The day I discovered bluegrass

It was the summer of 1983. The Chicago girl (that is, me) packed up her belongings in her new Honda Accord and set out down I-65 through Indiana for Louisville. A few days later, I was at work as the brand new press relations manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken (before the company dropped the F word).  The KFC headquarters was in a large mansion-like building that we called the kfcwhitehouseWhite House; people asked if Colonel Sanders had lived there.  (Nope.)

My first assignment was helping the team get ready for the KFC Bluegrass Music Festival, held each September on the riverfront in Louisville. Bluegrass music played on the office tape player as I sorted out photos of the visiting bands and wrote captions for the press kits we would send out and have available for on-site press. My knowledge of bluegrass was limited, but my untrained ear thought it sounded like folk music. And I could recognize a guitar or a banjo so I wrote copious caption copy. However, my copy quickly became the office joke since I persisted in calling a certain stringed instrument a violin. (They’re really the same instrument but in bluegrass, it’s a fiddle.) By the time the festival started a few weeks later, I had immersed myself in everything bluegrass so I could avoid more stupid mistakes.

dobroThese memories came flooding back last month when I read about the death of Mike Auldridge, a Dobro master and founding member of the Seldom Scene. (A Dobro is a resonator guitar, usually held flat and played with a slide.) I remembered how I came to love Mike’s band and bluegrass music and to appreciate the masters of all stringed instruments.

Taped bluegrass was fine but at my first festival, I learned again about the magic of live music. (See my essay Live or Memorex? posted in November.) Festival performers included some of the biggest names – Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Red Clay Ramblers, Doc Watson, New Grass Revival, the Seldom Scene, Ralph Stanley, Hot Rize, Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor. There were always international bands; that first year, the festival had bands from Scotland and Czechoslovakia. The program also included six young bands competing for the title of Best New Bluegrass Band.

KFC was a big supporter of traditional bluegrass (strings only, no percussion, no amps) but Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival were “new grass” bands that merged elements of rock, folk and jazz with the traditional string band. I bought a Seldom Scene double album, along with (yes, vinyl) albums by New Grass, Doc Watson and other bands.

I worked at KFC less than two years but returned to work at the bluegrass festival for several years thereafter. (Unfortunately, the festival didn’t survive the merger of KFC’s parent company with another giant corporation.) The festival was a highlight of my year – spending several days on the riverfront hanging out with music press and musicians, talking to festival attendees, and listening to music, music, music.  By the way, the winner of the Best New Bluegrass Band competition in 1986 was Alison Krauss with her band Union Station. She was a young teenager at the time and both her fiddle playing and her vocals were powerful. I like to remember that I saw her at the beginning of what has become an illustrious career.

I was lucky to see the Seldom Scene play a couple of times at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and to hear bluegrass in North Carolina and occasionally in Chicago. I’ve remained a bluegrass fan, although it usually plays second fiddle to rock and roll. But right now, I think I’ll play some Alison Krauss, a little Steve Earle and maybe the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

One Comment on “The day I discovered bluegrass”

  1. June says:

    Who would have thought. I love bluegrass. If there’s something coming to Chicago I’d love to go.


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