Alabama Folkways Articles

February 11, 1999

Steve Grauberger

The Alabama Bluegrass Music Association (ABMA) is an organization dedicated to the promotion of bluegrass music in Alabama. Each year the ABMA presents a fundraising concert during an all-day event called the ABMA Showcase of Alabama Bands. This year the event will be held on March 6thbeginning at 10 am at the Bessemer Civic Center off Interstate 59 near the intersection of I459 and I59. The cost is $5. All bands performing are members of the ABMA and volunteer their time and talent to help out. This year, 25 different bands from throughout Alabama are slated to perform, including the Jake Landers Band, Southern Comfort, Lickity Split, Red Perry & the Coosa Valley Boys, and Cedar Creek. Those attending will hear a sweeping variety of bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music for your entertainment.

Modern bluegrass music developed in the early 1950s as a separate musical genre from "Country and Western." This happened when Nashville's Country and Western sound became progressively "popular" with the inclusion of large orchestras, trap drum sets and full electrification of the rhythm instruments. Bluegrass has kept closer to its rural roots in old-time music, once pejoratively termed "hillbilly" music. The "hillbilly" genre probably was born in the 1920s and was featured on recordings and radio programs of the era, especially the Grand Ol' Opry on Nashville's radio station WSM.

Most instruments used in modern bluegrass bands are nearly the same as earlier "old-time music." Instrumentation is primarily acoustic and rarely electrified except, sometimes, the bass. The standard bluegrass instrumentation is fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, standup bass and dobro slide guitar.

Bluegrass has, primarily, a secular repertory interlaced with gospel songs. In addition, there is often humorous banter between the songs. The repertory is consistent with early Grand Ol' Opry programming as well as earlier minstrel and medicine shows that injected humor into the performance. Certain songs used in bluegrass music have a link to traditional folk ballads and fiddle tunes. At any bluegrass gathering one may hear fiddle tunes such as, "Whoa Mule," "A Soldier's Joy," "Billy in the Low Ground," "Sally Gooden," "Faded Love," "Chicken Cackle," or other tunes related to Old-World Scots-Irish or British music.

It is believed that mandolin player Bill Monroe coined the term "bluegrass" describing it as a combination of blues and hoe-down music. Also a factor in the naming could have been that Monroe was born in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. In the 1920-30's Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie were the prototype of the bluegrass band of today.

Bluegrass music in Alabama has a grass roots orientation. Most performing bands are usually locally known and most performers do not derive a major part of their income from playing in a band. For most performers, it is playing and singing music they love for others that makes it all worthwhile. There is a real camaraderie between bluegrass aficionados. Local bluegrass parks, where festivals and concerts are held, are found throughout Alabama.

Nearly every little park offers amenities for recreational vehicles to hook up to water and electricity for a fee during the time of the event. A few of these parks are Horsepens 40 near Gadsden, Flatwoods Music Park in Lowndes County, and the Dixie Bluegrass Music Park in Coffee County. One often has to get a camper spot a day or so ahead because of limited space. Besides music parks specifically for bluegrass events, there are also annual bluegrass events held in various locales each year, such as the Dixie Bluegrass Festival held at the city park in Holly Pond and the annual ABMA concert. Much of the fun at these events are the informal picking sessions under the canopy of a recreational vehicle or in the shade of nearby oak. For campers spending the night, potluck suppers or other social events fill the time until the stage presentations. Bluegrass events offer quality family fun and are gaining in popularity through a network of regional events each year.