MAny bluegrass songs walk through graveyards. It’s part of why they seem like the oldest stories, even though most were written after World War II. Among these is “Walls of Time” by Bill Monroe, the “father” of the genre, and Peter Rowan, who grew up in Wayland and played guitar in Monroe’s band.
But “Walls of Time” isn’t like typical bluegrass gospel songs, in which mortality is at worst the final trial before the eternal joy of heaven and at best the happy prelude. Instead of golden slippers and pearly gates, there are two names “carved upon the tombstone”— a dead woman and the lover whose body survives but whose spirit is in the ground beside her. The lover is convinced that her voice “moans and whispers through the pines,” but the pleasure such confidence might bring is tempered by the prospect of lonely years ahead. And that confidence itself is belied by an imploring prayer: “Lord, send the angels for my darling.”
It seems like the pair was destined to write such a song, straining against timeless tropes. Monroe was the genuine bluegrass article, from the farm fields of Kentucky. And Rowan was the Yankee carpetbagger who hit the road with the master. He was one of the first in a long line of Boston musicians who brought invention to a style whose practitioners struggle with the weight of nostalgia.
That spirit of creativity remains potent in Boston’s bluegrass community today. It will be on vivid display Jan. 25 at the Sinclair in Harvard Square, when Rowan comes back to town.
Alongside will be three blistering young acts, two of which were born and bred in Boston and have reimagined bluegrass so completely that the label verges on inappropriate. Another locally sourced band, Della Mae, was expected to show but bowed out in order to attend the Grammys, where they hope to take home the prize in the bluegrass category.
Joy Kills Sorrow and The Deadly Gentlemen are the hometown pair, two modern string bands that draw on a crop of Berklee College of Music alumni. These days they play major festivals and venues nationwide, but they came up performing Cambridge spots such as the Lizard Lounge, Club Passim, and the Cantab.
Both bands have their own style, but they fit into a new wave of groups playing intelligent pop music with bluegrass instrumentation. Their original songs don’t go in for the usual bluegrass themes — railroads, mountain hollows, good girls, repentance — instead focusing on urban life, love and desire from a woman’s perspective, and the frustrations of work. Rejecting the standard of two-part harmony and verse-chorus-solo structure, both bands fashion layered vocal and instrumental sounds. Whereas in most bluegrass groups the musicians itch for their solo turns at the microphone, each of the considerable talents in these bands is subsumed into the ensemble. And to the extent that bluegrass is a vocal form, Joy Kills Sorrow and The Deadly Gentlemen are doing something entirely alien.
The final entry at the event is a duet featuring Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage. Eldridge is a fine singer and guitar player with the Punch Brothers, the pop-grass titans. Lage is an exciting jazz guitarist, though his art — in any solo you might detect shades of bebop, jazz fusion, Bach, old-time fiddle tunes, and even metal — cannot be captured by one genre. Last summer, Eldridge and Lage played a memorable evening at the Museum of Fine Arts courtyard.
Though Rowan will represent the old guard on Jan. 25, it will only be by virtue of age. He will feel right at home amid the musical adventurousness.
In this way, he is different from his onetime boss, Monroe. Monroe was undoubtedly a forward-thinking artist who drew from the strands of what came before — blues, gospel, work songs, prison ballads, Scots-Irish folk song, waltzes — a new vision. But then he stopped. Though he wrote original music throughout his life, he did so largely within the confines of an ideal from which he refused to stray.
Rowan was and remains a different breed, a stalwart of the “old school” — an idiom that serves as the title of his most recent album — but also eager to let in new pupils. Since leaving the Bluegrass Boys all those years ago, he has roved the world’s folk and popular music traditions. He gained his greatest fame from two collaborations with Jerry Garcia, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the progressive bluegrass outfit Old and in the Way. He has special affinities for Buddhism and the Southwest, which inspire the yearning cowboy songs he writes and sings with endless conviction and melody-bending falsetto.
Indeed, it may have been that sense of adventure, that sense of being in another place and time, that captured so many here when bluegrass and Boston first met in the 1950s.
It began in the city’s erstwhile Combat Zone, where the Hillbilly Ranch was the center of the nascent scene. It was an imagined world. For 20 years, the house band was led by three West Virginians: Bea and Everett Lilly on guitar and mandolin and Don Stover on banjo, first as the Confederate Mountaineers and later as the Lilly Brothers. They stormed into the heart of Union territory, where they caught Rowan, and many more fans, with open ears.
Outside the Ranch was the very image of urban decline, a vice-ridden quarter in a shrinking city. Inside, wood paneling created the illusion of a mountain cabin, and the dance floor was set off with a fence such as you’d find in a cattle corral. This place and the acts that performed there inspired innovators such as Bill Keith, a local player whose banjo technique reinvented the capacities of the instrument. Another was Joe Val, whose name lives on in the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham. He helped to establish bluegrass as not only a distinctive genre but as a sound that could be applied to other kinds of music as far from bluegrass as the Beatles.
In the late 1970s, the Ranch was torn down. The essence of it, a down-market venue and a favorite of truckers and sailors, doesn’t exactly live on. In a 1965 folk music newsletter, an employee of the Ranch, now a lawyer in Cambridge, wrote, “According to the United States Navy, more contact with V.D. are [sic] made here than anywhere else in the area.” The Cantab is the closest descendant, particularly on summer nights, when the heat has set into the basement and the bathrooms fume a mixture of chemical solvent, human sweat, and decay. The Sinclair, a polished joint with a celebrity chef, Ticketmaster fees, and an aesthetic more industrial than Appalachian, is the furthest thing.
But while the scenery looks different on this side of the walls of time, the inventiveness of the Boston bluegrass scene is recognizable, and it extends the full range of what these days is called roots music — folk, old-time, European string traditions, honky tonk, the nebulous territory of Americana, which is like country without the guilt.
It extends also to those artists who don’t get major record deals, big stages, or awards nominations. There is none of the glamour and all of the blue-collar grind — long drives, unsatisfying pay, and heavy bags slung across backs. Still, everyday musicians here can make a living, and not just by slavishly repeating what their predecessors have done. In small, no-or-low-cover rooms — Toad in Porter Square, Midway Café in Jamaica Plain, Atwood’s in East Cambridge — skilled bands are playing music you’ve never heard before, every night of the week.
There are challenges. Many of the strongest players, most adept at breaking musical barriers, come here to attend Berklee and the New England Conservatory and will eventually move on to Nashville or New York. And the breaking of barriers is limited to the music itself. If 100 bodies cram the Cantab for its Tuesday night bluegrass shows, 95 of them will be white.
But everyone is invited. And for those who attend, there is much to enjoy. Some of it comes plated in Grammy gold, but more of it is stained with cheap beer. Some voices moan and whisper through the pines, others through subway tunnels.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.