Bluegrass Raleigh

UNC launches Bluegrass Initiative with a course and a band

UNC student Andrew McClenney plays the bass during the first rehearsal of a group of aspiring bluegrass musicians in Chapel Hill.
UNC student Andrew McClenney plays the bass during the first rehearsal of a group of aspiring bluegrass musicians in Chapel Hill. newsobserver.com

One day this past spring, Russell Johnson’s inbox lit up with people forwarding him a job announcement. UNC-Chapel Hill was seeking a director for the Carolina Bluegrass Band, a student group starting up as part of the school’s new Bluegrass Initiative, and everybody thought Johnson should apply.

“I probably heard from at least 10 different people,” Johnson said, laughing. “I wasn’t looking for a job because I’m already plenty busy between running my little recording studio and playing with two different bands.”

Still, Johnson gave it some thought and eventually decided to take a shot, preparing a resume and hitting “send” at 3 p.m. on deadline day. Johnson heard back from UNC professor Jocelyn Neal that same night, and he got the job not long after that.

All of which is to say that his friends were right: Johnson, a UNC alumnus and longtime mandolinist/leader of local bluegrass band the Grass Cats, was the perfect person to get UNC’s new student bluegrass band off the ground. You’ll see the Grass Cats playing during next weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass StreetFest; and while the student band won’t be ready for this year’s IBMA, they should be playing there next year.

“I think it will be like being a high school band director,” Johnson said. “Some people coming in have no bluegrass experience at all, some have it through family bands or neighborhood pickers.”

When it comes to collegiate bluegrass programs, the nationwide gold standard is East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass, old-time and country music program. East Tennessee’s alumni and faculty members include plenty of musicians you’ll see on various stages during World of Bluegrass, including IBMA’s reigning songwriter of the year Becky Buller (nominated for another three awards this year).

But even though it’s a product of UNC’s music department, the Bluegrass Initiative has a different emphasis as it starts out.

UNC’s music department and Southern Folklife Collection is teaming up to put on a bluegrass symposium in November with a program including a performance by Grammy-winners (and UNC alumni) Steep Canyon Rangers.

“My goal is not to compete with East Tennessee, which is very focused on performance,” said Neal, a professor, scholar and author who leads the UNC program. “That’s their strength, and I want to build something native to UNC’s strengths and resources in history and folklore.”

To that end, UNC’s music department and Southern Folklife Collection is teaming up to put on a bluegrass symposium in November with a program including a performance by Grammy-winners (and UNC alumni) Steep Canyon Rangers. Russell has been putting the newly formed Carolina Bluegrass Band through its rehearsal paces, gearing up for IBMA. And the Bluegrass Initiative’s first class is also meeting twice a week – Music 294: Bluegrass Music, Culture, and History.

Funding for the program comes from John A. Powell, a retired 1977 UNC alumnus who splits his time between New York, New Orleans and Lake Tahoe nowadays. Powell has been a fan of the genre since seeing The Bluegrass Experience at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill 40-some years ago. He’s a longtime financial supporter of various Southern studies programs at UNC, having endowed three professorships.

“The pieces of the program are academic content around bluegrass – a course and over time courses, we hope – plus a bluegrass band for students,” Powell said. “I hope it becomes established well enough that if I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, it will have roots on campus and be durable.”

‘Fiddle, yes’

One early-semester Thursday morning last month found Neal in room 2030 of UNC’s Kenan Music Building, teaching the two-dozen students taking the Bluegrass Initiative’s inaugural course. She started out at a very basic level, explaining the basics of music-listening techniques as well as which instruments are needed for an ensemble to be a bluegrass band.

“Ya gotta have a fiddle in the band,” quipped one student.

“Fiddle, yes,” said Neal. “And banjo. Please have a banjo – it’s symbolic of the entire tradition and performance of bluegrass.”

Neal also covered questions of authenticity (folklore versus “fakelore,” or tourism-style folklore) and cultural tradition as simultaneous blessing and curse, punctuated with recorded songs by the Carter Family, Monroe Brothers and Jimmie Rodgers. Even though this is Neal’s first time teaching the bluegrass class, she piloted much of its material in an American popular music class she taught at UNC last spring.

My five-year plan is that I want bluegrass to be on equal footing with everything else – for a banjo player to be able to come here and get a degree the same way a cellist gets a degree.

Jocelyn Neal, UNC-Chapel Hill professor

It would be unusual for a non-musician to be in East Tennessee’s bluegrass program. But only about one-third of Neal’s two-dozen students in Music 294 are musicians, an indication of UNC’s greater emphasis on folklore. Over time, bluegrass performance might develop as an area of greater focus.

“The vision is that the initiative will become much bigger,” Neal said. “My five-year plan is that I want bluegrass to be on equal footing with everything else – for a banjo player to be able to come here and get a degree the same way a cellist gets a degree. That’s the undergraduate component. For the graduate part, I’d like to bring more focus and energy and attention to the research people do here. I want us to be the first place grad students think of. We already have a very strong presence in folklore and history, so we’re building on that.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Listen up

What: Russell Johnson’s Grass Cats will play the Hargett Street Stage as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass StreetFest in downtown Raleigh.

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday, Hargett Street Stage

Cost: Free

Details: ibma.org

Also: The Bluegrass Symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill, featuring a Steep Canyon Rangers performance, is Nov. 11-12. See carolinaperformingarts.org for details.

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