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BLUEGRASS MUSIC

BLUEGRASS MUSIC. The story of bluegrass in Texas is at once a mirror of the development of this genre at the national level plus minor influences from Texas music, particularly western swing and contest fiddling. It is generally agreed that the bluegrass sound came into being when the three-finger banjo of Earl Scruggs was added to Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys band in Nashville in 1946. Monroe was already a major star of the Grand Ole Opry and Scruggs’s hard driving banjo gave uniqueness to his sound which complemented Monroe’s high tenor vocals and percussive mandolin playing. Listeners in Texas and over much of the nation heard this new sound live over clear channel WSM in Nashville and on Monroe’s records. Monroe’s style and songs were a part of country music at the time, thus country bands everywhere began including Monroe songs in their repertoire, though most lacked the instrumentation, especially the banjo to duplicate his sound.

In Texas in the late 1940s a young Tom Uhr (pronounced Ore) typified many groups across the state by singing a few Monroe songs in shows around San Antonio. Unlike most, however, though guitar was his main instrument, Uhr was inspired, after seeing Scruggs in person, to learn some three-finger banjo in order to play one or two numbers with it on his shows. At the same time in the West Texas town of Dimmitt, the three Mayfield brothers formed a band devoted to reproducing the style of Bill Monroe exactly—the mandolin, fiddle, open-stringed guitar rhythm and harmony singing—except that they had no banjo. It is truly ironic that they are acknowledged as being the first Texas bluegrass group while lacking the one thing which most fans and scholars alike identify as an absolute requirement for any bluegrass band, i.e. the five-string banjo. The Mayfields were invited to open for Bill Monroe on a West Texas tour in 1950, and for the first time they got to hear and jam with a real live banjo player.

Some 200 miles away in Tioga, a young Joe Hood was trying to learn the five-string banjo, but the Mayfields had no knowledge of him or of Tom Uhr. The early bluegrass groups in Texas were regional in character with no awareness of bands or individuals in other regions. The most graphic evidence of this came in the early 1960s when there were separate groups in Dallas, Houston, and Tyler named the Bluegrass Ramblers, each unaware of the others. Abilene’s Black Mountain Boys, who campaigned for George Herbert Walker Bush in his unsuccessful 1964 senate bid, believed they were the only bluegrass band in the state.

The label “bluegrass” was not used for the music until the late 1950s. Since Bill Monroe and groups that played similar music were a part of the national country music scene, those semi-professional groups in Texas who played this style saw themselves as country musicians. The means that they employed to promote their music were identical to those employed by other aspiring country groups and artists. The Mayfield Brothers, along with former Bill Monroe sideman Bill Myrick, became regulars on the live Saturday night KSEL Jamboree show broadcast out of Lubbock in 1949. In 1950 they appeared on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport and were offered repeat performances there as well as a recording contract. The group’s prospects were cut short when Bill Monroe invited guitarist Edd Mayfield to join his Bluegrass Boys in Nashville. Mayfield did three different stints with Monroe and returned to revive the Mayfield Brothers in between until his death on the road from leukemia in 1958.

Also in the mid-1950s the Dixie Drifters were appearing on Houston Jamboree over KNUZ in that city and were written up in Country Song Roundup. In Dallas in the late 1950s a bluegrass group known as the Country Cut-Ups was appearing on Big D Jamboree. Both of these groups released 45 rpm records to sell at performances and sought airplay from country deejays. The Cut-Ups also had a weekly television show in Tyler and released an LP in 1964.

The 1960s saw the rise of the urban folk music movement which had an impact on bluegrass both nationally and in Texas. This created tensions that pulled bluegrass in new directions away from its country roots. The mainly urban and younger devotees had disdain for the commercial country music out of which bluegrass had sprung. At the same time, country venues and country radio shows no longer hired or promoted bluegrass bands. Thus new means of supporting the music had to be found and soon came to the fore, enabling a dramatic growth in the number of bands through the 1970s.

Carlton Haney’s Roanoke Bluegrass Festival, which took place in Virginia in 1965, is generally credited as the first multi-day bluegrass festival, and the trend spread rapidly. By the early 1970s festivals were springing up in all parts of Texas. Festivals drew bands and individuals from various parts of the state, thus providing a way for musicians from different areas to network, swap licks, broaden their fan base, and even to recruit band members. Tyler-based Hickory Hill met in the parking lot at the 1979 Kerrville festival. Performances by top touring acts also tied Texas musicians and fans into the national bluegrass scene. The Salmon Lake and most bluegrass festivals, following the national trend, forbid alcohol, but Kerrville proprietor Rod Kennedy stuck to the convention established by his older Folk Festival and allowed beer. This attracted many of the younger bands but caused many traditional fans to stay away.

