music origins.
Michael Neumann's article examines bluegrass as the modern, professional music it is:
The sad irony of bluegrass music today is that what passes for uncompromising integrity is just the opposite, a compromise designed to sell records. True bluegrass, I'm convinced, is and always has been commercial music, commercial country music. Let me try and explain why I believe this.Jimmy Martin joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys (the seminal bluegrass band) in 1949, and they became one of the most famous vocal duos in country music history, Mr. Martin's high voice mixing with Mr. Monroe's tenor in what came to be called the "high lonesome sound". Today, any fan of folk, country, or bluegrass can name Bill Monroe as the father of bluegrass, but fewer know Jimmy Martin. Michael Neumann has some interesting ideas about why, which I can summarize like this: the folkies never got him.
Many of the bluegrass greats did grow up in humble cabins, way up in the mountains or off in the hills. They really did grow up with traditional mountain music. But traditional mountain music never was bluegrass, and bluegrass musicians, at least until sometime in the 1960s, shared two pressingly urgent desires. The first was to develop a new music, so demanding that only seasoned professionals like themselves could play it. The second was to parlay that music into a ticket out of poverty and out of the hills. Bluegrass music never was an expression of Appalachian folkways. It was always highly individualistic and aggressively competitive. Bluegrass musicians did not want to sit around the old homestead playing Child ballads; they wanted respect. And money: this was no betrayal of anything; this was a real need.
As an aside, I have no choice but to point out that Jimmy Martin was a dead ringer for our own Vitriolix, if only he were a little more country, and a little less rock n' roll...