Bluegrass from the frontier
From the January, 2010 issue
About 20 years ago, when the Johnson Mountain Boys called it quits, there were serious fears for the future of bluegrass music. Those fears seem quaint now, for bluegrass is everywhere. Witness the emergence of Bearfoot, from the unlikely locale of Anchorage, Alaska. Their style is something like that of another contemporary group, the Australian-British trio the Greencards. Bearfoot runs bluegrass camps in Alaska, so you can pack your kids off to that scenic state to be initiated into the mysteries of the mandolin and to learn to carry on this American tradition for themselves.
Of course, the tradition has changed as it has come up out of the hollows and farms of Appalachia and the mid-South; musicians who've grown up with pop and jazz and singer-songwriter folk have mixed the classical style with what they know, and they use the acoustic instruments of bluegrass as a kind of distillation of other styles (Bearfoot's label, Compass, also records and markets jazz). Bearfoot is one of a number of new bands that look both forward and back: many of their original songs are guitar-based, folky creations that reflect, or seem to reflect, personal experiences, but they also do traditional songs and other pieces that draw on the old-time upbeat string band music from which bluegrass was born in the 1930s and 1940s.
Bearfoot's gender composition--three women and two men--would have been unusual indeed in the classic era, and some of these old-time or old-timey pieces have a feminist tinge that Bearfoot shares with other young groups like the Ann Arbor-originated Uncle Earl. The group teases out traditional songs like "Single Girl" that come from a wryly painful female perspective, and to go with them they offer originals like "Caroline" that expand on traditional ideas: "Caroline's comin' into town / She's got a black eye, big and round. / Caroline's got her dancing shoes; / She ain't got a thing to lose."
Most of Bearfoot's music is on the slower and
mellower side, though, and the bluegrass banjo, fiddle, and mandolin ornament the work of Mike Mickelson's guitar at the center of the song. Lead singer Odessa Jorgensen, formerly of the California old-time band the Biscuit Burners, has a voice with a sort of rough delicacy. Her range is limited, but the group's harmonies, both vocal and instrumental, are subtle and inventive. They do a nifty cover of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," which you might think was the Beatles song least susceptible to bluegrass translation.
One of a couple of new bluegrass bands the Ark is bringing to town after the New Year (NewFound Road arrives just three days later), Bearfoot appears on a double bill with the Irish band Solas on Thursday, January 14.
[Originally published in January, 2010.]
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