Byline: BILLY KENNEDY
Bluegrass music is all the rage in the United States, and not just in the Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia and Alabama where it was cradled and fine-tuned.
With high-pitched plaintive vocals and fast pickin' instrumentals, the bluegrass performers of today are moving out beyond the small towns and rural hamlets of the Appalachian backcountry to embrace a wider world which appears to be fascinated with the distinctive sounds that form the mantra of this most folksy American music.
The wider American interest, and indeed, by many in Britain, in bluegrass music is attributable to an Appalachian-theme-located film O Brother Where Art Thou, which has received sensational acclaim throughout the States since its release a year ago.
The film has a somewhat zany hillbilly storyline, but the music backdrop is authentic bluegrass and the soundtrack album became the surprise hit in America in 2001/2002, topping the Billboard's Top Country Album chart for 27 weeks, with the track Man Of Constant Sorrow voted single of the year at the American Country Music Awards last November.
This month, the album won several Grammys, including Album of the Year, with the disc selling more than five million copies, with over 200,000 sold in the week after the Grammys were awarded.
It is, incredibly, currently the No 1 selling album of any musical genre in the United States.
While O Brother's Man Of Sorrow was immediately embraced by pure country video programmes, commercial radio stations in the larger cities and towns of the region were slow to recognise its marketing potential.
Ben Cline, vice-president of US national sales of Lost Highway Records, says: "I expected that we would sell a couple of hundred thousand to half a million copies. Then, in February 2001, it sold 65,000 copies in one week and went to No 1 on the Billboard country album charts. It has had astounding success".
Bluegrass legend Dr Ralph Stanley, with musical input by himself and his group, has played a significant role in the album's phenomenal success, which can be judged by sales of more than a million in Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia collectively. In France, it sold 70,000 copies in its first week of release.
It's all a new world for old-time performers like 75-year-old Stanley who, for years, have played their bluegrass music essentially in the cities and towns of the Appalachian states.
Bluegrass music, in the professional realm, was introduced 50 years ago by Kentuckian, the late Bill Monroe, and the group he successfully fronted, the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass, of course, had its origins in the hills and hollers of Kentucky and Tennessee and is very closely identified with the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in these regions in the late 18th and earlier centuries.
The instruments used by bluegrass musicians are acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, double bass and dobro, that guitar-shaped neck instrument with the hollow haunting bell sound which is played in horizontal hand style.
Most bluegrass performers are natural musicians, with some never having worked off a written musical note in their lives. Music gravitates through the rural communities of Appalachia - the trees and the hills literally echo to the sound of music, both out on the front porch and in the clearings!
Movies and television shows have, in the past, given boosts to bluegrass music. The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde used the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs track Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and appearances by Flatt and Scruggs on the highly popular Beverly Hillbillies' television show helped catch the attention of a new generation of bluegrass fans.
The Beverly Hillbillies' theme tune became a No 1 hit in the country singles chart in 1962 and made Flatt and Scruggs household names. …