I have often described bluegrass as the “jazz” of country music, not because of any particular complexity, but due to its ensemble approach that features soloists improvising in breaks from the melody. The elements of both styles allows for variety that also breaks rules as often as they follow them. Chord changes and shared viruosity bring the listener of either genre into the center of the performance. You begin to listen for the changes, guessing and second-guessing the where the next solo will go. It becomes very participatory music.
The Del McCoury website talks about some of the other reasons why this collaboration is not unexpected. Both styles of music have, they say, “common roots in the rich musical gumbo of the American south in the 19th and early 20th centuries …[with] a myriad of common influences and musical vocabularies.”
More to the point is the joy as this album brings to life some of the songs that have played in both genres for years. “Jambalaya” makes the combination sound so natural. It is almost a pure Dixieland beat. you feel that shuffle so common to the New Orleans style and want to march back down Bourbon Street. But the singers, Del and Ronnie McCoury, by that bluegrass twang, remind us that this was written by Hank Williams, Sr. It belongs to New Orleans and has its home in the country.
Then there’s the classic gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away,” a song shared by both these and other genres. It starts with a straight-ahead gospel style, true to its roots. Clint Maedgen of the Jazz Band leads the singing into the first break–a pure Dixieland brass break. Then McCoury takes over in a straight-ahead bluegrass mode leading into a banjo break flowing smoothly yet surprsingly into the clarinet solo. It fits and begins to take the song into new areas as the clarinet bridges it all back to Dixieland Gospel. They soar together to the end. To hear the different singers take their turns in their distinctive styles adds to the richness of two American musical styles.
But the capper for me is a Del McCoury penned instrumental. “Banjo Frisco,” The musical power of each genre is raised to new levels. mixes the musical power of each, and soars into new heights. Brass and banjo together make quite a combination. The brass shines as the banjo drives the whole piece forward to a rousing finish.
It makes me wonder what “Orange Blossom Special” would sound like. I would love to hear the trumpets play those classic fiddle licks as the mandolin and bass parts provide the unique percussion. All we need then is to add a symphony orchestra and we will move into a best of all possible worlds.
Genre purists may scoff but music can surely bring us together in new and enchanting ways. American Legacies is a winner in both genres. It becomes, without putting too much emphasis on it, a capsule of how diversity can bring us somethin new and energizing out of what we thought we already knew. But more importantly, it’s just plain fun!