Carl Jackson surveyed the room full of rustic rocking chairs with a smile. “I feel like I’ve died and gone to Cracker Barrel,” joked the Grammy-winning producer-singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist. But it was the people occupying those rows of rockers that really made the tiny TV studio north of Nashville seem like heaven for bluegrass lovers: Mac Wiseman, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Del McCoury, Ramona Jones, Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson, The Whites, Ronnie Reno, Rhonda Vincent, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Dailey & Vincent, Eric and Leigh Gibson, Paul Brewster, Larry Cordle, Sierra Hull, Dierks Bentley, The Roys, Donna Ulisse, and Kyle Cantrell. And then there was the house band: Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, and The Boxcars’ Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart. That’s the makings of a pretty spectacular three-day festival right there, but not only was there no audience for this bluegrass summit, they were all gathered there for just one day.
The occasion was the filming of Simply Bluegrass, the latest of TV personality and producer Larry Black’s series of Country’s Family Reunion DVDs. An intimate and exhaustive mix of everything that happened that day—performances, interviews, backstage footage, and more—Simply Bluegrass fills five discs. (Black, who hosts RFD-TV’s Larry’s Country Diner and Country’s Family Reunion series, broadcast portions of Simply Bluegrass in March). Co-hosted by Ricky Skaggs and country music legend Bill Anderson, the program promised to be scary good even before a note was played. And, as everyone took their seats in the hobbled rocking chairs (wood blocks were attached to the runners to prevent accidents), and lapel mics were clipped on and the final daubs of pancake makeup applied, many of those stars were as nervous as the proverbial cat in a roomful of free-range rockers.
“I can’t think of a more nerve-wracking crowd to play in front of,” said Dierks Bentley, who, of course, has been playing in front of packed arenas and stadiums for years. That’s a snap compared to this, he says. “It’s easy playing in front of my peers. Here, these are my idols. Playing in front of all these bluegrass people in a tiny room like that? It’s crazy.” Of course, Bentley usually plays mainstream country music, and while he regularly performs bluegrass, including his fine Up On The Ridge CD, it’s still a bit out of his comfort zone.
Still, even a master like Del McCoury was having butterflies. “I’m kind of nervous in here,” he told me after rehearsing with the house band. “I don’t mind getting up there and playing for thousands of people. But here, you’ve got this good band behind you that you respect, and then you got all these people in the audience. It makes you nervous, it really does.”
Producer Black says that’s a good sign, that quiet edginess just before the storm. “It’s always the first five or ten minutes of the show that you always go, ‘Are they ever gonna warm up?’” Black explained. “But once that ice breaks, then it’s like pandemonium, and this story falls into that story into that story into that story. And I love the laughter that comes out of that room.”
He’s not alone. His Country’s Family Reunions have been favorites of fans of real country music for a long time. They’re intimate, informal gatherings of classic country artists, folks who’ve known each other for decades, often having toured together, or at least spent time together, clustered in the backstage mob at the Grand Ole Opry. Anything can happen, says Black.
“When we first started doing Country’s Family Reunion, the charm of the room was that you had thirty people in the room with friends that they’ve known for twenty/thirty years that they never get to spend time with anymore. Even backstage at the Opry, you’ve got one performer out there performing and everybody’s back there talking. They don’t have time to listen to the singer; they’re back there talking.
“When we have them in the room here, there are no cellphones, nobody interrupting anybody, they’re all just sitting there. And then when Jim Ed Brown sings ‘Pop A Top,’ you had 29 people singing it with him. And when he would do the [pop sound], everybody tried it, it was great. And I realized at that point, that’s what they miss. Little Jimmy Dickens missing sitting with Jan Howard or Jeannie Seely. They traveled in station wagons together that load up after the Opry and go to Canada and work the week and then come back for the Opry. So they’re in this tight, confined area. Jean Shepard said, ‘I used to say, “O.K., boys, turn around. I gotta change clothes.”’ And then Jeannie Seely said, ‘I grew up in an era when I didn’t ask them to turn around.’ It is that tightness, that family. That’s what makes it special.”
Though today’s Family Reunion really is a family. Bluegrass has always been a tightknit music with few barriers between artists and fans, and no boundaries among musicians. Many of those gathered here are genuine family members. Co-host Skaggs had his wife Sharon White there with her sister Cheryl and father, Buck White. During the Whites’ chart-topping days, their resonator guitar player was a young hotshot named Jerry Douglas, who just prior to that had been playing with Skaggs in Boone Creek and, before that, the legendary J.D. Crowe band that a few years earlier featured a young Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent’s younger brother Darrin, who spent years in Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band (as did Bryan Sutton), was on hand with his music partner Jamie Dailey (a nine-year veteran of Lawson’s band, Quicksilver).
Dailey & Vincent would join Rhonda for a hair-raising “Beneath Still Waters,” which she’d learned from the record by Skaggs’ former boss, Emmylou Harris. Mandolin icons Bobby Osborne and Jesse McReynolds were both part of pioneering bluegrass brother acts, and today’s reigning bluegrass siblings, the Gibson Brothers, were also on hand.
Paul Brewster, Skaggs’ longtime tenor singer in Kentucky Thunder, did his show-stopping “Kentucky Waltz,” an automatic standing ovation during Skaggs’ regular concerts. And, since every bluegrass fan watching the house band play through the history of bluegrass, from Mac Wiseman’s warmhearted take on the old-time ballad “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” to Jerry Douglas’ progressive “Gone To Fortingal,” will probably be thinking the same thing: “Let those boys loose!” Simply Bluegrass features the all-star group working through a couple of hard-driving instrumental evergreens: Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss” and Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys’ “Big Country.”
