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Doc Watson Remembrance

Posted on by pete

Doc can be said to be the greatest folk performer of all. He was 100% musical… everything he played and sang was clear with full tone, perfectly timed, and just plain sounded good. I heard him at his last gig ever… Merlefest this year, and sat behind him and the group on stage. Doc’s hands and voice were in great shape, but his mental decline showed.

It was probably just about 50 years earlier I’d first seen and heard Doc Watson, among the lucky ones who heard some of his earliest road gigs in New York City. At Gerde’s Folk City a venue in Greenwich Village, Doc amazed us all and touched our hearts.

Doc’s versatility and depth as a musician were quite amazing to me. He knew more verses of some songs than I knew existed, and he had a gigantic repertoire.

But the man himself was in some ways even more impressive than the musician. He maintained a very human, thoughtful and gracious persona both on and off stage. For a person born to illiterate parents, and with only a few years of schooling, he was so strikingly cultivated in the way he spoke.

I got to have many conversations with him over the years, though it took me a while to realize how to get on his level. After having a number of tries at “fan conversations”…. “You’re so great, your music means so much to me” etc. I finally connected with him talking about other things. Our first at-length conversation was about…. believe it or not… shirts. He was quite chatty about that, and was clearly more at home being “just a guy” than “a legend”.

Once the ice was broken, and he’d remember me from one time to the next, it was much easier. I still remember one time he called me Brother Pete. That was cool! We talked about all sorts of stuff. In one conversation when I mentioned evolution, he swiftly and sternly corrected me, clearly not believing in such a thing. I let that one go… no way I was going to tussle with him about evolution! And his (Jewish) agent, Mitch Greenhill, and I had a little chuckle recounting a time when I was there and Doc worked on Mitch for a while urging him to read the gospels.

One thing he was amazingly good at was running a jam session when surrounded by as many as 10 musicians. He was super-aware of the sounds around him, even if he didn’t know who was playing. He’d just say, “Let’s hear some fiddle now” right at the right time, and he could pull off that sort of spontaneity quite readily even in front of a large audience. Of course the musicians were super-tuned into him, so they could react quickly.

Once I was in a big jam with him at Merlefest when T Michael Coleman wasn’t there, so someone asked me to stick next to him and help him as needed. He asked me who was on stage and I told him, and he took it from there. I felt especially honored to be valuable to him that way.

There was just one time I heard him cuss, when I asked after his first set at a festival how the sound on stage was. After he told me (!), I brought the sound man over to talk to him, and the sound guy was very concerned to make it right for the second set, which he did. I was surprised that Doc didn’t make this effort himself, but came to realize he was so used to sound problems on stage he had given up trying to work it out and was prepared to just tough it through, as he must have done innumerable times.

Something that must have been strange for him sometimes was to be in situations where he didn’t know who was in the room with him. The year after Merle died, in the backstage trailer at a festival, he started having a pretty personal conversation with Jethro Burns about Merle and his problems, and his own grieving about his son — and several of us besides Jethro were there, knowing the conversation was intended to be just one-on-one. At the time I was not too well-acquainted with Doc, nor were others there, but no one left the trailer, the only air-conditioned place at this festival in Texas in July. So we just stayed silent and let them have their conversation. That was awkward, and I came to realize that Doc was regularly in such situations.

The poor man spent most of his last year alone, with his wife in a nursing home due to a stroke that left her unable to speak. As a blind person at 88, with failing abilities, this must have been especially hard to bear. When I spoke with him the last time, a month before he passed, he ached with loneliness for Rosalie. When I heard that he died, it didn’t make me anywhere near as sad as thinking of him in his grief and loneliness.

But Doc had a wonderful life. Though he often said he would have been glad to stay home and be a local musician, I know he really enjoyed and was proud of his performing career, and loved playing with the world-class musicians who were eager to be there with him. Coming off stage from that last show I saw, he was in a happy mood, humming to himself, and relishing how well one of the numbers went. No denying the travel over that 50 years must have been hard, but the music couldn’t have been better.

What gifts he gave us! Deep River Blues is worthy of being in any time capsule for what human beings could accomplish on this planet.

