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Americana Jams with Bluegrass

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The Lonesome Trio. Photo by Deborah Wilbrinkby guest contributor Deborah Wilbrink
Nashville, TN -- The Steep Canyon Rangers, a favorite of bluegrass fans, stopped off in Nashville on their way to host the IBMA Awards show this year. Larry Campbell, producer of the Rangers’ new release, Tell the Ones I Love, was accepting his own award, and they helped to celebrate at the Midnight Windup jam held after the Americana Music Associations Honors and Awards Show, hosted by Jim Lauderdale.

Campbell was shocked to win AMA’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year. “I knew about the nomination, but put it out of my head. I was in the house band doing the show all night, when up came the category and I heard my name. Then Jerry [Douglas] said “Larry Campbell” and it was a great rush -- wow, I won it!” Campbell also won the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, when Levon Helm’s record, The Dirt Farmer, was also honored. He grins, “That might have been premature but I was glad to get it.” A multi-instrumentalist, Campbell thinks of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel as his strongest instruments. But that varies from month to month. He might also add banjo, slide guitar, Irish bouzouki, vocals, and bass. Hear his acoustic guitar on "Hunger" and "Mendocino County Blue", and pedal steel on "Bluer Words Were Never Spoken" on Tell the Ones I Love.

The late Levon Helm’s home and studio, called the Barn, still hosts an occasional Midnight Ramble concert, with Campbell as the musical director. Steep Canyon Rangers played there. “I was blown away by what they did. I was glad when they asked me to produce their new release, Tell the Ones I Love. Most of the records I’d played on and produced have been Americana, with a bluegrass tune sometimes in the mix. But this is a strictly bluegrass band. Although they did ask if I was adverse to using a drummer! Well, we made it work. It was important to not just play the tunes, then add the drums, but to make it sound integral, not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. I think we got there, if we didn’t we had fun trying.

“They wanted this record to be an organic experience. They came into the Barn, set up, and everybody just played. It was pretty much a live experience, and incorporating the sound of that room. The songs are all original, and what those guys are writing – they’re pushing out the walls of traditional bluegrass a little already. But they held on to the essence of what makes bluegrass an appealing genre.

“For me that’s the honest expression of emotion. I love the raw emotion it conveys. The music, the stories, the lyrics, the sound of the instruments, it sounds like it all just grew out of the dirt, came up out of the earth. The typical three chord bluegrass form, it never gets tiring to me. There are a million bluegrass tunes with the same chord structure but they all sound different, different stories sung and played a different way.

“I certainly don’t have the complete depth in the genre that a lot of bluegrass players have. I can certainly add something to it when I’m playing in that genre,” says the humble award winner, who’s played with The Band, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crowe, Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, and many more. “I’ve been listening to bluegrass my whole life. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Aubrey Hanie’s bluegrass instrumental records, like The Bluegrass Fiddle Album. I never get tired of hearing Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury. I’m also referring back to the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.

The Steep Canyon Rangers made another impression. “I couldn’t have been around a better bunch of gentlemen, human beings as well as musicians,” says Campbell. Be sure to say howdy if you see him at an IBMA event. “I wanted to get to the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival this year, but I’m performing with David Bromberg Friday night and at the Ramble this weekend. I talked to Happy Traum and he goes there every year, he says the level of musicianship is mind-boggling!”

With a plane to catch, I didn’t catch the Rangers. I did see a few hours of the Midnight Windup jam. Americana music is often roots music with a twist of grunge. Always nodding through lyric, instrumentation, or voicing, to the roots of American music, the actual Americana Music Association Conference rarely has a significant representation of either blues or bluegrass. This year that tradition was broken, for bluegrass, by Ed Helms. Ed is a third of The Lonesome Trio, and with Amy Reitnouer and Tanya Erlach is expanding the California-based community of bluegrass nationally through a platform called “The Bluegrass Situation.” The Situation? A surge of interest in bluegrass and its mutations, is all part of a national swell of searching for what is truly important in life. Sounds like connecting with roots, a big part of Americana.

The Bluegrass Situation should be thanked for hosting a real live bluegrass jam and party for the Americana crowd. Jim Lauderdale, “Mr. Americana” and Jerry Douglas anchored, with the Incredible String Band, Ed’s Lonesome Trio,and many others changing out. Lauderdale gets around. Just ask Larry Campbell about “the young preacher’s kid,” making the country music scene in New York in the late seventies.

Larry played guitar on “Search Your Heart” with Jerry. “Turkey in the Straw” pulled some AMA players together alright as a familiar tune, but it did sound like it needed either Red Bull or Sam Bush. But hey, as another of the Lonesome Trio explained, “We finalized the set list about three minutes before hitting the stage.” The familiar “Slewfoot” picked up the pace, and Lauderdale brought us up-to-date with “Headed for the Hills” a song of mountain longing by Jim and Robert Hunter, long-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

In the spirit of bluegrass music, performers offstage were sharing tips. “Theaters are good venues for us, and folk clubs and yes, supper clubs! Supper clubs are fantastic, for they have tiered seating and with dinner, people don’t mind paying a higher ticket price.” informs Carole Young, of The Greencards. Their album Viridian was number one on Billboard’s 2007 Bluegrass Chart. She reminisced about those days. “It’s completely different now than when we started. We didn’t intentionally move away from bluegrass, just wanted to branch out. We still play festivals.” The Greencards released Sweethearts of the Sun in August. 

The feel of community, and the chance to see the stars perform and mix it up made it well worth the wee hours of the morning. We hope that The Bluegrass Situation will make it a new tradition for American Roots music. If you missed the Awards Show broadcast, "Austin City Limits" will broadcast an edited special Nov. 23. Voice of America and Bob Harris of BBC2 will broadcast overseas soon. AMA Awards 2013

  • Album of the Year: "Old Yellow Moon," Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
  • Artist of the Year: Dwight Yoakam
  • Duo Group of the Year: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
  • Song of the Year: "Birmingham," Shovels & Rope
  • Emerging Artist of the Year: Shovels & Rope
  • Instrumentalist of the year: Larry Campbell
  • Trailblazer Award: Old Crow Medicine Show
  • Spirit of Americana / Free Speech in Music Award co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center: Stephen Stills
  • Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist: Duane Eddy
  • Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive: Chris Strachwitz
  • Lifetime Achievement for Performance: Dr. John
  • Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter: Robert Hunter
  • President's Award: Hank Williams

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