Yo Brutha, where you at?

Bluegrass, old-time likely to remain fringe genres

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2008

It had been a long time since one movie or play had a large musical influence on American culture before the Coen Brothers made and released their instant classic, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Avowed haters of country music lined up to buy the soundtrack, which became a gold record before the movie even came out. Pretty soon, every type of music that had a fiddle or banjo in it became bluegrass, and people started treating a 50-year-old song ("Man of Constant Sorrow") like it was a new smash hit.

After 60 years of relentless touring, Dr. Ralph Stanley (who will be playing at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer this year) finally got some well-deserved and long overdue international recognition. All the little po-dunk working old-time, bluegrass and country bands got a two-year boost out of the deal, too, in the form of increased interest from club owners and the general live music listening populace.

A hilarious side effect of this phenomenon is the myriad of ways people request the song, "Man of Constant Sorrow." Every acoustic band that performed live over the last four years or so invariably has a story about how somebody in the crowd tried to request this quintessential song without knowing, a) What it's called, b) Who wrote/sang said song, or c) Anything about country music.

I remember playing a show in Brookings, Ore., a few years back with the Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band. It was Valentine's Day, and a serious two-steppin' country crowd was out with us all night at Rascal's Sports Bar (owned by a former NBA player whose name I have finally forgotten.)

This was the best-dressed and most well-behaved crowd we had played to in a long time, which made it even more hilarious when a 60-something-year-old lady in a red sequined dancin' dress came up and asked us if we'd play that song, "you know, Oh GAWD Where ARE You?"

Our stubbornness about learning that song probably cost us at least $20 in missed tips over the years. Live and learn.

Kevin Sandry, formerly of Portland's Foghorn Stringband, recalls an old guy coming up to their band from the dance floor and requesting that song, "Yo Brutha, where you AT?" Once again, in the interest of non commercial purism, the boys probably missed out on some serious revenue by refusing to learn (even though everybody knows it) and/or perform that song in public.

These requests have been falling off over the years, as you can imagine. Nothing lasts forever, right?

Well imagine our surprise at Rayme's bar in Wrangell last week while performing with the Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (formerly Bluegrass 101). While in Wrangell, we got a lot of "I don't really like bluegrass, but live music is live music" type of comments, which is fine by me. With this sentiment being quite prevalent in beautiful and hospitable Wrangell, we were indeed surprised when a local came up and not only requested "Man of Constant Sorrow," but said that he'd be able to come up on stage with us and do the singing. Now that's how to request a song. Nine out of 10 bands will say they don't know the song when it's requested, but how can you turn down someone who not only knows the name of the song, but can sing it, too?

True Bluegrass and old-time will probably always remain "fringe" genres of music that are best experienced live, which is probably OK with most of its purveyors and fans. I don't think there are many people who claim to make a living off playing this kind of music. But the love for and grassroots nature of this music will keep it alive for a long time to come, Hollywood be damned.

• Sean Tracey is a journeyman derelict and freelance hack with good people all around. Contact him at: crabgrassalaska@gmail.com.



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