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An Up-Close Remembrance of Earl

Posted on by pete

Earl's surprise comment about Pete, on eTown!
Banjo Newsletter, May, 2012

Click here Click here for excerpts from the extensive Earl Scruggs chapter of Masters of the Five String Banjo, concerning melody and tone of the Scruggs sound.

Everyone has a story about the first time they heard him. When I was 12 or so, I was at my friend Jake’s apartment in the Bronx and Jake said, you like banjo, listen to this guy, and he put on “Shuckin’ the Corn” from the Foggy Mt. Jamboree album his brother had brought home from college.

I said, “That’s one guy?” It seemed impossible, too good to be true — by far.

Years later I calculated I was hearing 10 notes/second. “Shuckin’” remains my favorite recorded example of *any* music– partly for sentimental reasons as “my first Earl”, but also … it’s just so GOOD! From the brilliant tone and excitement of the opening 3-string “grab” to right hand adventures I’ve heard on no other recording, and the thrilling and daring no-pickup-notes top-speed start of the last break, followed by that impossibly-syncopated C7 roll that comes out just perfect… it’s a masterpiece easily, and just maybe a miracle.

At 14, I had started Seeger-style banjo, and two months later, in January 1961 I got to see The Man in person. A few things still stick out in memory:

* He’d always kick in with a few clean pick-up notes, that I could actually discern and knew how to play… Then came the barrage of rolls that spun my head around and filled me with joy and wonder. I came to appreciate this facet of Earl’s genius as a performer: By starting with something easy to follow, he’d hook the listener, then do his magic. Had he gone straight to note-barrage, he might have lost us… as hyper-technical players do sometimes.

* He seemed so quietly confident and pleased to be entertaining us. That satisfied look under the cool western hat of the Miraculous Magician made him that much more awesome.

* I heard him speak! He was by the stage autographing (I got mine on the back of the concert poster), and a fan was telling him how he was a much better banjo player than Pete Seeger. Earl said, “Aw, Pete’s a good guy.” I not only appreciated the sentiment, but this New York kid just loved the way he said “guy”, like “gaah”. He talks!!

* Flatt announced that their souvenir book included a page on “how to play Earl’s style”. Wow! But… Curses! The page was mostly *chord photos* and gave his tuning (G tuning!) but it had only a small part about the *right hand*. I eagerly read that thumb is 1, index is 2, middle is 3, and “1, 2, 3 might be a good starting point… and other ideas will come to you.” And that was all! In time I learned that Earl was out of his comfort zone trying to describe the mechanics of his style. It was not something he could access verbally. He could only *do* it, not describe it.

How then to learn the style? Not a shred of Earl tab to go from in 1961, a record player that couldn’t slow anything down, but an adolescent’s fixation on the impossible dream of picking like Earl. Catching on to the chord progressions of “Shuckin’”, “Earl’s Breakdown”, and “Flint Hill Special” got me some of the notes, and then it was trial-and-error, messed-up rhythm and many, many replays of the record, and finally it started coming…

By the time Bill Keith became the first to tab a lot of Earl’s solos, I’d already cracked a good part of the code. But every page of Bill’s tab had details that left me wondering how Earl’s right hand could be so darned clever… and I still wonder about that.

Earl Scruggs came to town, and Hot Rize was honored to share the bill with him at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium. Joan and I were personally honored that Earl paid us a visit at our home. Earl’s music has undoubtedly changed my life.

Pete, Earl Scruggs, and Tim O’Brien

It was about 30 years ago that I mustered the courage to call my idol and ask if I could pay a visit. John Hartford had given me his number and encouraged me. I’d heard that Earl was open to such things, and a journalist who’d interviewed him told me he’d heard Hot Rize on the Opry and liked us,.. so I deduced he had to think I was acceptable as a visitor.

At the time, Earl was suffering from severe back problems that kept him mostly in the house, and he seemed to welcome the company. I was in Nashville regularly with Hot RIze, and made a point to visit whenever I was around. I’d call ahead and Louise would say to call when I got to town. Then when I’d call, she’d say “Come on over.” I’d usually arrive in the afternoon intending to stay an hour or two, and we’d sit and chat. Often they’d feed me and I’d still be there on into the evening, and once they even invited me to stay over (pinch me, I’m dreaming). As I was leaving, Louise would say, “Come back.” Those times seemed like heaven to me, welcomed in the home of the man whose music had changed my life.

