New Grass, Blue Grass

Unless Madonna decides to cut a Blue Grass album, this particular branch of country-folk music is apt to remain a backroads favorite far into the next century. It's never really had a "hey-day" as a musical form but it has also never been in any real danger of fading away either. In fact, just last Saturday in Accord the brand new Catskill Bluegrass Band played their first gig.

Featuring Reba and Rounder recording artist Dick Staber, whose mandolin licks are always a treat to soak in, CBB also recruited Gary Digiovanni, who's been living up near Chatham for the past 4 years, Kerhonkson-native Walt Yeager and Judith Chasnoff, who commutes from Montreal. Each brings their own strain of blue grass seeds which have been watered at Staber's regular tuesday night jams in Lanesville.

Another ingredient in the birth of this band springs from Staber's interest in local folklore, which he has fashioned into a show with foot-pedal slides and live music that recounts a history of local railroads, peoples and the D&H Canal.

When another new enterprise, the Accord Train Station, refurbished a depot built in 1902 and opened in June as a culture-center coffee house, Staber's presentation must have seemed a natural fill for a Saturday afternoon. The Station's schedule is geared to diversity, offering art exhibits, garden shows, dances, Andean music, etc., and was looking for a Bluegrass Band. Staber said "I'll see what I can do."

The Catskills area has had its share of Blue Grass notables for 3 or 4 decades and in the last few years summer festivals have brought in other national names for the faithful. But what exactly, besides "an acquired taste", 'is' Bluegrass? Everybody knows...sorta.

A distinct hybrid, Blue Grass is a musical form recently enough evolved to pinpoint its origins with some precision. It emerged almost solely from the peculiar country style of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys who distilled Appalachain string-band music of the 20s and 30s into a sound stressing complex vocal duets with a high harmony and repeating bass run guitar style. Add in a sometimes twinned mandolin or fiddle and a Scruggs-style (say that 3 times fast) or Don Reno banjo and you've got the workin's of a form that influenced even the young Elvis Presley (who recorded Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky in his first sessions.)

Widely imitated, Monroe's sound began to be called "blue-grass" about the time rock & roll was emerging as its own music and, oddly enough, this happened in northern urban pockets of Detroit, Cincinati and Baltimore, where many Southerners had taken root. Since the genus of actual grasses called bluegrass spread through underground stems, it seems fitting that the music followed suit.

Staber, himself, wandered into bluegrass from the folk fields of the sixties in a New York State college town, learning mandolin in graduate school and the army. "I played in the latrine in Guam, wherever I could," he recalled. Staber was proficient enough while stationed in the blue-grass hotbed of Baltimore to begin playing professionally with various bands and began demonstrating his ability to write solid tunes, the best way to cultivate almost any musical form. He recorded as a member of Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals before forming his own group Yonder City. Staber lived in the Maryland and York County, Penn. areas until 1982 when he moved to Columbia County, N.Y. and has toured Canada, Japan, Europe and Scandinava, where blue-grass enthusiasts are known to lurk.

With some of the initial hesitancy and awkwardness that are hallmark in spanking new bands, Staber and guitarist (and psychiatric social worker) Chasnoff provided the harmonies for a flock of familiar blue-grass songs while Yeager slapped his stand-up bass and Digiovanni cautiously played in his banjo openings.

Yeager describes himself as a "blue-grass nut" for over 30 years whose original infection was handed down from a great uncle that played mountain fiddle. He's picked bass, flat-top guitar and "a little mandolin" (the big one's are relatively rare) at square dances and with locally prized groups like the Suttons.

Digiovanni, who features an exceptionally smooth and pleasant three-finger style, has developed it over 28 years, largely in the middle-Jersey regions around Highland Park and New Brunswick where he played for 16 years with St.Elmo's Fire. He and Yeager first met shortly before the show and it was evident that the band was just getting to know each other through the assortment of standards in the first set. Where the musical path seemed clear, though, the banjo stepped out to shine.

Like any maiden cruise, there were some choppy waves and just a smidgen of slack tide here and there as the room was circled by a wandering orange cat and an energized Luke the Tyke. But there were also good fast stretches which jelled with increasing frequency as the set progressed. The harmonies seemed to work best on the sprinkled in "Sacred Songs" (as Blue Grass calls its borrowings from gospel) and the sound of them made it easy to project a short distance to the hard, tight arrangements which really make blue-grass kick.

Hopefully, they'll kick on some of Staber's originals like "Catskill Mountain Home,"--not because "Streamline Cannonball", "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad," "Meet You At the Station" or the other perennials of the form are wearing out-- but Blue Grass, for all of its tradition, is still a young music. Hey, Merion Bluegrass as a form of plant life was only discovered in 1936, growing on a golf course. That new bluegrass needed cultivation. So does this.

-- Gary Alexander