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Benson, Stringworks, and problem with bluegrass instrumental albums

Donald Teplyske  |  August 16, 2016

What's the old joke?

Why do bluegrass instrumentals have titles?

So you can tell them apart.

Hyperbole, of course, because bluegrass instrumentals are not all alike (they just sound like they are! BOOM!) but like most jokes there is a kernel of truth hidden: bluegrass instrumentals can run together a bit, and they aren't always distinctive. (But, for that matter, neither are all bluegrass-or folk, or rock, or post-rock, or... songs.)

I've been keenly listening to bluegrass for close to thirty years now (I know, a mere beginner compared to some) and I love it all:story songs, dog songs, murder ballads, novelty numbers, gospel songs, acapella performances, instrumentals- I love the music. But as a non-musician, I tend not to hold instrumentals in my head: I hear them, and then they are gone. A song-whether new or old, traditional or 'big tent'-can pull me in with the turn of a phrase, a play on words, or a satisfying conclusion, and be retained and appreciated even if heard only once.

Instrumentals don't hit me the same way. When listening to a band live or when encountering an album, it is the rare instrumental that makes me really pay attention, and it is even less common for me to remember most anything about the tune. I can appreciate the execution of the performance, the interplay of the instrumentalists, and the mystery of the melody, but instrumentals don't impact me the way songs do.

I'm a word guy, maybe.

Honest truth: I was once proud that I could tell the difference between seven bluegrass instrumentals without the aid of the song listings. And two of those were "Reuben."

Pressed, I think I could come up with thirty or forty now, but don't ask me to hum them. Well, except "Jaybird Ramble"- I know that one quite well. I can recognize borrowed passages and flights of instrumental homage, but have real difficulty connecting them to a specific, previously heard tune. Getting older isn't helping.

Bluegrass instrumentals, then, aren't really my thing. But I know what makes a great bluegrass instrumental.

About thirty years. If a bluegrass instrumental sticks around, that's how I know it is great.

We all have our favourites, of course. "Bluegrass Breakdown." "Earl's Breakdown." "Southern Flavor." "Jerusalem Ridge." "Foggy Mountain Rock." "Grandfather's Clock." There's no shortage of them.

Bluegrass instrumental albums are tougher for some to appreciate, but despite my lack of musical talent, albums of bluegrass instrumentals are one of the things I quite appreciate about the genre. A collection of tunes-hopefully not all warhorses-artfully assembled as a portrayal of an artist at a particular point in time. I know not everyone will agree, but from time to time, I quite enjoy listening to thirty-five or forty minutes of nuanced, hot-picking.

I have spent enough time around the sales table to know that many in the bluegrass audience are not wanting to purchase instrumental albums. While there will (hopefully) always be those who appreciate the bluegrass instrumental album as desirable, I fear those numbers are declining. Whatever the reason-it all sounds too much the same, it gets boring, it all runs together...-I believe fewer people want to hear an entire album of bluegrass instrumentals than once did.

Over the last decade, we've seen a decline in the number of bluegrass instrumental projects being released. Whether this is connected to (chicken/egg) the IBMA changing their criteria for the "Instrumental" award in 2009 from 'album' to 'performance' (i.e. a singular recorded performance), simply a reflection of my hypothesis above, or some other factor(s) at play, I don't know, but there appears to have been a change in the way the instrumental bluegrass album is regarded. Still, as 'a word guy' this obviously hasn't impacted my enjoyment of bluegrass over the past decade, and once in a while-"Noam Pikelney Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe"-an instrumental album will have an impact on the bluegrass landscape.

When I first heard Kristin Scott Benson's "Straight Paths" in 2002, I believe I quite enjoyed it. I can't find documentation that I wrote about it, but think I did. Entirely instrumental, the 12-track album appeared artfully assembled by a tight combo presenting a variety of sounds, tempos, and approaches to bluegrass tunes. On that Pinecastle effort, which Scott Benson produced, she selected a few standards, a couple classics, and a handful of self-written tunes.

Listening to the album over the past few days, I note how there is amble evidence that it is a bluegrass banjo-player's album, but that the overwhelming impression is that it is a bluegrass band's instrumental album: it doesn't feel like a showcase for the named principal. Still in the 'early days' of her life as a bluegrass professional-fresh off time with Larry Stephenson and maybe still working with Sally Jones' Sidewinders-Scott Benson presented a bluegrass instrumental album that has held up over the years, one with its share of sparkling moments, and a couple tunes I can likely identify if ever pressed.