As a member of a bluegrass band that was traveling the country, doing TV shows, and dealing with the typical pressures of the road, I was avidly curious about the Flatt & Scruggs way of doing things. Earl would oblige, and I’d hear stories of this or that difficult bandmember (“one knife short of a full set” was one description), revered musician, or questionable promoter, as well as his and Louise’s opinions about the music industry, the challenges involved in presenting bluegrass music, and a veteran’s-eye view of the business I was learning.

Once I asked him if he still had the banjo he learned to play on. He got up from his chair and came back a minute later and handed me … a modest, very old and worn open-back banjo on whose skin head was carefully inscribed “Our Father’s Banjo” with the signatures of Earl and his four siblings. This was surreal… I was holding the instrument on which Scruggs style had been created! A quiet awestruck moment for me.

Sometimes we’d take out banjos and play, and that was surreal in a different way… picking Scruggs tunes… with The Man himself. On one hand it was as natural as could be, with such familiar tunes. But once in a while I’d notice I was thinking about *telling someone* about it, and would quickly snap to and refocus on the actual music. Earl complimented me once on my backup, which of course stuck with me. What had I been doing? Just playing a clean, full chop under him, and staying right with the timing.

Sometimes after we picked one, I’d ask him about a lick he just played. His standard reaction was to shrug and try to play it again, but it would come out different. Once he said, “I have no idea how someone could play a tune twice in a row exactly the same way.” I responded that, partly thanks to his book, there were now thousands of people who could play his tunes *only* one way – note for note from the tab. I know he found that baffling.

In the mid-80s I started work with Tony Trischka on Masters of the Five String Banjo. Naturally I hoped for a chance to interview Earl, but he declined. I let him know there was no way we could do the book without a major section about him and his playing, and that I would be handling that section. He was OK with that, and agreed to read through the chapter for corrections.

He only asked for two changes. One was a pretty minor change of a phrase. The other was his wish to highlight the role Louise had played in making his career possible. As the person originally responsible for booking Flatt & Scruggs, he knew how essential it was to have a diligent and formidable person in that role, and he wanted it known and appreciated that Louise was a key factor in the viability of his music.

A topic we discussed quite a bit over an extended period was Earl doing an instruction video. He and Louise gave it a lot of thought, and we would discuss its contents. I was thrilled when Earl said, “If I ever do a video, I’d want you to be the one to help me do it.” I was on “scout’s honor” (Louise’s phrase) not to discuss it, and never have until now… But though they got as far as meetings with a leading video company, it never happened. My best guess is that he was just not enthused with the role of “instructor”. When the early 60s Flatt & Scruggs TV shows came out on Shanachie, I realized that they would be do very well as his video legacy: all that good footage taken in his prime allows anyone to see what he was doing (think: “many replays, with stop-frame”). Then The Three Pickers came out, featuring excellent picking and fun conversation with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. Around that time he told me he had decided not to make a teaching video. Understandable decision. Sigh.

Partially inspired by Earl’s example (and I recall him saying he always wanted to play with Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain), I formed an experimental band with a clarinet, vibraphone, and drums. I played him a recording of Flexigrass doing “Foggy Mt. Special”, and he seemed to like it. I mentioned that not everyone in the bluegrass world appreciated this music, and he said emphatically: “Don’t let anyone tell you what you should be playing.” Flexigrass got to open for him at the 2004 Johnny Keenan Festival in Ireland, and a year or two later, he welcomed members of the band into his house for a nice jam.

Right down to the last times I visited Earl, there’d always be a small banjo in the big room where he spent most of his time. It had a short scale and no resonator, but he’d get a very nice and quiet sound on it, always playing without picks. Someone had given it to him during a hospital stay when a regular banjo was too heavy to hold. It reminded me of the section in his book about early 3-finger picker Smith Hammett, whom he’d known as a boy:

“I was not only fascinated by Smith’s banjo playing, but also by a little banjo he owned.” It had “approximately a nine inch head and the neck was about half the length of a standard banjo. It gave me a thrill to pick this banjo because I could hold it in my lap and be able to reach the chord positions… and pick just like the grownups did with their regular-sized banjos.”

