The Bluegrass Round Up       Feb 2024

February is Black history month in the US and Bluegrass, like so many of our American folk styles, has its African influences.

Early Banjos.  Let’s start with the banjo. According to the Smithsonian Institute;

“Few musical instruments are more deeply connected to the American experience than the banjo. The banjo was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and colonial North America. Here, they maintained and perpetuated the tradition within a complex system of slave-labor camps, plantations, and in a variety of rural and urban settings. From the earliest references in the 17th century, and through the 1830s, the banjo was exclusively known as an African-American tradition with a West African heritage. “

The banjo was played mainly in the US in the south. It was picked up by the minstrel show movement in the 1800’s. In the early 1900’s, it was a popular jazz instrument in Dixieland and early jazz. It remained in the remote mountain areas in rural south up until the 1930’s till Bluegrass adopted it mostly through the innovative playing style of Earl Scruggs.

Young Black musicians like Rhiannon Giddens have really brought the Black origins of the banjo to light. Please watch this talented singer multi instrumentalist and historian play and sing “Wayfaring Stranger”


Then, if you’d like to hear her explain the roots of the banjo, click below.

I’ve talked about Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, before in my articles. His early days were shaped by a very influential black blues singer/guitar player by the name of Arnold Schultz.

According to Dr. Richard Brown, modern day expert on Monroe style mandolin playing and member of the IBMA Foundation (International Bluegrass Music Association) from and article by Nancy Cardwell-Webster;

“Arnold Shultz is long overdue for recognition because of his influence on bluegrass music,” Dr. Brown said.

“Arnold played with Bill Monroe’s fiddling uncle Pen Vandiver as a guitarist. Shultz was also a sought after fiddler and later hired Bill to play guitar for him at dances. Bill Monroe told me about Arnold Shultz and their dance gigs more than 50 years ago, when I was in my twenties. The stories would always end with Bill saying, ‘Now, isn’t that something?’ Yes, it’s time to take Arnold Shultz, one of our hidden legends, out of obscurity and into the mainstream.” Bill Monroe’s first paying gig as a 12-year-old musician was when one of his first musical heroes, Arnold Shultz, hired him to play guitar for a local dance.

In Robert Cantwell’s book, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (University of Illinois Press, 2003), Monroe is quoted as saying, “There’s things in my music, you know, that come from Arnold Shultz—runs that I use a lot in my music, I don’t say that I make them the same way that he could make them but he was powerful with it. In following a fiddle piece or a breakdown, he used a pick and he could just run from one chord to another the prettiest you’ve ever heard…. Then he could play blues and I wanted some blues in my music too, you see.”

After learning from local musicians and a few who were traveling through, Shultz became a road musician himself. It’s likely that he heard and played with a variety of musicians who worked on the steamboat lines that cruised the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans and the Ohio River from Cairo to Pittsburgh, docking at Evansville, Louisville, Cincinnati and Owensboro, Kentucky—the latter only a few miles from where he grew up. During his travels between 1919 and 1922, Shultz heard musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and any number of Dixieland jazz, blues and ragtime musicians from St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and New Orleans.

What do Louie Armstrong and Bill Monroe have in common? Perhaps a lot more than I thought before this. This year at the IBMA’s annual convention last September in Raleigh, NC, we were spell bound by the Artistic Director of the American Roots Music program at Berklee College of Music, Matt Glaser as he pointed out the ways Bluegrass and Blues, Jazz and Swing all have borrowed from each other. This address is full of short recorded examples of the same songs, harmonic structures and themes in these songs that they have in common. If you have an interest in this, it is on YouTube and the link is below.

Bluegrass is African, English, Irish, Scottish, Creole, Italian, Spanish and American. The list can go on and on. We love our melting pot of music!

In the near future, we have two opportunities to see national touring Bluegrass Bands in Buffalo.

The first is Feb. 7 Greensky Bluegrass at the Town Ballroom

Since their 2000 formation in Kalamazoo, MI, the quintet—Anders Beck [dobro], Michael Arlen Bont [banjo], Dave Bruzza [guitar], Mike Devol [upright bass], and Paul Hoffman [mandolin]—have unassumingly progressed into a phenomenon on their own terms with the undying support of a devout audience. Rolling back and forth across North America on successive tours, they recently sold out 3 nights at Red Rocks, a feat unheard of in their genre.

