He’s Bach: Johann in Bluegrass

Bluegrass has always been about technical virtuosity. Even with the father of Bluegrass, people were astonished at Monroe’s level of technical skill. Naturally, a great many bands are built around the latest and greatest guitar or banjo picker, etc. But recently a new form of virtuosity has emerged. Like a blast from the past, specifically from 1700’s Germany, Bach has arrived as a force in the bluegrass world among its most virtuosic lights. Those leading the charge are Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall (sometimes in combination). A term, modernist string band, has been used to describe what these musicians do but their roots are deep in bluegrass.

Thile’s most recent recording “Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol 1” was released on August 6th of this year. The MacArthur Genius grant recipient has intermittently played the music since high school after receiving a recording from his grandmother. He simply says he gets “psyched” when playing good music of any genre.He became more interested when he heard recordings by Fleck and Edgar Meyer.

Another Bluegrass musician playing Bach is Bela Fleck. He says the best way to approach playing classical is to actually play classical, that that would make more of a statement than to write something that sounds classical and get classical musicians to play it. He released a classical album in 2001 entitled “Perpetual Motion” which included some Bach pieces. He claims that the album had “low expectations” and he gets “brownie points” from classical purists for doing classical cleanly. Fleck was also a part of the album “Uncommon Ritual” also featuring Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer.

How this might connect to claims of authenticity is interesting. Classical music certainly has the right to say it’s original, far, far older than bluegrass. The music is mostly unchanged, other than its intended audience and the instrumentation that it is being played on, most drastically, on the banjo. Ultimately, I believe this is authentic based on several of the categories offered by Peterson. It could be considered a “relic; not changed” because of its age or “credible in current context” because of the act of genre hopping that occurs so readily in music or perhaps an “authentic reproduction” of the classical pieces.It shouldn’t be argued that because these are played by bluegrass musicians that in fact makes them bluegrass but these pieces certainly have a place in contemporary bluegrass.

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