Now on a typical visit, there he’d be on a big couch, his small banjo never too far away. Now and again he’d reach for it and pick something, usually quite fast. Typical tunes were Browns Ferry Blues, John Henry (in G, after the way he played it with Monroe), I’ll Fly Away, and one in C called Crazy Love. He’d get stuck on a tune and play it over and over. Then just as abruptly, he’d put it down again. It seemed almost like a pet to him, a companion. The big Granada was away somewhere, though he’d take it out for jamming.

I feel so fortunate to have had Earl in my life, and I tried to be a positive part of his. I told him many a time that if there was ever something I could do for him, I was eager to do it, though I could never repay him for how he had changed my life. I did get a few chances to be helpful to him and Louise, and I only wished I could do more.

In his quiet way, Earl seemed comfortable with and grateful for the respect and appreciation he received from so many. But he never seemed stuck on himself. He knew his limits as a musician, and whenever asked if he played melodic style or clawhammer style, would just say that he liked to hear them, but “I just play my own style.”… And did he ever!

Pete’s 22-page chapter about Earl Scruggs and his playing in Masters of the Five String Banjo is the most in-depth overview and analysis of his style ever published. Click here for excerpts.
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Earl Scruggs Obituary

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Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, May, 2012

A few hours after hearing of Earl Scruggs’ passing, a flood of thoughts and memories is with me… and I’m sure with many of you.

Quite a large number of musicians, from highly influential ones to unknown ones, can tell you exactly when they first heard Earl Scruggs on a record or on radio or TV, or live — and how it transformed them. How many people in human history, just playing a musical instrument, have caused such a powerful and widespread effect?

Earl’s unique accomplishments make a staggering list:

* There is perhaps no musician in history whose way of playing a particular instrument has been more central to the popularity of that instrument, for an extended time, in this case over a half-century… and counting. To this day, 3-finger style bluegrass banjo is generally called simply, “Scruggs style”.

* Perhaps foremost for B.U. readers: There are only two individuals without whom there would be no bluegrass music as we know it today. Their colossal careers both stretched well over a half-century. Bill Monroe performed from the 1930s into the 90s. Earl was a professional picker in the 30s and was still playing on stage through 2011 – a force in no less than nine decades. For all the contributions of so many other greats, these are the two men without whom “bluegrass as we know it’” just wouldn’t have happened.

* The instrumental pieces created by Earl (Foggy Mt. Breakdown, Shuckin’ the Corn, Earl’s Breakdown, Foggy Mt. Special, Ground Speed, Lonesome Road Blues and so many more) remain the most-studied and most-played banjo instrumentals, worldwide, just as they have been since the 1950s. Players struggle to play them “right”, or “just like Earl.” They represent familiar common ground for all bluegrass banjo players. This dominance of one person in creating the core repertoire of an instrumental style is unparalleled.

* Since the 1940s, Earl inspired untold thousands of people to start playing banjo so they could sound like him. In the 1960s his instruction book and record made that process much easier, if still difficult. With the advent of home video, Earl thought of doing a teaching video, and discussed it over a period of years with this writer, but the project never came to fruition.

* For all his greatness on the banjo, Earl’s influence as a bandleader and his expertise as both a 3-finger guitar player and harmony singer were linchpins in the Flatt & Scruggs sound that carried bluegrass far and wide as its preeminent band from 1948-69. The Foggy Mt. Boys’ ultra-precise, powerful-yet-relaxed good-humored music and presentation were a reflection of Earl’s and Flatt’s personalities and musicianship. The recent release of 10 hours of their early 60s TV shows establishes the down-to-earth genius and power of that band.

* The banjo Earl acquired in 1948, that he played for the next 64 years, a flathead Gibson Mastertone (1934 Granada), became the prototype banjo for use in bluegrass music, and the foundation for all bluegrass banjo designs since. It was late in his career that Gibson finally formed a relationship with the innovator responsible for decades of their banjo sales, and the Earl Scruggs model became the industry standard for a long period following. Earl was also responsible for such innovations as the hooks (sometimes called “pins” or “spikes”) used for raising the 5th string, the Scruggs-Ruben capo, and his well-known D-tuners (“Scruggs pegs”).