Bluegrass associations formed in the 1970s, again following a movement born in the East. Such associations put out a newsletter to inform members of bluegrass-related activities. The rise of non-commercial FM stations presented an opportunity for some local bluegrass devotees to do a weekly show, most often on the weekend, where bluegrass could be featured and news of local groups and events could be aired. While such programs in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio came and went, others have survived. The Sunday night bluegrass show on the FM station of East Texas State University in Commerce has aired since the mid-1970s, and deejay Dave Rousseau has held forth on commercial stations in East Texas since 1983, first in Henderson and then in Tyler. Austin has had a bluegrass show over community radio station KOOP since 1995.

The larger bluegrass festivals drew attendance from various parts of the state and beyond by booking both national acts as well as better-known Texas acts such as Holly Bond and the Bluegrass Texans, the Bluegrass Ramblers of Texas, Austin-based Grassfire, Tom Uhr’s Shady Grove Ramblers, and others. Each of these bands, like the bluegrass associations, was based in or near large metropolitan areas of the state. These better-known Texas bands were semi-professional, with most members maintaining a day job or other source of support. Some acquired the trappings of full-time professional groups on the national circuit such as a bus to travel to gigs, band uniforms, and photos and recordings to sell. Their recordings were mainly self-produced. Stoneway Records in Houston did produce albums by a couple of bluegrass groups, but these recordings did not lead to a recording career for them.

Smaller festivals, bluegrass associations, newsletters, and radio programs remained regional in scope—North Texas, Central Texas, South Texas, and West Texas. The membership of bluegrass associations was comprised of as many musicians as fans, so that finding bands for programs and small festivals was no problem. Each of these bands, like the bluegrass associations, was based in or near large metropolitan areas of the state. Because there was little profit in playing weekend gigs, there was rapid turnover of personnel in many of the bands, particularly in the sidemen. Many sidemen could list six or more bands they had played with. Bands which had longevity were built around one or two individuals, usually a lead singer. One of the commonest phenomena was the family band consisting of a dad, sometimes a mother, and several children—a time-honored configuration surviving to this day in bluegrass, both nationally and in Texas. An offshoot of the family band, the brothers band, was also common, though less so today.

Some of these support devices for the music had a very short life, while others turned into long-term institutions. The South Texas Bluegrass Association folded in 1995, but a new organization by the same name was founded in Corpus Christi in 2009. The Southwest Bluegrass Association of Dallas has been in continuous operation since 1974, and the Central Texas Bluegrass Association based in Austin celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2008. Some associations sought a somewhat broader fan base. The Southeast Texas Bluegrass Music Association was founded in 1976 with the goal of promoting bluegrass and old-time music. The Amarillo-based Panhandle Bluegrass and Old-Tyme Music Association began in 1979. Feeling that bluegrass alone would not be a sufficient draw, promoter Rod Kennedy advertised his Labor Day event in Kerrville as a Bluegrass and Country Music Festival and included country and western swing acts in the lineup for the first few years. The Kerrville Bluegrass festival had a seventeen-year run, while its older brother, the Kerrville Folk Festival survives to this day. The Salmon Lake Bluegrass Festival, on the other hand, celebrated its thirty-ninth annual festival in 2015.

Though Texas bluegrass musicians were mainly semiprofessional in nature, playing weekend gigs they could drive to in a few hours, some went on to national careers. Edd Mayfield and several others served as members of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. The Dallas-based Stone Mountain Boys won the band contest at Bill Monroe’s Beanblossom Bluegrass Festival in 1968. Their banjoist Alan Munde had already joined Jimmy Martin’s band and later formed the progressive band Country Gazette along with Joe Carr of Dallas. Banjoist Scott Vestal from the Dallas area joined Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver in 1985, along with Russell Moore, and has been based in Nashville for many years where he does session work as well as operating a recording studio. Russell Moore, originally from Pasadena and a youthful member of Johnny Martin and the Bluegrass Ramblers of Texas, went on to be the lead vocalist and guitar player in IIIrd Tyme Out, seven times voted "Vocal Group of the Year" by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in the 1990s. The father and daughters group the Whites from Wichita Falls entered mainstream country music in the early 1980s, settled in Nashville, and had several major country hits. It is well-known locally if not beyond that the Dixie Chicks performed as a bluegrass band on the Texas festival circuit before going on to country music superstardom. More recently Karl Shiflett’s Big Country Show, a very traditional group formed in 1993, broke onto the national scene after the millennium and now works mainly in the East. The Austin Lounge Lizards, a band whose satirical material is played in bluegrass style, has toured nationally with a loyal cult following for two decades. Matt Menefee of Tyler won the national banjo championship in Winfield, Kansas, in 2000 at age seventeen, and became a member of a national touring band, Cadillac Sky.

