The grass is always bluer …

“I don’t think much of it,” declares bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, when pressed to reveal his feelings about that other quintessentially American music, rock ‘n’ roll.

Fellow banjoist J.D. Crowe, however, has made a point of adding strains of rock — as well as gospel, country, blues and other sounds — to his brand of the mountain music. With his ever-evolving band, The New South, Crowe paved the way for such genre-bending whippersnappers as New Grass Revival and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

Even though rock ‘n’ roll is usually considered “modern,” whereas bluegrass generally has a more ancient ambiance, the music known as bluegrass came into the American consciousness only about a decade before the lascivious, pelvis-grinding genre known as rock ‘n’ roll began rattling roadhouse stages and shaking its way onto the airwaves. While mountain people had been playing what was often termed “hillbilly music” on front porches and at community dances for a long time, Kentucky native Bill Monroe invented a new, more structured approach and a new name for the rustic sound when he dubbed his group the Blue Grass Boys, in honor of his home state. Distinguished from the old-time string bands of the early part of the century by what musicians call its “timing,” bluegrass’s driving banjo rolls and rapid-fire mandolin chops belie the genre’s often-sad lyrics. Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys first took the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in 1940 — but prevailing wisdom in music circles holds that it wasn’t until 1945, when North Carolina banjo master Earl Scruggs joined the group, that what’s come to be known as the “high lonesome” sound was truly defined. It was around the same time that Monroe solidly came into his own as a singer, songwriter, mandolinist extraordinaire, and band leader.

Ironically enough, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself launched his recording career in 1954 with a rendition of Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” — one side of Presley’s legendary first single for Sun Records.

In any case, lucky Ashevilleans will get a chance to experience every shade of the bluegrass spectrum when Milton Harkey’s Bluegrass First Class festival returns to the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort for a lively weekend run. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and J.D. Crowe and the New South will grace the stage — along with such other luminaries as IIIrd Tyme Out, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Tony Rice.

In the bluegrass pantheon, Stanley ranks second only to Monroe himself. The banjo master began traveling the road to musical prominence more than 50 years ago, with his brother Carter — who died in 1966, at the age of 41, in a car crash. With Carter on lead vocals (he’s been said to have possessed “a perfect bluegrass voice”) and guitar, Ralph on banjo and chill-up-the spine high-tenor harmonies, The Stanley Brothers got their start playing high-school dances in their native Nora, Va.

“I was about 12, and Carter was about 15, I guess, when we started playing around with music,” Stanley revealed in a short telephone interview from a motel room somewhere in Oklahoma. “My mother played [the banjo] all the time, and we learned some from her. We were just mostly interested in playing on the radio, since we listened to it so much.”

In the early 1940s, the brothers achieved their hearts’ desire, making their collective name on radio station WCYB’s popular noon-hour “Farm and Fun Time” program, which could be heard in northern Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. (Around the same time, the show also featured such future bluegrass greats as Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.)

Stanley has gone on to appear on a whopping 170 albums — most of them with The Stanley Brothers and various configurations of his current band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. Stanley’s son, Ralph II — whom the banjo great affectionately refers to as “Two” — now plays rhythm guitar and sings with the band, and notables like Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley got their starts with the Clinch Mountain Boys, when they were around 16 years old. The group’s ambitious 1992 project — a double-CD set of bluegrass and gospel music called Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (Freeland Recordings) — swept that year’s International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards and garnered three Grammy nominations. Saturday Night, Sunday Morning boasted an all-star guest lineup — including Bill Monroe himself, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, George Jones, Tom T. Hall and Jimmy Martin.

Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel Records 1998) took things even further. The lush cornucopia of talent heard on the disc included Jim Lauderdale — with whom Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys went on to record I Feel Like Singing Today (Rebel Records, 1999) — as well as Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, Porter Wagoner, Kathy Mattea, Loveless, Yoakam, Krauss and Jones. And then there were a couple of real surprises: alt-country upstarts BR5-49 and Junior Brown, and the high priest of folk ‘n’ roll himself, Bob Dylan. “Bob Dylan did a fine job,” Stanley says. “He sang in my style and did real good. … I was glad to have him record with me.”

Stanley reveals that he can’t name a favorite out of all the albums he’s recorded. “I like ’em all,” he notes, adding that, for his own personal listening pleasure — in addition to “anything bluegrass” — he’s partial to George Jones, Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton. “I think country music ought to go back to traditional country, like it used to be, instead of rock ‘n’ roll,” he proclaims.

The honors bestowed on Stanley over the years include induction into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 1992 and an honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln Memorial University (that’s why he’s often referred to as Dr. Ralph Stanley). He played at the inaugurations of Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Dr. Stanley was the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Traditional Music Award, presented by President Reagan in 1995. “That’s the thing that probably stands out most in my career, in my mind,” reveals Stanley, “when the president gave me that award.”

Out of his countless performances, Stanley explains that he’s enjoyed playing in Japan most of all. “That was somethin’ else,” he notes. “They just go crazy over bluegrass over there. I didn’t expect to get that kind of reception overseas. When you play in the South, it seems like people have just heard so much bluegrass that they don’t get that excited about it. Now in New York City [Stanley recently played Carnegie Hall], they go crazy for it up there, too. Just crazy.”

