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A Keeper from Keith
by Haven James

Artist: Bill Keith
Album: Something Auld, Something Newgrass, Something Borrowed, Something Bluegrass

There are some albums that make you ask, Well, do I like it? Did the opener grab me? Which cut is the single? Does the album make a statement? Who is this artist, anyway? Then there are other albums that are just plain important. The release of Woodstock banjo maven Bill Keith's Something Auld, Something Newgrass, Something Borrowed, Something Bluegrass is just plain important, and not so plain at that.

An archive release by Rounder Records (CD0084), Something Auld ... is a landmark--not only of Keith's career as one of his generation's most dominant banjo artists, but of the evolution of the place of the instrument in the folk/bluegrass realms, as well as the place of the individual players who appear with Keith to make the music. Packed with entries from the little-known-facts department, this album holds a host of surprises.

To backtrack a bit, Keith appeared on the bluegrass scene as a second-generation player. Following the likes of Earl Scruggs and others who had established the banjo as a driving force of the high energy, fast-picking bluegrass genre, Keith joined Bill Monroe's band and began to twist the peg and throw some curveballs into an arena with otherwise strict rules governing form and structure. As bluegrass evolved through the late '50s and early '60s, violators were not well tolerated; the struggling birth of newgrass travelled a tough road fraught with battles and great resistance, and it was only the subtle insurrection that snuck in and stuck before anyone ever knew what happened. Mild-mannered, low-keyed, and intellectually focused, Keith pulled off just such an insurrection when he integrated both following and leading melodies into and around the standard hammer-and-claw banjo attack.

This CD is packaged with an insightful booklet of liner notes, in which Keith defines the players and their parts on the record and Tony Trischka provides his take on the history of what's really going on here. (The notes were first written in 1976, but Trischka added an addendum for this 1998 release.) Quoting in part, Trischka offers this analysis of Keith's contribution: "Bill had come up with an entirely new way to play the banjo, one that totally defied the laws of Scruggs style. Instead of building the break on various juxtapositions of traditional Scruggs licks, he was playing long, flowing melodic lines based on scales rather than chords. The music was seamless, omnidirectional, exciting, and to my virgin ears was as significant as Earl Scruggs's introduction to Snuffy Jenkins." Years later, Keith's innovation is recognized as a classic form itself and is referred to as Keith, melodic, or chromatic.

Taken simply for its music, the record stands as a strong statement as well. The band consists of Jim Rooney on vocals and rhythm guitar, Tom Gray on bass, the singular Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Ken Kosek on piano and fiddle. Al Jones sings on one cut, and a duo in the making appeared to fill out the six- and eight-string positions: David Grisman and Tony Rice played mandolin and guitar on this recording and, from the bonding on this effort, went on to form the David Grisman Quartet, giving birth to Dawg Music and altering the face of acoustic music history.

This archival release covers a lot of territory and it's not strictly bluegrass, although there is a strong dose of that present. Striking is the interplay of Keith's banjo on the melodies and the burning statements that Tony Rice's leads cut like shooting stars through the tunes. More than an archive for the collection, this CD is a treasure.

Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times

A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.

Go to the Werewolves of Woodstock page for more articles by Haven James.
Haven James can be contacted at

Posted on April 29, 1998

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