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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The sense of belonging Lenny Handler is talking about is by no means exclusive to bluegrass fans. Teenagers probably feel something similar when they huddle en masse before the stages at punk shows, and the motley caravan that for decades shadowed the Grateful Dead is worth its own sociological study. Jazz and folk festivals, meanwhile, have brought together the loyal followers of those decidedly uncommercial genres for more than 40 years. But there is a sense of unity and community, of shared values, among bluegrass enthusiasts that goes beyond a common taste in music. It's more like a lifestyle. Although some people, like Charlie Hudson, are born into an appreciation and love of the music, just as many turn to bluegrass as a musical reaction -- to the assembly-line sounds of modern country, usually, but just as often to whatever's happening in rock and roll, whether it's Bob Dylan going electric or Nirvana going on about teen spirit and angst.
And that falls in line with the very birth of bluegrass, possibly the most reactionary form of music in American history. You can trace the roots of bluegrass to the late Thirties, when the string-band sounds of country innovators such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were evolving into something more modern, more electric, more commercial -- what by the mid-Forties would be called honky-tonk. Most of the musicians who resisted the urbanization of this rural, mountain music turned instead to the sonic innovations of Bill Monroe, a fiery-tempered singer and musician from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.
Born in 1911 to a musical family, Monroe first played guitar with a bluesman from the area but switched to mandolin when he began performing with his brothers Charlie and Birch (who pushed him toward the instrument because they had already assumed the fiddle and guitar duties). Emulating on mandolin the intricate fiddle runs he had picked up from his uncle (immortalized by Monroe years later in the classic "Uncle Pen"), Monroe developed a dexterous and dazzling style he employed in the Monroe Brothers, formed in 1934 with Charlie after Birch left the trio. The brothers split in 1938 and the next year Bill formed the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys, who made their recording debut in 1940. Their early recordings, as well as their numerous live shows and radio broadcasts, were mostly showpieces for Monroe's blazing mandolin runs and his piercing high tenor, although you can hear the elements of Monroe's style falling in place on the epochal 1940 version of "Mule Skinner Blues," his first solo vocal.
By the mid-Forties, Monroe's Blue Grass Boys had settled into the lineup that would forever set the artistic tone and instrumental makeup of bluegrass. The combination of Monroe, fiddler Chubby Wise, guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, banjo whiz Earl Scruggs, and bassist Cedric Rainwater were together for less than three years, but during that time they cranked out numerous bluegrass standards, including "Kentucky Waltz," "Will You Be Loving Another Man?" and "Footprints in the Snow." Nearly everything the quintet did was copied and incorporated by Monroe's legion of followers, from Flatt's syncopated guitar runs to Scruggs's resounding three-finger banjo style to the soaring vocal harmonies that would forever be described as "high, lonesome."
Because of Monroe's volatile nature and grueling work ethic (he toured almost nonstop), the cast of Blue Grass Boys constantly changed following the 1948 departure of Flatt and Scruggs, who took off to form the hugely successful Foggy Mountain Boys. Despite the instability in his group, Monroe continued to dominate the genre, which had by then been named after his influential band, and his innovations helped shape the vision of bluegrass acts as varied as the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Country Gentlemen.
Monroe was already a Grand Ole Opry star by the early Fifties, when Charlie Hudson was introduced to the music. "All we listened to was country," relates Hudson. "My dad used to like the old country, like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, but he also liked bluegrass. In the early Sixties, we'd listen to the Opry every Saturday night, and Bill Monroe was on there almost every Saturday night. I started liking him and Jim and Jesse and the Osborne Brothers more than I did the country music. The music was more upbeat, and it was all acoustic. I've just always liked the sound of acoustic instruments better than electric."
An uncle of Hudson who played on the radio in country bands through the Thirties and Forties taught a very young Charlie how to get around on the guitar. "Since I've been old enough to remember, I've been trying to play music," he says somewhat modestly. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't playing. My uncle taught me some chords on the guitar and I just took it from there. Never had any training, learned everything by ear. I started playing the dobro -- bluegrass slide guitar -- when I was 12 or 13, and I picked up a fiddle when I was 26. I've mainly been playing fiddle since I picked it up. It's so intriguing. There's always something to learn on the fiddle."