Making a great show even better, the red-hot old-time string band The Glade City Rounders kick things off at 1 p.m. If you’ve been wanting to visitBluegrassUnderground, I can’t think of a better show to make your acquaintance with The Volcano Room. In fact, Larry Stephenson will also be making his acquaintance with TheVolcano Room, playing his first-ever show there. Get your tickets.
I don’t mean that kind of “high”. The Cave is a non-smoking, non-vaping cave. I mean “high” as in “High Lonesome Sound.”
We know the song by Peter Rowan, and though he wrote another famous tune about a different kind of high, “Panama Red,” the high in “High Lonesome Sound” does not refer to altered states. Unless that state is Kentucky, home of Bill Monroe. Bluegrass was built on great high tenor singing, from 80 years ago, when Mr. Bill was duetting his elder brother Charlie in the Monroe Brothers, on up to Dailey & Vincent today. Get your tickets here for this show.
For folks new to bluegrass, right after the banjo, the second thing you notice is just how high they sing. In bluegrass, it’s actually macho to sing “like a girl” as Vince Gill jokingly describes his own great tenor voice. But more about that later. For now, we celebrate two great singers, both high and lonesome. The aforementioned Peter Rowan comes to Bluegrass Underground onJune 24. I’ve seen him more than a dozen times over the years, including almost two miles high in Copper Mountain, Colorado, where he had to take oxygen before his set. Now that is high. But I’ve never seen him better than he has been in the cave. Rowan co-wrote what, IMHO, is the ultimate high lonesome bluegrass song, “Walls of Time” and, as that song, and the story behind it, illustrates, he has always been a man inspired by natural beauty and unusual settings, The Volcano Room was made for him. Only a few tickets remain.
But June 17, we have one of the best and most underrated high tenor singers in bluegrass today. Larry Stephenson has been leading his band since 1989, a pretty good time for bluegrass. It was the beginning of the IBMA, The all-star Bluegrass Album Band was making great records, Alison Krauss had come on the scene and the sound of the day was a timeless mix of deep traditional roots and a forward-thinking approach to arrangements and instrumental innovation. Larry has kept that going, both with his recordings on Pinecastle, as well as his own label, Whysper Dream, a partnership with his wife Dreama. But like all the best bluegrass, The Larry Stephenson Band is best heard live. The traditional side of the band comes out in Larry’s high lonesome tenor, one of the strongest around, and, powered by a great band that includes the driving banjo of Kenny Ingram, The Larry Stephenson Band is contemporary and classic at the same time.
Bluegrass purists occasionally complain that there’s not enough bluegrass at Bluegrass Underground. Well, there were three in that last sentence alone. But kidding aside, there will be zero purists complaining when Larry Stephenson and the band hit the stage with as much high-octane bluegrass as that little patch of dirt can hold. For proof, here’s an adrenalin shot of high lonesome, straight from the stage of our sister show, Music City Roots. Larry pays tribute to Bill Monroe with a version of “Muleskinner Blues” the song that won Monroe his place on the Opry in 1939. Folks, this is as good as bluegrass gets.
Now, as to that thing about tenor singing being a sign of machismo in bluegrass, here’s a story Bobby Osborne (who just released a great new record, Original, on Compass) told me just a few weeks back about the early days of the band, before they revolutionized bluegrass with their high-lead trios. Back then, singer-guitarist Red Allen fronted the group and was pretty hard on the Osbornes, frequently dismissing them as “the fat boys,” even onstage.
Things got worse after Red got a few beers in him. He didn’t just become bullet-proof, he became the best tenor singer in the whole world. And fact is, he was pretty darn close, even when not lubricated. But when you’re in a band with Bobby Osborne, arguably the greatest bluegrass tenor singer who ever lived, even Red might have wanted to keep that opinion to himself. In his defense, I will say that Red had mellowed considerably when I met him in the late ’70s and during the years I played with him in the 1980s. But he was a wild man in the 1950s, and the tenor rivalry simmered for a while, as The Osborne Brothers & Red Allen, as they were billed, played the tough bluegrass joints around Dayton, OH. One night, it all came to a head over the band’s first hit, “Ruby Are You Mad?” a showcase for Bobby’s stratospheric tenor and the first time twin banjos were used on a bluegrass record. That’s Bobby playing the second banjo on the 1956 record, check it out here.
As Bobby tells the story:
“He challenged me all the time on the tenor part. We were playing one time at the Royal Crest Restaurant in Dayton,
and he said, ‘If I can sing tenor higher than you, could I do the tenor and you do my part?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, if you can sing higher than me, you’re welcome to do it. What song do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘I want to do ‘Ruby’. I think I can do ‘Ruby’ higher than you do.’
“We were standing on the stage there in that little ol’ club, all those drunks watching. I hate to call em drunks, but everybody drank back then. And we started singing Ruby in ‘D’ and I’d bring it up a fret, and we started singing it in ‘E Flat.’ And I said, ‘Red, can you sing any higher than that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ He had just enough beer in him that he could, I guess, and I think we went as high as ‘F’.
And those people out there, they sobered up, they knew what we was doin’. And I said, if you can’t get the intro on the start of it – ‘Ru-BEE!’ (he does that famous vocal leap). That’s part of the song, and if you can’t get that, you lose.’ He said, ‘OK, buddy I can do it.’ I said, ‘I knowI can do it.’ So he went first, and he tried four or five times at it – Ru-BEE! and he couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I’ve got all these people as witnesses. You’re gonna sing your part and I’m gonna sing my part on everything from now on.'”
Like I said, in bluegrass music, the real men are the ones who can sing higher than little girls. And June 17, we have one of the realest and the highest, the great Larry Stephenson.
So come get high with Larry, his band and The Glade City Rounders at 333 feet below.
We’ll see you Underground where it’s always cooler. Get your tickets here.
– Larry Nager