For those of you who are longtime readers of this column, you know two things about me: I love bluegrass music and I love bands with really great names.
That said, there are a lot of bands around today with wild and crazy names that call themselves bluegrass, but for me, many of these newer groups are a far cry from the old-time music I grew up listening to. Nothing is wrong with what I call progressive bluegrass – but I am most fond of the old stuff.
That all changed for me back in the early 1970s when the album Old and In the Way came out. Yes, that was the name of both the group and their debut album. And it was the first time I had ventured away from my more traditional side and discovered this superstar band that turned my bluegrass world upside down.
The group consisted of Peter Rowan (guitar, vocals), Vassar Clements (fiddle), Jerry Garcia (yes, that Jerry Garcia, on banjo and vocals), David Grisman (mandolin, vocals) and John Kahn (string bass).
Other than Garcia, the longtime front man of the Grateful Dead, the other names may not be that familiar to you if you are not a bluegrass fan. But for those of you who fall into the bluegrass aficionado category, you know these musicians were – and some still are – some of the greatest players ever assembled under the bluegrass banner.
Most of their music was recorded live at the famed Boarding House in San Francisco in October 1973. From those recordings came five separate albums released starting in 1975 and ending in 2013. The exception was a reunion album with the last living members, Rowan and Grisman, in 2002, titled Old and In the Gray.
While these guys did perform many traditional bluegrass tunes such as “Pig in a Pen” and the great Bill Monroe song “Uncle Pen,” they also recorded some non-traditional tunes, like the Rolling Stones hit “Wild Horses” and a great deal of original music.
The band was wildly popular with the younger bluegrass fans in the day and that first album stood as the best-selling bluegrass album recorded until the soundtrack from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” came out in 2000.
I still listen to these guys often and they still represent, to me, one of the best bluegrass bands ever. Much of their music can be found on the internet, and is still as good as it was when they first recorded it.
Bluegrass Johnson comes from a long line of country music performers and enjoys a passion for the rhythm and melody. From the hills of Kentucky, he will offer his opinions on a variety of country music every other week. Readers with questions or comments may write to Johnson in care of this publication.