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June 16, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 12

Keep on Shining

The Blue Mooners bring bluegrass back home

by Chris Barrett

It's a sad and vicious cycle. Kinda like the way the guys who rake the charcoal at the Jack Daniels distillery in dry Lynchburg have to drive 45 minutes to buy a bottle, or the way Cadillacs are assembled in Detroit by people whose only time behind the wheel of one is putting them on a transport trailer; as soon as bluegrass music became a marketable commodity, it became an export.

Bluegrass is the indigenous music of this region. But to hear it, you have to either buy it back from the record companies, hang out down at Roy's Records or Pick & Grin for the all too rare impromptu jam, or hold your breath between once-a-year concerts like last month's Ralph Stanley and Jim And Jesse. (Which promoted what? A film from New York, that's what.)

The Blue Mooners are a Knoxville area bluegrass band. Aside from the occasional festival stint in Kentucky or Virginia, The Blue Mooners craft their traditional tunes and hand-me-down harmonies exclusively for East Tennessee audiences.

"The popularity of bluegrass seems to go through cycles," says Rick Pollard, leader of the Blue Mooners by default and guitarist by virtue of his expertise. "It peaked in the '70s with all the new festivals and bands that sprouted up then. I can tell that it's on its way up again. That bluegrass revival happened because the young people became interested in it, and that's what's happening again now."

Alongside Pollard when the Blue Mooners let their deal go down on-stage are Mel and Skeeter Doyle, playing rhythm guitar and mandolin respectively, Clint Harriman on fiddle, Wade Hill on banjo and Jeff Marcum on bass. The Blue Mooners are only a few years old, yet the core of the group has been singing and playing together for over 20 years.

"Wade and Skeeter and I played together in the '70s in a band called Possum Belly," says Pollard. "Unlike a lot of the bands that came out of the '70s, those bands that play 'canned bluegrass,' all speed and showing off, we didn't learn bluegrass from records. Me and Wade and Skeeter learned from playing with and listening to old-timers, just like Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe did. And it shows.

"Every time my family got together, whether it was after church or before dinner or whatever, we'd always end up on the front porch with a couple guitars. I love those old songs. And that's one of the things we try to do, is keep those old-time songs alive."

Listening to the Blue Mooners is a lot like a musical history lesson. Skeeter Doyle is one of the few singers around who can hit the high notes necessary to cover Bill Monroe or Don Reno. His mandolin playing is mostly improvised, but he draws from a traditional vocabulary of licks and styles, so it sounds familiar even if all you have at home are 78s. Tossed in with the obligatory Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs covers are seldom-heard antiques like "A Little Boy Named Joe" and "Put My Little Shoes Away."

Their stage presence is worthy of the traditions from which they draw. The soft spoken Harriman only looks rough and ready, as if he might have ridden in from Kodak on a Massey-Ferguson. His passion for the genre makes you think he might have learned to play on one of those two-string gourd fiddles hanging in the Museum of Appalachia. Only his nonchalant virtuosity, the ease with which he saws off fills to bridge solos by Skeeter and Hill, suggests that he's actually a classically trained violinist. Pollard is something of a conductor, bobbing and nodding his vintage Hopalong Cassidy ten gallon hat in lieu of a baton.

"This winter we had a steady gig at Bullfrogs," says Pollard. "It's pretty much a reggae club. We'd have these kids, black and white with their dreadlocks and tie-dyes, out on the floor trying to clog to our music. It's great to jump those barriers between styles. That's what makes me think bluegrass is going to make another comeback real soon. Young people are opening up to different kinds of music besides rock."

Even if those dreads hadn't belonged to UT students, if they'd come straight from the Ivory Coast or Marrakesh, the attraction to bluegrass would be understandable. Of all the genres of music normally associated with the U.S., bluegrass seems to be the least embarrassed by its international ancestry. And it has cousins all over the world that can't be traced directly. Listen to the mandolins or balalaikas in the klezmer dance music of Eastern Europe, or the harp-like koras in the festive mandinka of Gambia. You'll hear a lot of the same high-pitched string melodies and furious energy that you hear in Appalachian Mountain bluegrass.

Better yet, head down to the upcoming International Jubilee. Spend some time with the Japanese Koto musicians there or the Indian folk dancers. The similarities between the music you hear from those performers and The Blue Mooners, also performing at the Jubilee, say more convincingly than any Disney lyricist could that it's a damn small world.

"It'll be a party," Pollard says laughing. "It's a party anytime we play. And whether the audience likes us or bluegrass at all, they'll have a good time. Guaranteed."

© Metro Pulse