Breaking down Bluegrass

Bluegrass giant Russell Johnson. a 1985 Carolina graduate, taught a class that resulted in a new Music Department ensemble called the Carolina Bluegrass Band.

Playing in a new class called the Carolina Bluegrass Band, Liz Short experienced a surreal moment when the band shared a stage with the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers.

“We had not even played in front of people, and we’re in Memorial Hall with an audience three times bigger than any I’ve performed for,” said Short, a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill. When she began to play her fiddle and sing “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” she wondered if she was singing the correct lyrics. “Then I relaxed and thought this is way too great an experience to not enjoy.”

Short and 15 classmates, many of whom are classically trained musicians, spent the past semester in a new Music Department ensemble called the Carolina Bluegrass Band. The band consists of violinists, guitarists, a jazz bass player, a classical voice major and two banjo players. Only two had ever played or sung Bluegrass.

Bluegrass giant Russell Johnson. a 1985 Carolina graduate and one of the genre’s purest tenors, was chosen as the course’s instructor. He is also an award-winning songwriter, mandolinist and front man for the Grass Cats with 28 years of music business experience that includes running his own record label.

‘Find of the Century’

“Russell is the find of the century,” said Jocelyn Neal, the music professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who created the band.  “He has the complete skillset and an unbelievable resume. He’s taking people who don’t know Bluegrass and teaching them an entire musical art form.”

Neal teaches a History of Bluegrass course, and organized the first Carolina Bluegrass Summit in November to showcase scholarship by Carolina’s faculty and world-class research resources. The resources include the Southern Folklife Collection’s books and commercial sound recordings, along with unpublished personal papers, photos, audio and video recordings.

The band, course and summit form an initiative started by Neal and Mark Katz, the Ruel W. Tyson Jr. Distinguished Professor of Humanities, and funded with a gift from alumnus John A. Powell. The foundation is the Bluegrass history course, which teaches transferable skills in understanding the world through art, music and culture. The initiative also includes the ensemble and summit.

The band’s head-spinning semester of learning new techniques and song culminated in a performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers on November 11 and a public concert on December 1.

Johnson says that with the violinists’ classical technique, tone and posture, “one of the coolest things is when they pick up a riff, a kick off or phrase that’s full-blown Bluegrass fiddling and perform it. They are used to reading music and here they’re doing a fiddle kick that would have come straight off the stage of a Flatt and Scruggs show in 1957.”

‘Fiddling has a different mindset’

For Short, a Wilson, N.C., native who began violin lessons at age six, the most challenging part of the class has been learning to improvise. “Improv is a big part of fiddling,” she said. “Fiddling has a different mindset than classical. You have more freedom in it. There’s no right or wrong, although having a classical background can make your fiddling a lot better. It brings a specific tone and a preciseness that I really like.”

William Hall, a first-year student from Nashville, Tenn., saw a poster about the band and auditioned. The classical voice major who Johnson says has a “gigantic voice” knew little about Bluegrass, and was looking for an outlet for his guitar playing.  Hall sang and played at an audition, then he and Johnson talked about playing, singing and music theory.

“I had never flat picked before, which is the guitar style in Bluegrass,” Hall said. “I was used to playing a lot of James Taylor-style stuff, so learning to play a super-specific role is what I’ve had to adjust to. The guitar is always hammering out a particular rhythm. I was used to guitar as accompaniment or as the only instrument.”

Short and Hall said their bandmates are fast leaners.

“Now we have some freedom, where before it was an exact, clean classical sound. We’re learning breaks, solos and kickoffs and some of that involves techniques that are not as precise as classical,” Hall said.

In addition to the academic and performance parts, Neal said the course is one way that Carolina allows students to bring their whole selves to campus: “For students who are interested in Bluegrass, we want them to learn from our faculty, who have expertise and can help students with additional coaching that will enable them to contribute to the richness of campus.”

Johnson said the class made great strides from its first rehearsal: “For many it was their first exposure to Bluegrass and, for most, the first time they had played it with other people. We’ve gone from individual members knowing one or two fringe/folk songs to being able to perform an hour’s worth of music in a full Bluegrass setting with arranged songs featuring duets, trios, quartet harmonies, twin -and triple-fiddle harmonies, banjo, mandolin, guitar solos.”

Note:Band members include “Charlie” Fischer Brown, Spencer Davidson, Henry “Knox” Engler, Madelin Fisher, William Hall, Emily Harrison, Tanner Henson, Reece Krome, Suzanne Long, Matt Samuel Lopez, Andrew McClenny, Sarah Michalak, Brent Matthew Pontillo, Liz Short, Willem Tax, Abbey Vinson, and community musician Parker Moore.