During 2019, All For Money marked their second #1 debut on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums Chart and third straight Top 3 entry. They’ve also earned critical acclaim from Billboard, Parade, NPR, and Rolling Stone who hailed them as “representing the genre for a whole new generation.”

As always, the band embraces tradition while ushering bluegrass forward on their eighth full-length offering, Stress Dreams. “Greensky is and always has been very unique in our world,” observes Paul. “We put our love, energy, and focus into what we appreciate about our music. We come together as a band in a way that’s organic. We take a lot of pride in how we grow and challenge each other too. We’re maturing together. I think we get more Greensky all of the time.” (From their website.)

The second opportunity that I will spotlight is the Slocan Ramblers at the West Falls Center for the Arts on Mar, 9.

The Slocan Ramblers (featured on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville TN, 2020 IBMA Momentum Band of the Year Award Winner & 2019 Juno Award Nominee) are Canada’s bluegrass band to watch. Rooted in tradition, fearlessly creative and possessing a bold, dynamic sound, The Slocans have become a leading light of today’s acoustic music scene. With a reputation for energetic live shows, impeccable musicianship and an uncanny ability to convert anyone within earshot into a lifelong fan, The Slocans have been winning over audiences from Merlefest to RockyGrass and everywhere in between.

On their new album Up the Hill and Through the Fog, the all-star Canadian roots ensemble channels the past two years of loss into a surprisingly joyous collection of twelve songs intended to uplift and help make sense of the world. Bluegrass music is nothing short of catharsis for The Slocan Ramblers.

Though the past few years have brought the group accolades, that same momentum was abruptly halted by the pandemic’s brutal impact on live music. Over the next year, bandmates Adrian Gross and Darryl Poulsen both lost close family members and their bassist decided to step back to spend more time at home. They channeled these tumultuous changes into some of their most honest and direct compositions yet. Up the Hill and Through the Fog showcases the breadth of their varied influences while staying true to their roots in the rough and tumble bluegrass scene of Toronto’s no-nonsense bars and dancehalls. From Frank Evan’s classic, dusty vocals, to John Hartford-inspired lyrical musings, it’s all buttressed by impeccable musicianship, and emotionally raw songwriting from the three core members. This is roots music without pretension, art powerful enough to cut through the fog of the past two years and chart a more hopeful course forward. (from their website)

Bluegrass Shows Coming Up

Thursday, Feb. 1, noon- 2:15 PM – The Buffalo Bluegrass All Stars – Sportsmen’s Tavern, Buffalo, NY

Wednesday, Feb. 7, 7-9:30 PM – Greensky Bluegrass Band – Town Ballroom – Buffalo, NY

Saturday, Feb. 10, 7:30-10 PM – The Crooked North – Three Heads Brewing – Rochester, NY

Sunday, Feb. 11 2-7 PM –  Bennington Bluegrass Jam – Bennington Lanes – Bennington, NY

Thursday, Feb.15, noon- 2:15 PM – Buffalo Bluegrass All Stars – Sportsmen’s Tavern, Buffalo, NY

Sunday, Feb. 18,  4-7 PM – Ole Time String Jam Session – 42 North Brewing Co. – East Aurora, NY

Saturday, Feb 24, 8-11 PM – The Rear View Ramblers – Gowanda Brewing at the Wicked Glen – Gowanda, NY

Saturday, Mar. 9, 7-9:30 PM – The Slocan Ramblers – The West Falls Center for the Arts – West Falls, NY

Saturday, Mar. 23, 7:30-9:30 PM – Chris Thile and Nickel Creek – UB Center for the Arts

Wednesday, Apr. 3, 7:30-9:30 PM – Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Kleinhans Music Hall

Tuesday, May 21, 7-9 PM – Tommy Emmanuel and Chris Jacobs – Babeville – Buffalo, NY

I wish you all a happy Groundhog’s day, happy Valentines Day, the time to learn more about Black History and Bluegrass and as always,  Keep on Pickin’!

Mark Panfil
Creek Bend and



Angela Hastings

Author Angela Hastings

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