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String Theory 

Tracing the evolution of the guitar in American roots music

Bluegrass is generally seen as having been launched by the radio performances of Bill Monroe in the mid-1940s. Earl Stanley, of the famous Stanley Brothers, says that bluegrass music didn't even get its name until 1965, when the organizers of the first festival couldn't think what to call it and decided to adopt the name of Bill Monroe's band, the Bluegrass Boys. It changed the meaning of the word so radically that this is now perhaps the only example on Earth of a music genre named after a band.

If I want to understand old-time, Savell says, I should come to a square dance, and there happens to be one in a local community center that Friday night. So as the shadows start to spread into the valleys, I follow her car down a road that weaves through a deep wrinkle in the hills - a "holler," as they call it here. Brick houses, ranches, trailers, horse pastures and corn patches jostle for the tiny flat spaces beside the creek.

As I drive, three questions form in my head: What was this rural music like before the guitar arrived? How did the guitar change it? And what skill does it involve - in other words, what is the guitarist doing when s/he's playing well?

The banjo player Lee Sexton is a legend, Savell explains, a traditional musician in his sixties who has been honored by the Smithsonian. By the time we get to the center he's already on a chair by the fireplace playing an old Gibson banjo, the skin of its head worn transparent on both sides of the strings by his thumb and fingers. He now plays only thumb-and-finger, since he broke his second finger working in the mine.

He and fiddler Ray Slone, a retired math teacher, run through "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Old Log Cabin in the Woods." Neither plays dazzlingly, but their fingers look utterly at home on the frets. Thinking like a 21st-century guitarist, I wonder who will play lead and who will play rhythm, but their performance isn't like that. They play neither in unison nor in harmony, nor does one back up the other. Each plays the tune in the idiom of his instrument, with the banjo adding alternating strings in the right key, and the fiddle adding an open-string note when possible, like a dog and a cat walking side by side. A braided tune, maybe.

Later Sexton and Slone are joined by Sean (whose last name, spoken quickly in thick Kentucky, is lost to me) on guitar. Immediately the sound is different: more bass, fuller, more like an ensemble and less like a musical conversation. But what's in it for the guitarist? Sean basically strums G most of the night, with predictable ventures into C, D and A7, while the fiddle and banjo have all the fun. Where is the thrill for the guitarist? Or the skill?

While I'm trying to puzzle this out, Beverly May, a nurse-practitioner who teaches fiddle on Thursdays after school, puts down her paper plate of seven types of white carbohydrate, and beckons to Elmer, one of her three early-intermediate students. ("They're becoming fiddling fools," she says. In a few weeks the student fiddlers, guitarists and banjo players will get together to try some old-time ensemble playing.)

A thin kid with glasses, Elmer looks as if he might easily be picked on if he didn't do something well. He shows his stuff on her violin, playing "Shortnin' Bread." "I know so many tunes I can't keep up [with myself]," he says immodestly, but with a shy grin.

That's the skill in old-time music: knowing the tunes. As Savell has suggested, it's about participation, not demonstration. Old-time music starts to make sense to me. Its musicians may seem old and slow compared to bluegrass or country players, but the necessary skills are more social than digital; their job is to keep the music alive and everyone involved, regardless of talent. They were the entire entertainment industry in the days before electricity brought us recording, radio and television Ñ the pre-media days. And unlike in the modern music business, the musicians willingly bear a social and moral burden for the well-being of their small community.

In a strange way, this old-time spirit survives in all kinds of communal acoustic music. When I think of myself back in college days, playing guitar around the dying embers of a party, nobody wanted me to show off. They wanted songs they knew and could sing along with if they felt like it: Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" Ñ everyone's repertoire in the heyday of fingerstyle acoustic guitar. It was a party, after all, not a performance.

But back to the square dance. Beginners though they are, young Elmer and his cousin Donald are invited to join in on fiddle and banjo. Another guy arrives with a mandolin. We start dancing to a very, very long tune that the musicians play helpfully, obediently; they are in the background. All ages dance with a fair amount of confusion, which is half the fun. It's all about joining in.

Thinking about the after-school music program, it strikes me that this is a perfect chance to see how old-time rural musicians teach the guitar - in other words, how they understand it, how they present it to others. How they keep it alive.