Like Stanley, J.D. Crowe names playing in Japan as a highlight of his musical life. “The first time we went to Japan was probably the greatest thrill of my career,” he related in a telephone interview from his home in Lexington, Ky. “It’s like you’re a rock ‘n’ roll star. The first time we went was in ’75, and it was myself and Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas and Bobby Sloan [who comprised that heady incarnation of The New South]. We went over there for about an eight-day tour, and it was just unreal. Then we went back in ’79, when Keith Whitley was with me, and it wasn’t quite as hyped up, but it was still good.” Both artists recorded live albums in Japan. [Local bluegrass icon Ralph Lewis also has fond — if a little frightening — memories of playing in Japan, when he was a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the ’70s. “Mr. Monroe was motioning for the crowd to sing along on one song, and they thought he was motioning for them to come on stage. Thousands and thousands of them started running down the aisles, like water,” he remembers, adding that the band had to be quickly whisked away in a waiting car to avoid the bodily injury that can come from emphatic mass adoration.)

Born in Lexington, Crowe was first exposed to bluegrass in the early ’50s at age of 13, when he saw Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — who were then based in his hometown — playing at a local barn dance. “Man, when I heard Earl Scruggs, that was it,” he remembers. “I really didn’t realize what you could do with a banjo till I saw it in person and saw him do it. Nobody else has ever captured his style. And it just overwhelmed me, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do that!'”

Crowe had been playing guitar since age 5, but once he picked up a banjo, his prowess rapidly began to eclipse that of many seasoned players. Crowe soon caught the attention of now-legendary pickers Mac Wiseman and Jimmy Martin, each of whom had heard Crowe play on the radio. He began to tour with Wiseman during the summer while still in high school, and joined Martin for a short time in 1954, beginning a five-year stint with him in ’56.

“I was just in awe of everything and got to be around a lot of professional people, because Jimmy knew a lot of the stars and the artists there on the Opry,” Crowe recalls about those early days on the road. “So I fortunately got to play with professional people, and that helped me a bunch, as opposed to just going through the amateur ranks. It’s good to play with someone who knows more than you do, who can help you and show you some ropes.”

Crowe went on to become that same kind of mentor to many of the brightest stars on the country and bluegrass scene today: the aforementioned Douglas, Skaggs, Rice and Whitley, plus Don Rigsby, Larry Rice, Doyle Lawson and Gene Johnson. “You look for the best players you can possibly find, and you look for people that’s willing to work and willing to learn,” he notes.

A road-weary Crowe returned home to Lexington in 1961 and formed a group called the Kentucky Mountain Boys. (The Rice Brothers, Bobby Sloan and Doyle Lawson are slated to perform with Crowe at Bluegrass First Class, in a special reunion of the Kentucky Mountain Boys.) He took a day job in an industrial-supply house and played only sporadically. Then, in 1968, the band took what they thought would be a three-week gig at the Lexington Holiday Inn. The now-legendary stint lasted five years. “The owner of the Holiday Inn came down to one of the clubs we were playing one night and saw the crowds; he couldn’t hardly get in, it was so packed. And he asked us to try it at his place for a few weeks. I was a little skeptical of that, because this was the first type of string music that’d ever been in Holiday Inns. They always had these, like, ‘Johnny Lounge’ groups, or Muzak. … The first night we was there, they had to turn people away. And it just kept on mushrooming.” Crowe made his name at the Lexington Holiday Inn, as a host of music notables began to stop in while passing through the city.

In the mid-’70s — after a spell with The Country Gentlemen — Crowe drafted Rice, Skaggs and Douglas to form the first edition of The New South. Their 1975 debut CD, J.D. Crowe and the New South, caused a sensation with its inventive, freewheeling take on a genre that, until then, had been steeped in the staunchest tradition. “Oh, I got a lot of criticism when I started using the drums and amplifiers and that kind of thing,” remembers Crowe. But he says that approach — which changed the course of bluegrass music forever — was as much a pragmatic decision as an artistic one. “I did it for a reason, because when you’re playing a club, you’re catering to everybody. You’ve gotta be able to try things. You’ve gotta play what people want to hear, and you’ve got to kind of do things that, maybe, that you don’t want to do as much, but you have to do it. And I enjoyed it, too, because it was a challenge.”

In his 40-plus-year career, Crowe has released surprisingly few records. J.D. Crowe and The New South have recorded only five albums in their 25-year tenure. Their 1994 release, Flashback (Rounder Records), was nominated for both a Grammy and the IBMA’s top honors that year, and Crowe was named IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year as well. The band’s latest CD, Come on Down to My World (Rounder Records,1999) has received near-unanimous glowing accolades. Their first release in five years, it features some fresh new players and blends straight shots of country (Merle Haggard’s “Back to the Barrooms”) with alt-country (Townes Van Zandt’s scorching “White Freightliner”) and Crowe-style traditional bluegrass (his original “J’s Tune”). But what drives the disc, of course, is Crowe’s singular, soaring banjo style.

“I just do what I do and try to be real professional,” Crowe concludes modestly.

“Bluegrass is the sweetest word I’ve ever heard,” Bill Monroe has been quoted as saying. Ralph Stanley calls it “a rhythm and a sound you just can’t get out of your mind. It’s like no other music.”

What, by the way, would Stanley be doing if he weren’t a bluegrass legend? “Have you ever heard of food stamps?” he asks, with a soft chuckle.

The scoop

Blue Grass First Class runs Feb. 25, Feb. 26 and the morning of Feb. 27 at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort (1 Holiday Inn Drive, near Westgate Shopping Center).

The music runs 1-5 p.m. and 8 p.m.-midnight on Friday. That day’s performers will include Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, The Country Gentlemen, Mountain Heart and the Dunton Sisters.

Saturday’s music runs 1-5 p.m. and 7 p.m.-midnight; featured acts will include IIIrd Tyme Out; Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver; J.D. Crowe & The New South; Tony Rice, Larry Rice & Friends, and a special reunion of J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys (featuring Crowe, the Rice Brothers, Bobby Sloan and Doyle Lawson).

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