When it comes to bluegrass music, the term “first class” denotes dignity and tradition. This year’s Bluegrass First Class event promises plenty of that, along with more than a few progressive twists and a wealth of inspired pickin’ and jammin’ to boot.
The festival’s first day belongs to the Dunton Sisters and longtime favorites Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen, along with emerging stars Mountain Heart, Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, and a reunion of Lou Reid and Carolina. Saturday’s stars include the Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, the Harley Allen & Mike Lilly Band and newgrass pioneers The Seldom Scene (also with Lou Reid).
Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Reid is enjoying his second stint with the Washington, D.C.-based band. Reid has seen a lot of changes in the group during his 10 years with The Seldom Scene — a band that made its name by being anything but old-fashioned. The group’s latest release, Scene It All (Sugar Hill, 2000), is an uplifting musical event that honors the late John Duffey (founding member of Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen) with a collection of songs that includes Webb Pierce’s “Walking the Dog,” Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” and the Bill Monroe/Hank Williams composition “Blue & Lonesome.”
“The sound is different,” said Reid in a recent interview. “I think it’s a little more driving overall, which may lean it in some ways toward bluegrass. But we’re still capable of doing a little more modern stuff than just traditional bluegrass. It’s just the nature of everyone that’s playing, the members that are in the band now. We do a lot of different stuff, as you can tell on Scene It All.“
Ben Eldridge (another original member) plays banjo and guitar, Ronnie Simpkins plays bass, and Fred Travers plays dobro. Guitarist Dudley Connell, recently voted Male Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, brought the Bruce Springsteen tune “One Step Up” to the band’s latest effort.
“That’s something that Dudley has never really been known for doing,” says Reid.
Bluegrass, by the way, wasn’t Reid’s first musical love. “I was a Beatles fan,” he reveals. “When they struck I was about 9 or 10. Then here comes The Monkees, and I just wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I didn’t really like fiddling with banjos and stuff so much at that age, but it grew on me big time. I got involved with some friends at school and started playing bluegrass.
“I guess you end up going in the direction that you’re meant to go anyway, and that’s what happened to me. I just fell in love with music. I started playing a little of everything, guitar first, some fiddle, and then I started fooling with mandolin, because fiddle is tuned the same way and everything. It’s just a difference between a pick and a bow. I just wanted to find out what the mechanics were of all those instruments for some reason. I don’t know why I couldn’t just settle in on one. I should have been like [renowned flatpicking guitarist] Tony Rice and just stuck to one instrument,” he jokes.
But Reid’s versatility has served him well, landing him gigs with Ricky Skaggs, Vern Gosdin, Michael Martin Murphy and Vince Gill. And just for the record, he doesn’t have any problem with the term “utility musician”: “It’s probably helped me to cover a job in Nashville, because you can do more than one thing. And singing has pretty much gotten me work all through my life.”
Reid left The Seldom Scene in 1993 after six years, and started the group Carolina. That band had not been active for the last couple years — until event promoter Milton Harkey decided he wanted Carolina at this year’s festival, that is.
“I said, ‘Milton, I don’t really have a band.’ He said, ‘Well, do you think you could put one together?’ The next thing I know there are people calling me about bringing the band out of retirement. We formed a new band and Rebel Records heard about it, and they wanted to do a record and some shows.”
The new Carolina includes Gina Britt and Randy Barnes, veterans of the last two Carolina recordings, along with Ashby Frank and Jeff Davis. “There’s always a problem with pickers’ wives or girlfriends,” Reid sighs. “They view it as being something really nice, but they think their husbands can go play and be home at the same time. A couple of the guys left the band because after they got involved in the band [their significant others] didn’t like it. So there’ve been several different configurations,” he chuckles.
Reid thinks it’s important to support festivals like Bluegrass First Class to help put the genre in front of the public. “We have people out there, artists actually fighting for that type of music. Allison Krauss loves bluegrass and loves Ralph Stanley and stuff like that,” he says (bluegrass legend Stanley was last year’s headliner). “And of course, Ricky Skaggs, he’s from that Ralph Stanley school. He believes in bluegrass very strongly.
“I just saw Bruce Hornsby the other night on Jay Leno’s show,” Reid continues, “and they did a song called ‘Darling Corrie,’ an old number that Flatt & Scruggs did, and Bill Monroe did on that Big Mon album. So I guess it just takes things like that.” He also mentions the latest Coen brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, which features a soundtrack of bluegrass, gospel and old-time mountain tunes. “They’re out there trying to market the music, I guess. It’s hard. I just know that people love the music, but the industry will not open its arms to it fully. That’s the only way I can view it. I don’t know if we’re rebels or not — I think we just like to do what we do.”