From Bluegrass to Nu-Grass

The Punch Brothers’ new album underscores the larger country crossover

All Ashore, the new LP by the Punch Bros

It’s an expression often heard these days, especially when applied to musicians that tend to specialize in music made with fiddles, banjos and mandolin.

“That’s not your grandaddy’s bluegrass anymore.”

It’s an attempt to to explain the contemporary connection that takes those vintage sounds far beyond the realms of its former back porch environs and into an arena that’s synonymous with the mainstream. Call it nu-grass, grassicana or simply lump it in with the wide arc of Americana, but given its populist appeal, sublime sense of melody, irony and introspection, it’s a sound well suited to a modern mentality.

That’s not to say all fiddle music is Americana or vice versa. It’s still necessary to separate the two entities. Yet, it’s also clear that Americana — once referred to as crossover country, country rock or roots rock — is now finding a well regarded niche in the broader marketplace. Artists like Chris Stapleton, the Florida Georgia Line, Kacey Musgrave, and Lady Antebellum blur the boundaries between what was once demeaned as hillbilly music and a modern sound that’s easily capable of scaling the top of the charts. Indeed, much of today’s country radio is simply an evolution of the soft rock sounds popularized by the Eagles, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, one reason why those heritage artists are now bridging not only the generational divide, but the musical breach as well. While rap, hip hop and pop tunes built on gimmicks galore continue to attract younger listeners, Americana is clearly a bankable entity where the wider populace is concerned.

Bluegrass…sorry, nu-grass…isn’t quite there yet, but the wide array of festival experiences, music themed cruises and a few hip radio channels, both satellite and terrestrial, have furthered its popularity and brought certain outfits — the Steep Canyon Rangers, Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, the Punch Brothers, and Donna the Buffalo, among them — their own dedicated cult followings, a fan base on par with the kind of absolute dedication the Grateful Dead once reaped from the Deadheads. Populist appeal is definitely a part of the overall equation, but its instrumental dexterity and amiable personalities that add to the inducement.

Still, there’s some confusion when it comes to what we ought to call their sound. “At a certain point in our career, there was hesitation in calling us a bluegrass band,” Infamous Stringdusters guitarist Andy Falcon noted in response to an inquiry. “These days, we’re much more comfortable with that label.”

“We love bluegrass, but we have been influenced by other genres as much, if not more,” the band’s banjo player Chris Pandolfi added. “When it comes to making music, we always try to be a blank slate and give new songs whatever they need to come to life. We just try to make something good, something that is true to who we are.”

Naturally, the trend evolved over time, beginning with bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the latter of which took a huge leap forward when they joined forces with old school icons like Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Mother Maybelle Carter for the landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, now celebrating its 50 year anniversary, took another massive step towards the future by bringing rock to the crossroads of country. Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival made nu-grass a genre unto itself. The film “O Brother Where Art Thou” helped develop the trend as well, while artists like Guy Clark, John Prine, Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kris and Cash also did their bit to prod things along.

With the Punch Brothers’ new album All Ashore, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come. Though they ]might have once been referred to as a bluegrass band due to their instrumental arsenal, they freely embrace classical, jazz and more progressive elements. The fact that the album’s songs are so low-cast, unhurried and flush with subtlety and finesse suggests that they, like their brethren, are no longer tied to constraints, and able to apply their musical acumen to whatever purposes they desire. Here again, while banjo, mandolin, fiddle, stand-up bass and guitar are at the center of their sound, the combination reaches into realms entirely.

“I think people are drawn to music that can happen just around a campfire, something that kind of an organic feeling and bring people back to the basics,” bassist Paul Kolwart once told me. “We use acoustic instruments because that’s what we do. We all grew up playing acoustic instruments and that’s how we express itself. It’s something that we all love and have studied, but we’re not trying to just to capture that. We’re just trying to make our music.”

With All Ashore and today’s other offerings spawned from timeless tradition nowadays, the boundaries continue to break down, even as the music plots new plateaus.

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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