It would not be unrealistic to say that every Bluegrass band that has ever existed has utilized traditional songs popularized by the “fathers” of Bluegrass in both their recorded music and live repertoires. I would like to share with you here a few of my favorite updated versions of traditional Bluegrass songs to show how Bluegrass has both changed and stayed the same over time. There have been thousands of wonderful re-imagined versions of traditional songs come out over the years. The ones I’ve presented here are just a few I thought of that I think are good. There are several things that I listen for when judging the quality of a traditional Bluegrass song by a new artist. Here are a few of them:
Does the new version maintain the traditional feel of the song?
I’m really not the kind of person who is concerned with how closely that a new version of a song resembles the original. I simply contend that changes to a song must make it better. I have heard traditional songs that sound like they were changed simply for change’s sake which in my opinion results in a less enjoyable song. If a song can be improved by a certain artist, it should be. If it can’t, then it should be left in its traditional form. A song can have any level of change and still be really good. It just depends on the song and artist.
Does the song sound like an exact copy of the original?
Again, either way can be good here. I however tend to prefer it when artists put their own spin on traditional songs. If I want to hear a song the original way, I can always listen to Bill Monroe. When I listen to XYZ band, I want to see what kind of music they have created. I really can’t say I have a hard and fast rule on this though. The quality is a major factor.
Does the new artist perform the song as if it were coming from their point of view?
Singing and playing from the heart and delivering the emotion of the story you are telling is one of the most important aspects of creating compelling music in any genre. Too often I think that Bluegrass artists fail to deliver emotion in a traditional song. If I hear “Rose of Old Kentucky” for instance, I want to hear it as a first person experience not a memorized copy. A word to artists: If you use traditional material then own it. You are the one telling the story. “Sunny Side of the Mountain” has nothing to do with Jimmy Martin if you’re the one singing it. This is what the fathers of Bluegrass did and I think it is a key to success.
I think that the comparison between original and new versions of traditional songs is illustrated well by the picture of the two Mustangs at the top. The old and the new are both great. Let’s listen to and compare a few examples that I enjoy.
Bill Monroe—Blue and Lonesome
Luke Bulla—Blue and Lonesome
Jimmy Martin—Freeborn Man
Josh Williams—Freeborn Man
Bill Monroe—Sally Jo
Ricky Skaggs—Sally Jo
I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on modern performances of traditional songs. I would also recommend that you give a listen to the fantastic version of “Shady Grove” by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder from their History of the Future album. You can check it out HERE Let me know what your favorites are in the comments section. Thanks for reading!