Six years later, she returned with a second Pinecastle album, "Second Season." Again self-producing, Scott Benson sounds even more confident across this album. Whether that is a result of continued maturity as a person and artist, additional experience (by this time, I believe, she was playing with Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time), or just where her head was at, the results were impressive. The album explodes from the start with the original "Don't Tread on Me" jumping from the speakers. Intentional or not, a manifesto has been dropped: This is Me.

On "Second Season," and I believe wisely, Scott Benson invited some of her bluegrass friends to sing on select tracks. While the album was 2/3 instrumental, the four songs gave we luddites listening something additional to gravitate toward. Songs from The O'Kanes and Kevin Welch were highlights for me, with Larry Cordle's vocal gravitas on "Something 'bout You" making me long for the days when I had a radio show on which to share such a monumental performance.

Instrumentally, the formula remained consistent with a few chestnuts mixed in among a previously unrecorded Bill Emerson tune, and several originals. As one hopes a favoured artist will, Scott Benson reveals her continued development throughout this recording: the bass, especially when played by Mickey Harris, is prominent in the mix, and the other instrumentalists-Andy Todd, Jim VanCleve, Shad Cobb, David Grier, Wayne Benson, and Cody Kilby-are given the opportunity to play together not as sidemen but as a fully-functioning band. It is very impressive.

Which brings me around to the purpose of today's column, 4-time IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson's "Stringworks."

Released on Mountain Home, this is a beautifully balanced bluegrass album, one that alternates between instrumentals and songs. With six songs taking prominence, it may be easier to appreciate all parts of the album including the instrumentals.

Some of the songs will be familiar with Claire Lynch breathlessly interpreting Cheryl Wheeler's modern folk classic "When Fall Comes to New England" and Scott Benson's pals from The Grascals-Terry Eldredge and John Bryan-helping out on one of the album's most engaging tracks, "Foggy Mountain Top." This track is spectacular not only for their excellent singing and the players' contributions, but for the manner in which a recording from the 1940s featuring Whitey & Hogan (a duet including Scott Benson's grandfather) is amalgamated with the contemporary recording: a connection through the generations, obviously special to the producer/artist and because of its effectiveness, special to the listener.

Elsewhere, old friends Mickey Harris ("Sink or Swim"- love how he enunciates "regrets") and Chris Jones ("All I Want is You") take the lead, with Jones' contributions especially appreciated by this weary heart. This version provides a tasteful, contemporary contrast to The Earls of Leicester's recent rendition, which is also spot-on. "You Gotta Climb Over the Cross," sung by Shawn Lane with Bryan and Eldredge, provides a gospel infusion, as does Grant Williams when he sings his own "Till the Day Breaks."

With only six instrumental slots available, Scott Benson has elected to be judicious in their selection: no filler here. The lead track, "Great Waterton," is an assertive number that sets the album on a positive course. "Travelers Rest" is a gentler banjo exploration co-written with Kilby, while "Eagle Eye Annie" hits the mark in a lively manner, with the Benson spouses doing some friendly dueling. The Emerson track this time out is entitled "Locust Grove" and this dynamic tune serves as a nice mandolin showcase for Wayne Benson.

As she previously intimated in the liner notes to "Straight Paths," Scott Benson records an Earl Scruggs tune knowing she can't surpass what he has achieved. I respectfully disagree. Her rendition of "Farewell Blues" is stunning, with Scott Benson adding her own personality to the interpretation, kicking it up a notch sonically while maintaining the integrity of the tune and encouraging her band to shine individually and collectively.

Benson (mandolin) and VanCleve (fiddle) again are prominently featured, as they have been on each of Scott Benson's albums. Kilby plays all the guitar parts, and Tim Surrett handles the bass this time out with Adam Haynes playing fiddle on half the tracks.

So, what is the problem with bluegrass instrumental albums? I have no idea. I have never and would never disregard an album simply because it was entirely instrumental. I suppose others might. Still, I do enjoy a bluegrass instrumental album more when it doesn't forgo vocals entirely. Kristin Scott Benson has chosen to go the half-and-half route with "Stringworks," and this is a model I fully support. You have the picking and (a bit of) noodling for those who are looking for something to emulate and deconstruct, and you have the songs that will keep the rest of us coming back.

"Stringworks" is a very well-constructed and superbly executed bluegrass release, one that reveals the continued growth of one of bluegrass music's most respected banjoists and personalities, Kristin Scott Benson.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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