* When it comes to awards and lifetime-achievement designations, Earl received about any that can be named. But beyond those, his jaw-dropping recordings of just two tunes, The Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mt. Breakdown, heard worldwide over a period of several decades, will outlast any memory of specific awards.

* In any assessment of his music and influence, Earl was likely to point out the importance of the work of his wife Louise as the manager and general caretaker of his career. Their 58 years together saw them both rise from humble rural origins to the pinnacle of success in their field, as well as being the parents of three talented sons, with whom Earl joined in the Earl Scruggs Revue for the entire 1970s — one of the happiest periods of his life.

Earl’s first acquaintance with the banjo was at home in Flint Hill, NC, hearing it played by his father and siblings. At age four, shortly after his father’s death, he heard a blind man, Mack Woolbright picking a banjo and years later said he found the sound “thrilling”. He started playing his father’s banjo sitting alongside it before he could hold it, and at age 10 the oft-told “Eureka moment” happened, when he realized he was playing a smooth 3-finger roll. He came out of his room shouting, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” And…. he sure had!

Earl’s smoothness and clarity was never recorded until he was 22, but it’s clear from reports of others’ reactions that Earl’s musicianship was extraordinary early on. He performed on radio and with professional bands when still in his teens, and Dec. 8, 1945, just shy of 22, landed a prime gig with Bill Mornroe’s Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry — and suddenly became a sensation, often receiving equal billing with his boss.

Though 3-finger pickers were not uncommon in the Carolinas in the 40s, the Opry and the commercial record business at the time were a world apart and virtually unaware of that style of banjo playing. Within a few years other banjo pickers with similar styles were more widely heard, but Scruggs’ near-flawless, smooth and powerful technique and his catchy phrasings and nuances established him as the dominant force in banjo playing. His clarity and his tone, never harsh, no matter how powerful or fast… and to a great extent, his taste, economy, and keen melodic sense came together in a package of almost effortless-appearing supreme musicianship. With the success of the Flatt & Scruggs band, the exposure of his sound traveled the world.

Writers have gone to great effort to describe Earl’s style in words: Rippling, electric, hard-driving, corruscating, “lightning bolts from heaven”, machine-gun, evanescent… and that’s just a start. I ask you the reader… what words have you used to describe the sound?

As a man, Earl enjoyed his family and friends to the utmost. Earl and Louise’s home in Nashville was a welcoming place for many musicians, and his annual birthday parties were legendary. The folk and rock music taste of his sons led to a broadening of his musical ventures as well as friendships. He and Louise proudly enjoyed relationships with movie stars and celebrities as well as with friends and kin from “the old days”. For years, Earl would regularly enjoy the company of his buddies in the world of small-craft aviation, taking friends for rides and making emergency blood deliveries in rural areas. Many of the other aviators remained unaware or unconcerned with his stature as a musician.

Earl’s life was not without extreme setbacks and heartbreaks… a serious auto accident in the 50s on the way to his mother’s deathbed, causing the replacement of both hips, an unwitnessed single-plane accident hours after which he was found semiconscious on the runway, a 10-year period (the 1980s) with back problems so severe he was virtually unable to perform, emergency quadruple bypass surgery after a heart attack that fortunately occurred in a hospital, the unspeakably tragic suicide of his youngest son, Steve — and even in his 80s, a fall of more than 4 feet from the unprotected edge of a stage, his injuries causing another extended hospitalization.

Earl was by turns shy and loquacious, exacting and flexible, formidable and modest. His preferred mode was almost always “understatement”, especially in his public persona, his music, and even in his humor. He was comfortable being cordial and hospitable, and though aware of his accomplishments, wouldn’t be heard to brag or compare himself to other musicians. He revered musicians like Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson for their directness and musicality, and never seemed envious of others capable of playing beyond his limits. When asked why he didn’t play melodic or clawhammer style, he would just say “I like it, but that’s not my style.” Playing music with him was an exercise in, on one hand “trying not to think about who you’re playing with”, and the plain and simple fun of making music with a sympathetic and super-competent musician.

Earl was extremely appreciative of his fans and did not take them for granted. In later years, signing banjo heads and photographs and taking pictures with fans would occupy him for an hour or more after a show. There are even tales of star-struck musicians appearing at his door and receiving a kind welcome, such as Earl’s first meeting with a young John Hartford.

