I smiled when, looking over the schedule, I saw who is kicking off the 2009-2010 season at the Stoughton Opera House: Dr. Ralph Stanley, 82, whose banjo picking and raspy singing have made him a titan of classic bluegrass. He performs this Saturday, September 12, at 7:30 p.m. I've seen Stanley's act several times, and I was pleased to know the star -- famous from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack -- will be passing through.
Then, as I looked through the rest of the schedule, my jaw dropped, because the Stoughton Opera House is hosting a truly impressive schedule of bluegrass legends. The others aren't pioneering luminaries like Stanley, but rather musicians who came along a generation or so after Stanley, Bill Monroe and others defined the genre's sound. These younger (though not, these days, young) musicians helped ease bluegrass from its suits-and-hats origins through the progressive 1970s and beyond.
September 25 brings Peter Rowan, the singer and guitarist who was one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1965, and who was part of the great 1970s all-star project Old and in the Way (it also featured a banjo player named Jerry Garcia). On November 13 is a performance by Tony Rice, the skillful guitar flatpicker who, like a really slick Doc Watson, brings a seldom-matched dazzle to the instrument. December 12 sees David Grisman, the shaggy mandolinist who co-starred in Old and in the Way and patented his "dawg" fusion of bluegrass and jazz (Grisman is joined in Stoughton by John Sebastian). And on March 19 and 20 comes another former Bluegrass Boy, the incomparable singer and guitarist Del McCoury, who keeps traditional bluegrass vital with his high lonesome singing and rock-solid rhythm picking.
It's a great schedule that takes me back to my youth in 1980s Nashville. At that time I thought it was perfectly normal to wander into the bluegrass nightclub the Station Inn for pickup sessions involving famous contemporaries of Rowan, Rice and the others. I regularly saw musicians like fiddler Vassar Clements, another Old and in the Way alum; banjoist Eddie Adcock of the Country Gentlemen; and mandolinist Roland White, the former Bluegrass Boy who with his brother guitarist Clarence White formed the Kentucky Colonels. I even heard Bill Monroe at the Station Inn. Only later did I realize what a special era that was.
All these years later, bluegrass is as vital as ever, thanks in no small part to the new life that has been breathed into the genre by, among others, the jam-music crowd. Younger bluegrassers are represented in Stoughton by guitarist and mandolinist Dan Tyminski, of Alison Krauss and Union Station, on October 16.
As for me, I seldom pass up the opportunity to see a real live Bluegrass Boy.