In other cases, national recognition served only to enhance the group’s reputation in Texas and surrounding states. The House Brothers won the band contest at the festival in Hugo, Oklahoma, in 1980. The San Antonio-based second generation band Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) won the national band championship sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1984. Where most Texas groups were mainly cover bands, Tom Uhr received “Songwriter of the Year” awards from SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America) from 1974 to 1977, and his Shady Grove Ramblers received “Vocal Band of the Year” in 1974.

Succeeding generations of players and fans have brought new influences to bluegrass, principally from the musical forms they grew up with and in many cases played. Second generation players grew up on folk, country rock, British Invasion, and similar types of music which gave them a far different sense of what music was and should sound like. Whereas the first generation fans and players grew up listening to Bill Monroe and Bob Wills, second generation players typically “discovered” bluegrass through the folk revival, while others had conversion experiences and sold their electric guitars to buy acoustic instruments. Their models were the national groups, such as the Seldom Scene and the New Grass Revival, who played progressive bluegrass or "new grass." These subgenres brought a truly different sound into the music—more complex chord structures, varied rhythms, and a different vocal treatment. The newer generations often sing without nasal resonance which gives a far different tone to the music. They may sing as high as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or Bobby Osborne, but they lack the “high lonesome sound” of the first generation singers. Typically, the younger bands often sported the long hair and disheveled look of the counterculture as well, a phenomenon which persists to this day.

In Texas, as in many places, the urban counterculture look was an enigma to the rural background fans and musicians of the first generation, who represented the power structure in festivals and in the bluegrass associations. Some festivals in Texas adopted dress codes, and there were isolated instances of individuals being asked to leave festival grounds due to inadequate dress. One exceptional venue which brought both first and second generation bands to their stage and brought an equally diverse clientele in the 1970s was the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Rednecks and hippies comingled there in a haze of marijuana fumes and beer and enjoyed concerts by local groups such as the Alfalfa Brothers (which contained no brothers) and national acts from traditionalist Bill Monroe to the progressive Country Gazette.

There were sociological as well as musical and lifestyle differences that affected relations between older and newer bluegrassers. The second generation bands were mostly based in cities rather than in outlying towns. Their members were mainly middle class, college-educated, urban types who were less grounded in faith than their rural, working class, high school-educated counterparts. Second generation bands had broader repertoires, including songs from pop and country rock sources, whereas the first generation bands largely stuck to bluegrass standards except for occasional songs from the classic country and sometimes western swing repertories. The Sieker Band, headed by the husband and wife team of banjoist Rolf and guitarist Beate Sieker, included some of the most outstanding players of progressive bluegrass in Texas in the early twenty-first century.

Besides western swing, the Texas contest fiddle tradition has had some impact on bluegrass. Kenny Baker, longtime fiddler for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys who had been influenced in World War II by the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, would come and spend one or two weeks with the Franklins, the first family of Texas contest fiddling. Baker was a proponent of the long-bow technique practiced in Texas fiddling and adapted some Texas fiddle tunes and waltzes for his own bluegrass recordings. In some fiddle contests, bluegrass groups would furnish entertainment between rounds of fiddling or while judges were coming to their decisions about the winners.

The use of alcohol and drugs was another divide between first and second generation bluegrassers. A more subtle distinction was that first generation musicians were self-taught, having to rely on their own efforts to recreate the sounds they heard on radio and records, while most second generation players took formal lessons and had instruction books and instructional tapes and later videos to help them perfect their bluegrass chops, whether progressive or traditional.

Ridgerunner Records, founded around 1975 by Slim Richey, was one of the purveyors of progressive bluegrass in Texas. Richey established the label specifically to promote the talents of banjoist Alan Munde who was a member of the national touring group Country Gazette. Eight albums came out under Munde’s name, and he played on several more. Perhaps the widest departure from bluegrass was All This and Money, Too, an album with steel and drums whose intent was to mix bluegrass with country and rock, somewhat a reflection of what the Osborne Brothers and J. D. Crow were doing in Nashville. Richey, himself an eclectic player, put out Jazz Grass on his label featuring not only Munde and fellow Gazette band member Joe Carr but also some of the leading lights of the national progressive bluegrass movement, such as Sam Bush and Rickie Skaggs, who had toured frequently in Texas and inspired many of the younger musicians here. Richey re-released Jazz Grass on CD.

A major development in bluegrass in the Lone Star State occurred in the 1980s with the establishment of the first full-time bluegrass music curriculum in the nation at South Plains College (now South Plains University) in the unlikely spot of Levelland, on the high plains of Northwest Texas. Country Gazette member Joe Carr joined the faculty in 1985, followed by Alan Munde a year later. The program branched out into western swing, but the bluegrass curriculum has remained central and has attracted aspiring bluegrass musicians from all parts of the country, many of whom have gone on to full-time careers in bluegrass.