On Monday I volunteer to go back out to the community center as a teacher's aide to help Roy Tackett. The 51-year-old single dad, a barrel-chested mountain man with a wild goatee and suspenders, grew up in a nearby coal camp. As a kid he'd go to a soda fountain across from the camp, where Dock Boggs, later to become an old-time banjo legend, would come and play. Stores and post offices were also communal music venues in Appalachia, he says.

Tackett himself played rock 'n' roll in a mountain speakeasy across the line in Virginia, where it was legal to drink but not to drink and dance. "It was wild, man," he recalls before we set off to our teaching job. "I'd see women come in there fighting with their high heels. Blood gushing out."

Tackett has a new student, 7-year-old James, and the first thing he shows the kid is not how to hold a guitar but how to hold a pick. I'm assigned an older boy named Jason, and when I start playing fingerstyle, his eyes grow wide and he calls out, "He's playin' it like a banjo!"

Where did it come from, I wonder, this belief that a piece of plastic should come between you and your guitar? Well, for one thing, it allows the guitarist to play louder, to be heard at the square dance. But it has another virtue, too, one that emerged later as bluegrass grew out of old-time. A flatpick, like a bow, is a tool for striking strings rapidly. As such, it allows the guitar to expand beyond its simple old-time strumming role and start playing fiddle lines.

Thinking back to Friday night's square dance, I remember that when the motley little band was taking a break, Sean, the guitarist, started playing fast melody lines to himself as if to reassure himself that he was really a young dude with some juice in him. All the old-time stuff was fine, but if you showed him an open road he could be out of the gate like a drag racer, like any other young bluegrass stud.

After my excursions at the community center, I go back to the radio station to ask Rich Kirby a question that can perhaps only be answered here in Appalachia, where the guitar arrived so late. Why did people take it up, when they'd been getting on fine without it? What impact did it make? Why did the guitar take root here and ultimately take over popular music in America?

Kirby has given this matter a lot of thought. "People complained that the guitar ruined old-time," he says, "because it forced a chordal structure on it that it didn't have."

If we're brought up learning piano or guitar, we tend to think of music as being crisp and rectangular: white notes and black notes, tones and semi-tones, three-chord rock 'n' roll songs. When I look at the guitar fingerboard, I see the rectangles formed by strings and frets as being like pigeonholes; everything must fit in here somewhere.

This view is modern, Kirby explains. It doesn't take into account the fact that the human voice doesn't work in neat, incremental steps. Nor did old-time fiddlers, who hit pitches that sound weird and wrong to modern ears because they landed somewhere in between an E, say, and an E flat.

"You can also hear it in unaccompanied old regular Baptist singing," Kirby says, "and of course a lot of the banjo players in the 19th century were playing fretless banjos, so you'd have a free range for that tonal consciousness."

On certain Appalachian field recordings, Kirby says, you can hear early guitar players fumbling to find chords to fit a song from an older, freer vocal tradition. "Now, you'll hear a bluegrass band play that same song 20 years later," he adds, "and by then it'll all fit. It'll be tight." In other words, clean. Contemporary. The keening tones of the old-fashioned voices, the eerie wailing of the fretless instruments, were sacrificed for what sounded right to city ears.

Driving away from Whitesburg, I listen to some old-time CDs and then, for a change, throw in a recording of modern guitar masters called Guitar Harvest. To my surprise, I hear British Isles guitarist Tony McManus flatpicking a medley of two tunes that illustrates everything Kirby has been trying to explain. The first song, "A Shepherd's Dream," is a classic Celtic fiddle tune that McManus plays very fast and skillfully, sounding very much like a fiddler, only with the greater crispness that comes from playing a fretted instrument.

When he changes to the second tune --"Onga Bucharesti," a klezmer tune from eastern Europe -- he brings in another guitar, striking chords. The change is utterly dramatic, and it surely gives us a sense of what the guitar would have sounded like when it first got added to old-time music. As soon as the chordal guitar comes in, the piece becomes half old-time, half rock 'n' roll.

The hard, chunky guitar adds big, square chords -- and in doing so the piece loses some of the subtlety of the first tune, some of the sense of solitary, naked endeavor. But what it gets is fatness, depth and that piledriver energy. It sounds modern. It rocks.

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Tim Brookes


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