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Catskill Mountain Breakdown 


There are some historical tidbits that might give pause to even the most hard-core bluegrass fanatics. Though the form is to many the quintessential white American music, originated by mountain folk from the Southeast, the real story of its genesis is not so simple. Let’s start with the banjo, perhaps the signature bluegrass instrument. A direct descendent of the five-stringed African halam, the banjo was actually first brought to America by slaves before it was eventually taken up by white minstrel performers and early country musicians. And while bluegrass’s roots in the Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and English traditions of Southern mountaineers are fairly obvious, the music is really a synthesis of those Anglo-derived folk styles and black American jazz and blues; the great Bill Monroe, for example, the man commonly cited as the architect of bluegrass, was well versed in the blues and profoundly influenced by the obscure African-American bluesman Arnold Schultz. Additionally, legend has it that ancient Ireland was colonized by the Moors or the Tuareg Berbers, which may explain the origins of the Saharan ney-like pennywhistle and the lilting, snake charmer-hinting lines of the Celtic fiddlers who helped shape bluegrass. That’s right: It’s a distinct possibility that bluegrass is descended from North African music. Mind blown yet? Well, you’ll be able to put such theories to the test on August 22, when Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Travelin’ McCourys and Dan Tyminski, Rhonda Vincent, and Cherryholmes play the Bethel Woods Bluegrass Jamboree.

Ralph Stanley’s importance to American music can’t be overstated. With the passing of Bill Monroe in 1996 he became the living king of bluegrass, and in 2000, thanks to his Grammy-winning performances on the hit soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, experienced a late-in-life career renaissance of fairy-tale proportions (he won a second Grammy in 2003 for Best Bluegrass Album). Born in Virginia in 1927 and schooled by his mother in the clawhammer banjo technique, Ralph began performing in a duo with his late brother, Carter Stanley, with whom he formed the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. While mentoring future stars Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, he’s toured the world and continues to be among bluegrass’s most influential artists, virtually defining the music’s “high lonesome” sound.

Mandolinist Ron McCoury, the son of another bluegrass legend, Del McCoury, leads the Travelin’ McCourys, who’ve shared their jazz-influenced skills with Phish, Vince Gill, and the Allman Brothers. For the Bethel Woods show they’ll be joined by the great Dan Tyminski, who sang lead on O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Called “the new queen of bluegrass” by the Wall Street Journal, singer and fiddler Rhonda Vincent has been named Female Bluegrass Artist of the Year for seven consecutive years by the International Bluegrass Music Association and is revered for her hard-driving, high-energy style. The sextet Cherryholmes was formed in 2001 and is one of the hottest acts on the festival circuit, releasing six albums (three on Ricky Skaggs’s Skaggs Family label) and bringing bluegrass’s Celtic lineage to the fore via interludes of Irish step dancing.

The Bethel Woods Bluegrass Jamboree, featuring Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Travelin’ McCourys and Dan Tyminski, Rhonda Vicent, and Cherryholmes, takes place at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on August 22 at 2pm. Tickets are $39, $19, and $15. (845) 292-1351; www.bethelwoodscenter.org.

click to enlarge Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will perform at the Bethel Woods Bluegrass Jamboree on August 22.
  • Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will perform at the Bethel Woods Bluegrass Jamboree on August 22.

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