Two songs of which I never tire are ‘Kentucky’ by The Everly Brothers and ‘Green Rolling Hills’ by Emmylou Harris. The former, taken at a stately, languorous pace, is a showcase for Don and Phil’s uniquely kinship vocals, its syllables stretched out like pastry beneath a rolling pin, its harmonies as sweet as the ensuing apple crumble. It’s an old song, written in 1941 by Karl Davis and brought to classic status six years later on a recording by The Blue Sky Boys. The latter, which appears on Emmylou’s 1978 album Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, is a simple country ballad about the perils of coal mining, often titled more expressively as ‘The Green Rolling Hills Of West Virginia’, and it was written by Utah Phillips, an American labour organiser, probably in the 1960s.
The key element of these gorgeous songs is how they extol the virtues of the American landscape enclosed within the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and the western fork of Virginia, an area dominated by the southern tip of the Appalachians, colloquially known as the Blue Ridge Mountains. If the lyrics of these songs are to be believed, and their beauty leads me so to do, this part of the world is the ‘nearest thing to heaven’ on earth, and I’d like to think that Emma John heard them before embarking on the six-month pilgrimage that is the subject of her book.
Wayfaring Stranger is a music travelogue, an investigation into the world of bluegrass in which she seeks out its most skilled players in their own habitat. It’s a book about a closed world, a semi-secret society, and a tradition kept alive in much the same way as ancient skills like dry stone walling in Yorkshire or fishing through ice holes in the Arctic. It’s also a fiendishly difficult music to play, not just because of the lightning speed of better known pieces like ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ but because achieving the right ambience and attitude is crucial to its performance. These disciplines are at the book’s heart: can Emma become a competent bluegrass musician herself, and is she able to successfully transfer her abandoned training as a classical violinist to the art of bluegrass fiddling?
Gingerly taking her antique violin from its case to enter the fray, Emma encounters a peculiarly social music in which most of the players know one another and meet up for jams and festivals that take place throughout the summer in the states where bluegrass is cherished. Players, well most of them, are forever encouraging one another to improve their skills – a marked contrast to the competitive and rather bitchy classical world that Emma recalls – and there are certain principles laid down by the music’s originators that must be upheld, many of which relate to the repertoire and how it is delivered in the 21st century.
Outsiders might assume that bluegrass players are old men with beards, dungarees and check shirts, but I was surprised to learn how many teenagers join in the sessions, and how good they are, as if the skills have been handed down from generation to generation. Nevertheless, there are important traditions to be upheld, one of which is always to pepper a set with bluegrass classics that will be known to the audience, “[like] a rock festival where everyone was expected to make at least half of their set Lynyrd Skynyrd covers,” she writes. “Where every act played from the same repertoire, on the same instruments, in an attempt to capture the same sound.” By the same token, the subject matter of the songs remains startlingly similar, the most popular themes a longing for some abstract ‘home’ where a log cabin awaits, the love of an absent woman or family to whom the singer is desperate to return, or the hope that up there in heaven a dear but departed mama and papa are anticipating your eventual arrival with open arms.
Emma’s mission takes her to US States that are avowedly Republican, God-fearing and insular, where guns are freely obtainable, rebel flags fly and Jesus slogans on billboards signpost the next town. Setting aside her natural liberal tendencies – she’s a Guardian writer – Emma boldly enters a world where she clearly doesn’t belong, and comes away from it wiser and more sympathetic to a relaxed way of life that is in stark contrast to the bustle of London. While her unmarried status arouses immediate suspicion, once it is established that her intentions are honourable the innate hospitality of the region – they really do mean it when they say ‘Mind ya’ll come back soon now’ – wins her over. Meanwhile, her progress as a bluegrass fiddler is not without its setbacks and gives Wayfaring Stranger a storyline that kept me turning the pages.
All of which Emma Johns covers in occasionally droll but never less than honest, and sometimes self-depreciating, prose. She has a pleasing way with words – one musician she encountered sports ‘a beard that curled around his chin like a sleeping possum’ – and an easy-going style that mixes her own thoughts with factual observations, vivid descriptions of the countryside and a surprisingly honest appraisal of how the experience enabled her to learn more about herself, all of which leads to an unexpected conclusion. With alternate chapters devoted to the history of bluegrass and (very) potted biographies of its leading figures, Wayfaring Stranger is more than just a book about bluegrass music, more a book about how music, whatever its hue, can enrich our lives.
Time was when my only exposure to bluegrass music was the chase sequence in Bonnie & Clyde, the soundtrack to the Beverly Hillbillies and a couple of tracks on a Byrds box set that feature the picking of Clarence White. The first two led to me Flatt & Scruggs and The Byrds to White’s Kentucky Colonels. Emma John’s book, to which I was alerted by The Blue Moment, my old MM colleague Richard Williams’ first-rate music blog, has opened up a whole new music world for me to explore.
And, yes, towards the end of the book Emma reveals how friends she made did tell her, in line with the lyrics to ‘Kentucky’ and ‘Green Rolling Hills’, that the Blue Ridge Mountains are, indeed, like ‘heaven on earth’.