The past and future of bluegrass were on display at Wolf Trap last night; both sounded in good shape. The past was represented by Bill Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," and Doc Watson, the genre's best storyteller. The future was represented by The Whites, who have placed three consecutive bluegrass-flavored singles into the top 10 on the country charts.
Clearly rooted in Monroe's refined picking and Watson's wide-ranging eclecticism, The Whites added a punchy bottom to the traditional top and gave the genre a new lease on life.
Pianist-mandolinist Buck White joined his two daughters--guitarist Sharon and bassist Cheryl--for lush, family-blended vocal harmonies. These gospel-like vocals were applied to country love songs and backed by the bluegrass picking of dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and fiddler Tim Crouch. The nicely understated drumming of Neil Worf and Douglas' open-spaced arrangements kept the songs uncluttered and allowed the narratives of heartbreak and affection to unfold. Sharon White was especially affecting as she sang the band's hits, "You Put the Blue in Me" and "I Wonder Who's Holding My Baby Tonight."
The latest edition of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys includes veteran fiddler Kenny Baker and three young singers and players. They all showed a welcome emphasis on tone rather than speed, often slowing the tempo on a solo to milk the harmonic nuances. Despite his 71 years, Monroe's gifts were intact; his sure, sharp mandolin picking led the way on "Wolf Trap Blues"; his falsetto yodel capped off "Muleskinner Blues," and his high, crisp tenor bit into the classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
Doc Watson mixed a lot of folk, blues and old-time country music with the bluegrass during his set. Whether singing about nicotine addiction or his favorite horse, Watson was able to turn every song into an absorbing tale. Watson's undiminished singing and guitar skills often obscured the considerable talent of his sidemen, bassist-singer T. Michael Coleman and Merle Watson. The younger Watson is a much underrated guitarist who slipped jazz licks into George Gershwin's "Summertime," slippery slide into John Hurt's "I Got the Blues," and intricate finger-picking into Merle Travis' "Nine Pound Hammer."