Old songs and old friends, that’s a tough combination to beat. “I know everybody in that room,” says Rhonda Vincent, adding that she’s not alone in that. “It’s no different than every other festival that we go to. But here, we’re sitting around, usually we’re playing or running to our show.”
Black believes that, for that very reason, bluegrass is closer in spirit to classic country music than today’s country is. Back in the day, a Jack Greene could step out from the Texas Troubadours drum kit and make it all the way to the CMA Awards and Opry membership. In today’s world of American Idol and social media, that sort of apprenticeship is all but extinct in commercial country, but it’s alive and thriving in bluegrass.
The direct blood and band connections in that room would take a couple of issues of this magazine to completely detail, but for the people there, and for those who will see the DVD or TV excerpts, the most important thing is the chemistry those connections help create. Which is exactly what Black had in mind when he came up with the idea. “These guys don’t necessarily travel in the big buses all the time,” he said. “They’re still getting out there in the small vans and the cars and just going. Country music is family; but this is even more family.”
“Best Bluegrass School Ever”
For Sierra Hull, the youngest member of the Simply Bluegrass family, that musical DNA runs deep. “They asked me if I could do a song that influenced me and, early in life, I listened to mostly gospel music. So I’m going to do the song ‘River Of Jordan’ that Ricky recorded years ago, and Ricky and Sharon are going to sing with me.”
Just like in our own biological families, the best way to connect to our roots is to spend quality time with the older generation. “Being there, sitting around, listening to them tell stories about all these people that I’ll never have the chance to meet is really cool, ’cause I can only read about them and listen to their music,” Hull added. “But to hear it directly from these artists who knew them and played with them…” Like others there, she singles out the unofficial guest of honor, Mac Wiseman. “Mac! It’s unbelievable to have him here, and to listen to him tell stories like that.”
Singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse agrees. “I’m sitting here like I’m in the best bluegrass school ever. My jaw is just dropping. I’m sure I look ridiculous on camera. Everybody is just the best of the best.” She was speaking during the lunch break, amazed how the morning session had whizzed by. “I didn’t even realize how much time had elapsed. I was thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t going to go this quickly all day.’ It’s just been incredible.”
Sirius-XM bluegrass DJ Kyle Cantrell was on hand to provide some historical perspective, but like most everyone there, the historian in him was being overshadowed by the bluegrass fan. “It is just a perfect gathering of people,” Cantrell said. “When you look at all the names that are in this room, we’ve got people in there that go back to the very beginning of bluegrass music, like Mac and Bobby Osborne. And you’ve got the superstars in there, like Doyle Lawson and Del McCoury and Ricky, and you’ve got the youngsters, too, like Sierra Hull. It’s a perfect gathering.”
Bill Anderson gives a lot of the credit to his co-host Skaggs. “Ricky was largely responsible for getting the band together and getting these people out here. He really comes at bluegrass from the inside, and I’m kind of an outsider. I’ve done the Family Reunion shows since ’97, so I’m just trying to stay out of the way and keep the train on the track.”
One of country music’s greatest songwriters and a star in his own right for more than fifty years, Anderson brings a perspective from the days when bluegrass and country were part of the same family. “I come from the era when bluegrass was just a part of mainstream country. In my disc jockey days or in my early days in Nashville on the package shows, we’d go out and Marty Robbins would headline the show and Flatt & Scruggs would be on it, and I’d be on it and the same with the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse and people like that. It was all kind of mixed together. Until all this came up, somewhere along the way, and kind of separated us. And I’m not sure that that’s a good thing.”
While everyone in that room was thrilled to be there, “Picky Ricky” admitted he wasn’t able to get everyone on his must-have list. “I really wanted to get Ralph (Stanley) and Curly Seckler, but Ralph just couldn’t do it and Curly’s had some health issues. And I wanted to get (J.D.) Crowe, but he just couldn’t. But I’m so glad that Mac came and Jesse came and Bobby came.” He’s hopeful that there’ll be a sequel.
Again, Skaggs was impressed by the day’s eldest statesman. “Mac was awesome! He sounds so good. When that big voice came out of him it was like, ‘Wow!’” As strong as his singing was, Wiseman’s stories really stole the show, taking a crowd that had pretty much heard it all straight back to the flashpoint of bluegrass music’s creation. Blessed with an amazing memory for anyone, let alone an 88-year-old man, he’s working on an autobiography to be published by the University of Mississippi Press. He was part of many of the stories others were telling, a spotlight that seemed to take him aback a little. “I was embarrassed,” Wiseman said. “I was afraid I was hogging the show, but everything everybody says reminded me of something else that happened.”
No one was complaining. In fact, if there is a Simply Bluegrass sequel, Skaggs thinks Larry Black might have another revenue stream—charging admission to the musicians. “Everyone’s all such fans of each other. This has just been so great, we would have all bought tickets to come to this. I’d have bought a ticket to come to this,” Skaggs said.
Dierks Bentley would be first in line. “This is a complete joyride, to be in this room with these people,” he said, looking around at everyone. “It’s a real honor and a privilege. I’m really humbled just to be here. I was so glad to walk into the room and see Mac, and he even knew who I was. You know when you’re in the right place, when you’re heart is just so happy to be there. My face just really does hurt from smiling and laughing and hearing the stories and getting to hear some heroes sing. This is really cool.”
(Simply Bluegrass is a five-DVD set and will be sold initially as a set with Country’s Family Reunion: God Bless America, Again, five-DVD Series, $136.75 for ten DVDs, www.cfrvideos.com.)