We who got to see him in person or interact with him are a large number — but a number that will no longer grow. We are the ones who as long as we live can say, “I saw Earl Scruggs.”

Pete’s 22-page chapter about Earl Scruggs and his playing in Masters of the Five String Banjo is the most in-depth overview and analysis of his style ever published. Click here for excerpts.
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40-year Country Cooking anniversary!

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First recordings of Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka, released in October, 1971.

The album 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals was Rounder Records number 0006, one of its first two bluegrass releases, that came out in October, 1971. It did well for the company in its early years, even becoming a Book of the Month Club selection, and reaching sales figures comparable to those of Hot Rize much later on.

Looking back, the album was something of a milestone, one of the first releases ever by a “Yankee” bluegrass band doing what they specialized in: creative instrumental bluegrass. The centerpiece was a number of twin-banjo arrangements Tony Trischka and I had worked up (“Theme Time”, “Farewell Blues”, “Big Ben” and several others, and it showcased the first general-distribution recordings by me and Tony, and of Russ Barenberg as well as early work of Kenny Kosek, and Harry Gilmore, then known as “Tersh”, and later known as Lou Martin. We had some original tunes (“Huckling the Berries”, “Armadillo Breakdown”), and a few other new tunes including the first recording of David Grisman’s “Cedar Hill”, Grisman’s first composition, and his first to ever to appear on record.

Despite primitive recording technology, the record sold well enough to encourage us, and within a few years all the band members were pursuing careers in music, which none of us had even dreamed of prior to making this record. That says a lot about what Rounder was making possible in those days!

While the LPs are long gone, a CD lives on, bolstered by cuts from our later albums, now called “26 Bluegrass Instrumentals“.

1971 was quite a year for bluegrass, exactly 25 years after the classic Monroe/Scruggs/Flatt/Wise/Watts band hit the recording studio. Other first rumblings that year were by Newgrass Revival, the Seldom Scene, the Country Gazette, the newly renamed J.D. Crowe and the New South, among others. Note that for the first time in bluegrass, the band names didn’t end with an “s”. Mountain-Boy hat-wearing bluegrass was entering a new stage. And here we are, 40 years later, and it all keeps evolving.

Thanks and congratulations, Rounder and my fellow Country Cooking alumni, Tony, Russ, John Miller, and Joan Wernick!


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Earl Scruggs at the Monroe Centennial (Part 3 of 3)

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What follows is reported here with some reluctance, and a measure of grief.

The eagerly-awaited performance of Earl Scruggs, Family and Friends, went off as scheduled at the Riverpark Center in Owensboro, the night of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. The band, including Randy and Gary Scruggs, Rob Ickes, Hoot Hester, Jon Randall, and John Gardner couldn’t have been more elite and expert.

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A Statement re Earl Scruggs at the Monroe Centennial (Sept. 13, 2011, Part 2 of 3)

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As a preface, I’ll point out that it has long been a peeve of mine (and many others in the bluegrass world) that Earl Scruggs has not always been given his due as a major driving force in the development and popularity of bluegrass music. This issue can and likely will be debated for a long time, but the more I learn about bluegrass history, the more I see that his contribution has been minimized by people who focus instead on Monroe — as the “father” (which I do think Monroe was) of bluegrass, and as the one focal point of the entire scene.

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Monroe Centennial in Owensboro, KY (Sept. 12-14, 2011, Part 1 of 3)

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I felt I could not miss this event, no matter how much it didn’t fit my schedule. It was a great time, with a lot of love, some fine music, and some special highlights that you’re bound to hear about sooner or later. Since a couple of them are somewhat momentous, and I’ve seen nothing on this list about it, I thought I’d share some highlights with you all, the hardest of the hard-core bluegrass devotees!

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Bluegrass in 2011

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I’ve continued to chew this last month on Chris Pandolfi’s thoughtful message to all of us in the bluegrass community, to the effect that the Stringdusters, in pursuit of a viable market for their music (so they can continue to stay in business and make a living), are turning to examples like Railroad Earth, whose souped up not-really-bluegrass plays to large audience of boogieing partiers… and would like that kind of music to be called “bluegrass” by the IBMA, so we can all make a viable living in this century.

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