Bluegrass and Beer
Last night we went to see the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Tim O’Brien at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s ‘Big Room’. O’Brien is one of those guys who pop up on a large part of my music collection, like Jerry Douglas and Darrell Scott. Those guys can be found on recordings from artists as diverse in musical styles as Steve Earle and John McCusker with pretty much all stops in between. I first heard of Tim O’Brien when he and Darrell Scott appeared on the unique soundtrack to Tim Winton’s novel ‘Dirt Music‘ with their song ‘Long Time Gone’. I think that album was my first taste of Bluegrass and Americana-tinged folk music outwith the music of the Seegers, Guthries, and Dylan. I was soon collecting and listening to all sorts of new and traditional Bluegrass and genre-bending Americana, and before I knew it, I was back where I started, back to Scottish and Irish traditional music.
Admittedly it’s not a very hard trail to follow, especially with artists such as O’Brien (et al) who are modern-day pioneers of the Americana and Bluegrass communities, performing on albums with the likes of Aly Bain, Kris Drever, and Kate Rusby. It also makes sense that this new (to me) music is so appealing to my, and I hate to use this, Celtic traditional sensibilities. The tunes are slightly altered, the instrumentation and styles of playing are a little different, with the lack of percussion in Bluegrass being one of the most notable differences, yet the songs are based around the same themes and the reels are fast, the waltzes melodious.
The advent of the BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions series also came at a time when I was discovering these links and exploring them for my own personal interest and as part of my studies. Bringing the musicians together and intertwining songs and tunes from both sides of the Atlantic brought hard evidence that they are almost one in the same, modified only by distances in time and place; The Scottish tunes and melodies influenced by the (now thankfully diminishing) militaristic domination of the bagpipe world and the pibroch and ballads of the Gaels among others, while the American version has been diversified through the influences of the likes of Jazz and the Blues and is also somewhat of a reflection of its geographic location and isolation from its European origins.
It was a great privilege, therefore, to be able to see such a prominent and influential figure in cross-Atlantic musical reconnection up close and personal in the beautiful and acoustically grand setting of the “Big Room”. Although the set was predominantly Bluegrass in feel, what with the now familiar yet still somewhat irritating habit that Bluegrass audiences have of applauding almost every guitar or mandolin lick, O’Brien’s undemanding vocals, playing style and relaxed demeanor set him apart from other more ‘traditional’ Bluegrass artists. The show was an obvious collaboration of three very talented musicians comfortable in their own playing and being part of the trio without any of the pretence or cheesy interactions quite often so apparent during Bluegrass performances.
The set included a fair smattering of instrumentals such as a white-knuckle ride through the ‘Hangman’s Reel’, among a fairly well-rounded offering of O’Brien’s back catalogue along with two or three new numbers. Highlights being their version of the Dylan song ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’,the fruit and veg salesman’s song ‘megna’s’, and watching Tim O’Brien shake it during ‘Get out there and Dance’ while the audience remained firmly planted in their plush cabaret style seats.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that the Big Room was serving one of my (not surprisingly) favourite of Sierra Nevada’s brews, their ‘Scotch Ale’. I had previously been under the impression that I missed its window of limited availability but it seems I was luckily mistaken. It is a malt heavy brew in the vein of what I would know as a 140/-, or Wee Heavy, unlike most of their other more hop prominent beers. Although the term ‘Scotch Ale’ refers to a beer style which originated in Scotland, the style has, much like Bluegrass music, become a reflection of the place it is made and the people who make it rather than being true to its origins. This is, again, due to distance in time and place, where the knowledge of processes and ingredients have become lost and clouded over time, the beer is also now brewed to suit it’s new consumers who like hoppier, stronger and all around bigger beers (it is America after all). Granted, there are brewers who are trying to recreate, or get as close to the original style as possible in the States, but most seem content to follow the style guidelines of what is now an American beer style.
I am discussing this not because I don’t like the new style or its sometimes offhand reference to Scotland’s rich brewing history, but because it ties together an evening of beer and music where both features are direct and obvious descendants of my home country, yet have been transformed into true representations of modern American culture. It is also becoming obvious to me that my own attraction to these Scottish influences on American culture has become a way in which I can keep playing my part of ex-pat Scotsman, traditional music and real ale enthusiast (a.k.a. anorak), all the while avoiding the classic-yet-true stereotypes peculiar to the breed and develop my understanding and appreciation of my place in this, my new home. I enjoy most Bluegrass music and enjoy the majority of American versions of traditionally British beers, including Porters, Stouts and Scotch Ales, and last night’s merging of the two seems as an appropriate time as any to discuss this theme as both Tim O’Brien and the brewers at Sierra Nevada appear to be at the top of their game in enterprises that allow me the opportunity both to celebrate my Scottishness and develop and connect to my American self.