Exploring America

By Mark Grabowski

Who here is ready for a history lesson! Anyone? Anyone?!
Well, since I am in charge here for the time being, history is what we are going to talk about, specifically, the history of bluegrass music. I can see some of your ears perk up, although they are undoubtedly situated on the heads of the individuals who already know everything I’m about to say, and could correct the many mistakes I am sure to make. Regardless, everyone stay with me: this lesson is worthwhile.
In the early 1940s, when the unified entity that was country music began splitting into different genres (western swing, honky-tonk, etc.), some folks wished to stick with the traditional aspects of country music– mainly, reliance on stringed instruments. Bill Monroe, commonly regarded as the father of bluegrass music, formed a band called the Blue Grass Boys, playing traditional country music, but with an energetic edge.
Today, traditional bluegrass bands consist of only guitar, five-string banjo, mandolin, fiddle, string bass (or electric), and a “dobro” guitar, harking back to those early masters. Progressive bluegrass brewed up in the late 1960’s, in which some artists began incorporating new elements into their sound– this is why the “traditional” moniker is needed… to differentiate those sticking with the original sound of bluegrass from the sound of its later-day “innovators.”
Still with me? Good, now let’s talk about why that little history lesson matters. From May 3 until May 11, WTJU (91.1FM), music station of UVA and beyond, has been in the midst of its yearly Folk & Roots Music Marathon. This year’s theme, “Looking Forward, Looking Back,” covers the genres Traditional Folk, Newgrass, International, Country music, and what we are talking about today, Bluegrass.
Tonight, May 9, the renowned Traditional Bluegrass band David Parmley & Continental Divide perform live at the Prism Coffee House, and their second set will be broadcast live on WTJU as part of this marathon. As this is Traditional Bluegrass, you can expect the simplest of instruments– guitar, banjo, acoustic bass– along with lead vocals and high vocal harmonies, the same elements that have characterized Bluegrass since its start.
If you know Bluegrass, then you know David Parmley, and you already have your tickets for the show. If you are not in the know, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to familiarize yourself lickity split with one of America’s great traditions from a group that epitomizes it.
Chances are you will like the group, but even if you don’t, you can tell all your friends later, as you polish your specs on your sleeve, that you were just at a great bluegrass show.
And really, who doesn’t want to be the cultured one?

David Parmley & Continental Divide perform at the Prism Coffee House, May 9 at 8pm. $18 door/$15 advance.