The Appalachian landscape, lush and rolling punctured with huge crevassed hills and valleys, has inspired the region’s most talented musicians to create the distinctive genre, complete with banjos, violins, rasped vocals and a penchant for direct and frank lyrics. This Rough Guide features everything from legendary first generation artists to contemporary artists who are still delivering top-notch bluegrass today. Bluegrass is typically about local issues, and many of the songs on this Rough Guide reference life in the coal mines and the disturbing contemporary practice of ‘Mountain Top Removal’.
Heading up the legends of old, singer-bassist-guitarist Hazel Dickens intones her pro-union message on ‘Coal Mining Woman’. Her voice winds around with a raw toned violin, whilst a gently chugging rhythm section pumps along at the base of the texture. Another great track is contributed by Tom T. Hall, who rose to fame during the 1960s and has written songs for huge stars including as Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and George Jones. ‘A Hero In Harlan’ is a slow, almost mournful, number about a young boy who decided to join up to war rather than work in the coalmine.
At the forefront of the contemporary scene, artists like Grammy nominated band The Grascals also feature on The Rough Guide to Bluegrass. Claire Lynch’s reflective number tells of a young girl’s memory of a canary in a coalmine, it was traditional to keep the small birds in coalmines as they are sensitive to dangerous gases. Kathy Mattea is one of the giants of bluegrass music. Her track ‘Coal Tattoo’ is a soulful tune accented by her own deep alto vocals. The album closes with a cover of the Hazel Dicken’s tune, ‘Black Lung’ by the Dry Branch Fire Squad. This time the musicians consider the common illness of lung cancer often contracted by coal mine workers.
The bonus album is bluegrass infused with hard rock. Scott Holstein’s album, Cold Coal Town again considers coal’s central role in a life spent in the back hollows and hills of Appalachia. Enjoy this up to date, stylish and considered collection compiled by expert in the field, Daniel Rosenberg.