I have what would be considered a wide taste in music.
I grew up in the 1970s and really fell in love with what is now called “Classic Rock and Roll.” Like most of us cool kids back then, I listened to The Beatles, AC/DC, Styx, the Rolling Stones, Boston, Frampton, the Eagles, Bad Company, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, etc. It was normal to go out cruising on a Friday or Saturday night with my favorite cassette blasting on my thousand-watt car stereo as I raced up and down Main Street burning up 20 gallons of gasoline in a single night.
I remember turning on my sister’s record player and spinning The Beatles Hey Jude/Revolution 45. It was my first record. I played it over and over torturing my siblings and parents unilaterally. I think my dog, Bowser, even grew sick and tired of Hey Jude!
As I grew into the years, something changed. I did not lose my love of “Classic Rock and Roll” but rather, I gained a love of my mother’s music.
Mom used to listen to this “God-awful” music on the AM-only radio when I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s. It had nasally singers, screeching fiddles and banjos plucking away like a woodpecker on a warm spring day.
I hated the music she listened to. But that was then, and this is now.
As I topped 50 years on this earth, I rediscovered Mom’s music purely by accident. I didn’t know what it was called. I hardly knew it existed as it simply repelled me.
Since I was 12, I played this crazy instrument called the Jew’s Harp (also called a Jaw Harp). While some of you may have tried to play one as a child, I’m sure you quickly gave up after cutting your lip or twanging the reed against your teeth, but I never stopped.
Most people stop playing the Jews Harp when they see blood – not me!
The Jew’s Harp has as much to do with religion as it does with being an actual harp – nothing.
Today, 47 years after I first picked up the instrument, I still play the crazy contraption and, hopefully by now, I’ve mastered it. About when I turned 50, I interfaced the Jew’s Harp with Bluegrass music. It was a natural fit and it really sounds great together.
I know the Jaw Harp has some roots in traditional Bluegrass but very few people have matched the harp with something like a mandolin or banjo on a professional basis. In the United States Bluegrass, the Jaw Harp has been a backwoods instrument played by mostly amateur Hillbillies in North Carolina or Tennessee, yet it is known to exist for thousands of years in Europe, Asia and India.
There is nothing directly written for the Jaw Harp in Bluegrass, Rock and Roll or Country, but the thing fits in quite well. Best of all, because no one has tried it before, audience members have no idea when I make a mistake onstage.
I started playing a little Bluegrass with “old-time” recorded music about 2012. I discovered the masterful recordings of Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flat, Tim O’Brien, Junior Sisk, Michael Cleveland, Larry Cordle, the Grascals, Sierra Hull, Vince Gill and a long, long list of amazing musicians playing their fiddles, banjos, dobroes, upright basses, guitars and whatever. Sometimes a washboard and a wash tub combine to become a rhythm section on a Friday night and I’ve seen it happen more than once!
Somehow, the interface between my ancient musical instrument and this backwater music from another era is magical.
After discovering Bluegrass, I was playing with Bluegrass and folk bands in Nebraska. After moving to Arizona four years ago, my music and the people I played with shifted gears. I started performing with the many talented people of Tucson, joining both the Desert Bluegrass Society and the Old-Time Fiddlers group. They let me perform and practice with them and I got better – much better.
Not only was I playing in the Bluegrass circles but ended up performing “Old-Timey” music with a group in Sierra Vista. This music contained a wide variety of music from the Civil War era and before. It wasn’t uncommon for us to play a sea shanty or a waltz from the 1700s. While the Jaw Harp fit in quite well to this music – I had to constantly return to Bluegrass. There’s just something about the beat, rhythm and improvisation that I could do inside a Bluegrass song.
An epiphany hit me on stage as I played along with a Bill Monroe song. My mother was listening to Bluegrass back in the 1960s. I hated it then but somehow, I’ve grown to love it as I matured. Not sure how that happened.
Now, I listen mostly to Bluegrass music, not Rock and Roll. The newer Bluegrass is actually called Newgrass and it has quickly grown on me.
Bluegrass and Newgrass are two separate, but yet combined, genres that I dearly love to listen to.
I tip my hat to the fathers and grandfathers of Bluegrass as well as my own mother. They knew good music even though the “cool kids” were listening to Rock and Roll. Keep your mind and your musical listening habits open. You might just learn something new.
Bluegrass forever baby!