Now in his 80s, Bobby Hicks is a 10-time Grammy-winning fiddler and was a key figure in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Known for adding a fifth string to the fiddle, Hicks pioneered a bluegrass style still relevant today. Hicks recently received the 2014 North Carolina Heritage Award, which recognizes North Carolinians who have made a significant contribution to the arts.
INDY: What is bluegrass?
BOBBY HICKS: Bluegrass music has been my life since I worked for Bill Monroe, with a little country here and there.
What do you think it's accomplished as a genre?
It was a really good thing, but what they are doing now is like what they've done for country music before. No one plays the melody anymore.
How much should bluegrass stretch beyond its stylistic bounds?
That is what it's already done. Today's bluegrass is nothing like what Bill Monroe used to play.
Are there any up-and-coming groups that have stretched those bounds in ways you like?
That's what I've done with my band. I'm not looking to go off the deep end with it. It will be close to the original sound as possible. Bluegrass is probably evolving, but I don't even like the new music anymore too much. I enjoy playing, but I don't like what other people are doing. Every time you hear a fiddle break on a song, if you pull that break off there and just listen to that, you'd never know what the song was. There is no melody to the music anymore. And I really don't like that way to go about it.—Dan Schram
Dave Wilson fronts Chatham County Line, which uses bluegrass-familiar instruments as a starting point for unconventional hybrids of roots and rock. IBMA's first year in the capital city inspired Wilson to pen "Living in Raleigh Now," a song that has since become the festival's unofficial anthem. After playing City Plaza and Red Hat Amphitheater during the event's previous editions, the quartet performs instead at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass—which, as the name implies, is much more liberal with genre limits—this weekend.
INDY: What is bluegrass?
DAVE WILSON: Years ago, if you said rock 'n' roll, people just pictured The Beatles and bands that played with two guitars, a bass and drums and sang. Now, rock could be Radiohead. Bluegrass is similar: Bluegrass can be the Punch Brothers or Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice or The Gibson Brothers or us. It's not necessarily keeping up with the times but with people's influences. Unless you were brought up in a cave, there's no way you'll just be influenced by 1940s bluegrass and hide the Jimi Hendrix in your brain.
When Chatham County Line began, The Del McCoury Band was a major influence. Did you intend to branch out?
At first, hell yeah, we wanted to be The Del McCoury Band. But I wasn't brought up on this music. I don't think I would find pure happiness in life creating music that's untrue to myself and my own influences.
Is bluegrass sitting still or evolving?
I don't know if the music is stagnant, but the IBMA awards show is the most stagnant thing on the planet. It's an all-inclusive club that's almost impossible to join. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's supposed to be a celebration of this acoustic style of music. But when someone says, "That's not bluegrass" or "You can't play that song in bluegrass" or "You're not good enough to fit in this jam," it becomes not a celebration but a military rule. We don't need that. —Spencer Griffith
After being drawn into eastern North Carolina's pockets of pickers, Lorraine Jordan began playing bluegrass as a teenager. In the decades since, she's become a hotshot of the contemporary bluegrass world, leading her outfit, Carolina Road, to multiple awards and to the traditional interpretations of country classics on this year's propulsive Country Grass. In Garner, Jordan also helms Lorraine's Coffee House & Music, a space for hearing bluegrass outside of bars.
INDY: When you first fell for bluegrass as a teenager, what drew you?
LORRAINE JORDAN: I've just always loved the sound—the tremolo on the mandolin, the high singing, the great harmony, the great drive. No matter whether it was a fast song or a slow song, it was always driving.
How much did you dig into its history?
I studied Bill Monroe's licks, his mandolin chops and all the different sounds he could get. I learned a lot about that, and I liked Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. I learned about Don Reno. We used to have fights over who started the three-finger-style banjo roll, Don Reno or Earl Scruggs. Then, when I first heard the New Grass Revival, I thought, "Whoa, what's this here?" It was still bluegrass, just a different style.
How important do you think it is to maintain bluegrass' sense of history?
I stay out there and keep playing because, if we don't continue, it's going to go away. I hate to say it's going to go like country did, but I can see it moving in different routes. As long as we keep the banjo rolling and the mandolin chopping, we're OK.
How far do you think the sound can go and still be bluegrass?
As long as you got a banjo rolling, that's what makes the difference between classic country, Americana and bluegrass. —Grayson Haver Currin