Inside the Music | Hillbilly Jazz | Bluegrass | Country
When Vassar Clements formed a band called Hillbilly Jazz in 1975, Bill Monroe’s former fiddler pulled the cover off the hidden connection between country music and jazz. The two genres had more in common than most people thought.
After all, Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong early in their careers; jazz legend Charlie Christian debuted on Bob Wills’ radio show; Les Paul (then known as Rhubarb Red) was a country guitarist before he became a jazz and pop hero; steel guitarist Wesley ‘Speedy’ West earned his nickname for his blistering jazz-like solos; top Nashville session guitarist Hank Garland moonlighted as a jazzer; Miles Davis titled one of his songs ‘Willie Nelson’; and Nelson made a jazz record with guitarist Jackie King.
Nowhere was the skill of country instrumentalists more obvious than in western swing and bluegrass. Two of the first three songs on the two-LP album Hillbilly Jazz came from the songbook of Bob Wills, the Texas bandleader who had devoted his career to showcasing fiddle, steel and mandolin soloists on jazzy swing arrangements. When a western-swing revival band formed in Maryland in the 1980s, the new group summed up the genre’s long history of improvising genius by choosing the name Cowboy Jazz. And when Bill Monroe transformed string-band music into bluegrass in the 1940s, he was unleashing a new kind of solo in much the same way that Louis Armstrong had when he transformed ragtime and Dixieland into modern jazz.
The fiddle had set the standard for virtuosity in country music ever since Eck Robertson (1887–1975) made one of the first country records in 1922 and inspired fiddle contests from Appalachia to Texas. But Monroe demanded that every instrument in his band be as fast and fluid as the fiddle, and he set an example by transforming his own mandolin from a rhythmic timekeeper to a freewheeling explorer of themes and variations. Before long, the banjo was similarly liberated by Earl Scruggs, the dobro by Josh Graves and the guitar by Doc Watson (b. 1923). To make sure all the instruments could play together at the breathless speeds he had in mind, Monroe drilled his bands to play with an unprecedented precision of tempo and intonation.
Suddenly there was a chance to play difficult passages on string-band instruments with the same velocity and accuracy as jazz musicians. Astonishing pickers crawled out of the hidden corners of rural America to meet the challenge. Fiddlers such as Clements, Kenny Baker (b. 1926), Bobby Hicks and Benny Martin were one-upping each other by working swing syncopation, blues licks and quicksilver grace notes into their solos. Mandolinists such as Jesse McReynolds, Frank Wakefield and Bobby Osborne (b. 1931) invented new licks that even Monroe hadn’t thought of. Banjoists such as J. D. Crowe (b. 1937), Eddie Adcock, Bill Keith (b. 1939), Don Stover and Sonny Osborne (b. 1937) all found ways to add different rhythm accents to Scruggs’ three-finger roll.
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