Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Gateway Grass (or How I Caught that High Lonesome Sound)

Not everyone likes bluegrass music. But they should. Their lives would be richer and more fulfilled. When it comes to bluegrass there are really only two types of people; those who love the music and those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to love it. We all find our way to bluegrass in different ways and at different times. Some may have come out of the womb, been handed a banjo, and set out on the front porch for a pickin’ party. Other’s journeys follow less direct paths.

I grew up in northern Minnesota. It is not really known as the cradle of bluegrass. There weren’t many pickin’ parties going on when I was growing up. Mostly there were a lot of polka accordions in Lutheran Church basements. However, I wasn’t a stranger to acoustic-driven music. My dad had an old record collection and gave me a good education of early country, blues, and folk music. The pump was primed, but I hadn’t drunk from the bluegrass well.

My bluegrass awakening happened sometime around 1995 when I was 19 or 20. My buddy had bought some new music. We were driving around our hometown and he put on one of the new CDs. It was “Hand-Picked: 25 Years of Bluegrass on Rounder Records”. From the first note I knew that I was hearing something special. It felt like something new and fresh, but also like something so old and timeless that it was hard to imagine it ever had a beginning. It felt as authentic and real as picking up dirt from the field and breaking it in your hand. It was visceral. It didn’t pretend to be something that it wasn’t. It didn’t have to. My deep appreciation for the music started then and has only grown. Twenty some years later I am still discovering new bluegrass roads. Even some that aren’t too new. Someone really should have told me about Old and in the Way or Hot Rize earlier.

I’ve heard it said that what we owe is all that we have. So thanks to Rounder for putting out great music and for putting a bunch of it on a compilation with “2 CDs for less than the price of 1”. That’s a good value. Those two CDs were my gateway into bluegrass. The Old Home Place by J.D. Crowe and The New South is the first song on the first disc. If anyone asked me to quickly name a bluegrass song, it would be my first answer. Thanks also to my buddy Tim for buying some good music at Kmart. It was a solid purchase. I should probably share this with him someday.

So that is my bluegrass origin story. What is yours? What was your gateway into the music? Were you that baby on the porch or was it later when you caught the spark? It would be interesting to hear.

Where the cool fall nights make the wood smoke rise,



Interesting post, Chris. Like you, I grew up in the same area a bit earlier than you, but definitely a bluegrass desert . My introduction and appreciation developed because of a mandolin picker who frequented my college town, Saratoga, NY. That guy was Frank Wakefield, who was a fairly prominent musician in bluegrass circles and he eventually settled there, too. Anyhow, in wanting to emulate some of his playing, I got a mandolin and plenty of bluegrass books and of course a Rounder collection.

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Thanks for the response Dan. “Bluegrass desert”… I like that.

In fairness, it has gotten a lot better in recent years. All of sudden playing the banjo has become hip. It is not quite as hip as long beards and craft beer, but it is gaining ground. Everything that is good eventually has its time.

Most of my Aunts & Uncles on my Dad’s side (and many family friends) played or sang old gospel, country (louvins, wilburns, etc.), and liked Country Gentlemen,Jimmy Martin, & JD Crowe stuff.

Once I obtained my driving privileges I spent nearly every weekend up where they all hung out to play (about 100 mi N of where we lived) learning to follow along.

One Uncle gave me my first banjo and taught me how to run bass notes between chords on rhythm guitar (and my first G run)

In 1975, through the kindness of my elder relatives, I attended my first festival at Bean Blossom, saw The New South perform, and was hooked for good.

I still miss those times…

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