Texas bluegrass musicians wanting to make a full-time living at music could not rely on gigs alone for a livelihood. Tony Ulrich made music lessons a profession in Houston since the mid-1970s, and Janet Davis taught lessons and produced instructional materials in San Antonio for fifteen years, later moving her operation to Arkansas. Dan Huckabee broke new ground by producing a dobro instructional album on vinyl in 1973 and around 1979 gave up the life of a traveling musician to go full-time into producing instructional tapes and videos for many bluegrass instruments and even for harmony singing. Slim Richey also entered the instructional video market when vinyl record sales fell off due to the introduction of the compact disc in the mid-1980s. The latest phenomenon in the marketing of bluegrass instruction is the workshop or week-long camp. South Plains University has run summer camps for years, with some of the heavy hitters in Texas bluegrass as well as national musicians as guest instructors. After teaching at other camps for some time, Dallas musician Gerald Jones mounted his first bluegrass camp in 2008. Rolf and Beate Sieker give lessons and workshops throughout Central Texas and, along with gigs, make a full-time living.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the development of newer forms of the music known by various titles such as grunj grass, jam grass, thrash grass, etc. A number of bands in Austin have exemplified these more contemporary styles. The Bad Livers led the trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such non-classic forms of the music have typically appealed to young urban audiences who find reflections of the various types of rock music—acid, heavy metal, folk and soft rock—they grew up with. Elements of modern jazz are also found in groups such as Dallas-based Cadillac Sky, who have a second major label CD and were contenders in several of the categories in the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) awards in 2008. These groups deserve high marks for both musicianship and energy but at best receive lukewarm receptions from traditional festival audiences.

The advent of new styles of a musical genre invariably lead to questions of legitimacy and authenticity. Older bluegrassers insist that the newer forms of the music are “not really bluegrass.” Proponents of these newer styles do their best to ignore these opinions and continue to play their brand of music. For the most part, such differences result in a kind of polite standoff with open conflicts being rare.

By the 2010s the first generation groups were slowly fading from the scene. Mayfield Brothers’ mandolinist Herb Mayfield occasionally participated in jam sessions. Tom Uhr and Joe Bass still headed their respective groups founded in the 1960s though with much lighter schedules. Along with them were contemporaries who moved away from mainstream country music in the 1970s and 1980s when it went toward a more pop sound. Mack Smith, who played festivals and shows with his family band was typical of what might be called a pseudo first generation. All of the aforementioned included a good deal of classic country material in their repertoires. These first generation players acknowledged the musical abilities of the younger players but found little to love in their musical performances.

Bluegrass is far more widely known today, both nationally and in Texas. With this heightened awareness has come wider acceptance of this music but also impreciseness of definition. The general public calls almost anything acoustic bluegrass, and many brand most types of classic country coming from the 1930s through the early 1950s as bluegrass. The casual listener is not interested in differentiating bluegrass from Americana, country, folk, old-timey, or even soft rock. The boundaries between these categories are fuzzy at best and increasingly blurred as the music evolves. This is a sore spot with hard core bluegrass players and fans alike but is largely overlooked by the general public.

Bluegrass continues to flourish in the Lone Star State, though the audiences are predominantly over the age of fifty. One development which has helped to popularize bluegrass, especially since 2000, is the use of bluegrass festivals as a tool to develop tourism. A number of smaller municipalities have used city funds to sponsor annual bluegrass festivals. Such efforts typically depend on lots of volunteer labor from community organizations—fraternal, religious, and municipal—and are not required to show a profit. Thus small towns such as Argyle and Overton can mount two or three-day festivals featuring predominantly national touring acts with a peppering of more proficient Texas groups. In addition to the more major festivals, there are dozens of local opportunities to hear and play bluegrass. Some are strictly jam sessions, while those such as the monthly shows in Lone Star and Sacul in East Texas are held in halls in small towns where several bands come and perform to loyal audiences of 100 or more. Thus bluegrass in Texas is preserved for traditional fans and players in these local venues while at the same time reaching out and creating new fans through the larger festivals.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Ken Brown, “CTBA: A 25 Year Retrospective,” CTBA Bulletin 25, No. 1 (February 2003). Joe Carr and Alan Munde, Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995). Tom Ellis, “History of Austin Bluegrass Bands, Part 1,” CTBA Bulletin 11, No. 1 (February–March 1988). Herb Mayfield, Interview by Rod Moag, April 2004. Rod Moag, with assistance from Alta Campbell, “The History of Early Bluegrass in Texas,” Journal of Texas Music History, 4 (Fall 2004). Texas Bluegrass History (http://texasbluegrasshistory.org/), accessed September 16, 2015. Tom Uhr, Interview by Rod Moag, February 15, 2004.

Rod Moag

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Handbook of Texas Online, Rod Moag, "Bluegrass Music," accessed October 24, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xbb02.

Uploaded on June 3, 2014. Modified on September 16, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.