I love Bluegrass Music.
It is the ancient sound of mourning –an exile for his homeland, the mother wailing for a breathless infant, the prodigal groaning when he has wasted it all. It is also the sound of joy that comes in the morning — the sound of the songbirds serenading the sun rising over a still, the lonesome moan of the train that brings your baby back to you, and it is the hoot of the owl, rising to meet the moon between the gnarled branches of an old oak tree. It is the sounds of things that catch your breath, and then all of it comes out of your mouth in a kind of keening, that longing for the One who made such beauty, and Who longs for us to see His reflection in it. It is the mysterious sound of the eternity in our hearts.
One of the few benefits of living in a land where my righteous heart is continually tormented by the conduct of my neighbors, is my close proximity to this free music festival. It is the gift of financier Warren Hellman, but to me it feels every year like a gift straight from the Father’s heart to his benighted child, who is a stranger in a strange land.
Last night I saw T- Bone Burnett, who generously opened his set up to introduce up-and-coming artists like the Punch Brothers, the Secret Sisters, Karen Elson, and a trio he found busking on the streets, the Americans–it was an amazing show. Elvis Costello surprised us with two songs. T-Bone played several haunting songs of his own.
Today I am going to wander about, discovering new sounds from this embarrassment of riches, but you can look for me at the Rooster stage at four watching Buddy Miller, with my husband (who surprised me this morning by taking the day off!) and my nephew who is providentially visiting from Israel. If Emmylou is the queen of these days, and Hellman its king, Buddy Miller roams the five stages as its disguised prince, mingling with the paupers to watch the shows, but more often onstage, to add his thrilling guitar to the mix. I hope Patty Griffin joins him, because I missed her yesterday, and that he plays Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much” –Heard is the “Cyrano de Bergerac of Rock and Roll”, as T-Bone once said on a tribute album to Heard at his untimely death.
The only downside to Hardly Strictly is the terrible choices one is faced with–RoseAnne or Elvis? Buddy Miller or Gillian Welch? Wistfully I choose Buddy, and console myself with the haunting melody “Time (the Revelator)”, that Welch and David Rawlings use to tear up the stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, on YouTube.
I appreciate these newcomers who faithfully preserve these sounds for their generation–like Sunday’s ‘can’t miss’ show, those Julliard-trained musicians, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, or RoseAnne Cash with her Daddy’s list. I love the families that play together, like the Del McCoury Band, or Earl Scruggs’. I love the women who sing together haunting harmonies of love and loss, like EmmyLou Harris, Allison Krauss, and Gillian Welch.
But best of all are those old guys–they are so unashamed of the gospel, which has deep, deep roots in this music. I am still haunted by Ralph Stanley last year singing ”Oh Death” to this crowd all taking their pleasures in the warm sunshine, reminding this Vanity Fair that they were all only a mist that would soon pass away-–it was an electrifying moment–you could feel the conviction settle all over them with its brooding cloud. Brave man.
So I pray for many such moments today, and that I myself would have the boldness there to speak about the hope I hold, that the sting of death is gone for me. Sometimes that hope rises up so clear and strong, and then you have the reason for a yodel– that sound of the voice-box at play, the laughing song of a child, the liberation cry of a ransomed captive. And I laugh along, and I practice my yodel, as I listen to my new favorite bluegrass group, Fret Not, sing “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go!”