The Grass is Always Bluer

With fresh young bands like Pert’ Near Sandstone taking bluegrass to the kids, a new generation is turning on to twang.

AT EIGHT O’CLOCK ON A SATURDAY night, the Hexagon Bar in south Minneapolis is so quiet you can hear the neon buzzing in the beer signs on the walls. But within the hour, this old-school watering hole will be filled to capacity with one of the Twin Cities’ least likely crowds: gray-haired hippies and twentysomething hipsters, Mohawk-sporting boys and clog-wearing girls, drawn together by the even less-likely force of bluegrass music.

Bluegrass—the old-fashioned, stripped-down sound of fiddles and banjos and mandolins—is currently in the throes of a revival, and the Hex is one of its new Twin Cities hot spots.

Blame it on George Clooney. Like the genre’s two previous spikes in popularity in the last half-century, the current bluegrass craze can be traced to a movie. In the late 1960s, the trigger was Bonnie and Clyde; in the 1970s, it was Deliverance; and in 2000, it was Clooney and comrades in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, lip-synching to the classic Appalachian dirge “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”

The Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, featuring tunes by bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley and crooner cutie Alison Krauss, became a phenomenon, selling millions of copies and introducing a new generation to the rich, soulful sound previously associated with Fords that didn’t work and marriages that didn’t work out. Divorced from country-music clichés by a clever movie and a handsome leading man, hillbilly is now hip.

In the Twin Cities, a slew of young bluegrass bands have picked up where Clooney left off. Musicians call it the “O Brother effect”: six years after seeing the movie, the guys and gals inspired by the soundtrack to swap their electric guitars for banjos are now coming into their own as players. Their bands generally thump along to a stand-up acoustic bass and have playful, retro names, such as Free Range Pickin’, Jack Norton and the Mullet River Boys, and Pert’ Near Sandstone, the band behind the Hexagon Bar’s popular bluegrass shows.

These groups are plying their trade at places where rock bands once reigned and getting airplay on such barometers of cool as MPR’s alt-music service, the Current. They’re taking the music in myriad directions, influenced by the genres they formerly trafficked in, like jazz, punk, and pop. And inevitably, at any given bluegrass concert now, someone will shout out a request for “Man of Constant Sorrow”—the genre’s equivalent to rock ’n’ roll’s classic cover song “Freebird.”

“Before O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there were maybe 20 to 40 bands, tops, registered with the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association [MBOTMA],” says Steve Schley, the mandolinist for Free Range Pickin’, a popular local string band. “There must be upwards of 100-plus now. It’s crazy how that’s expanded.” That’s a lot of hootenanny, but judging from the full houses at the Hex and elsewhere, the Twin Cities can’t get enough twang, harmony, and high lonesome moaning.

This month, MBOTMA will hold its 27th annual festival at El Rancho Mañana Campground, outside Richmond, near St. Cloud. It’s the state’s largest festival of its kind, featuring such national acts as the Nashville Bluegrass Band and a select handful of Minnesota groups. The festival has become so large, in fact, that a warm-up of sorts, the Minnesota Homegrown Kickoff, featuring solely local bands, is held in June. At both events, tents and RVs and VW camper vans fill the grounds and campfires burn as far as the eye can see, with just about every orange glow signaling a jam session in progress.

TO SUCCEED AS a bluegrass musician, it helps to like camping. Festival campgrounds are where bluegrass bands meet, network, and find new members. “You can’t walk 10 feet, once you get out into the campsites, without tripping over somebody playing guitar,” says J. Lenz, guitarist and singer with Pert’ Near Sandstone.

Lenz and his bandmates are playing the main MBOTMA festival this month for the first time since the quintet formed a few years ago. Pert’ Near Sandstone exemplifies the youth movement in local bluegrass—none of the members were born yet when the last bluegrass revival occurred, after “Dueling Banjos” won a Grammy in 1974. Ryan Young, the fiddle player, is the oldest of the group at 30. Lenz and Nate Sipe are the youngest at 27. The band has a MySpace page that they use to stay in touch with fans and other musicians, and all of the members speak reverentially of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Pert’ Near’s biggest claim to fame is a song they wrote for the Oreo & Milk Jingle Contest; they were named finalists and were briefly featured on Oprah. But their reputation is heating up sure as a fiddle solo. For the past year, they’ve been hosting a showcase of bluegrass and like-minded music at the Hex, inviting regional acts they’ve long wanted to play with. When they were starting out, Pert’ Near had more energy than connections—and some difficulty getting into the traditional venues around town, namely Dulono’s, a south Minneapolis pizza place that’s been the main hangout and jam joint for local bluegrass bands since the 1970s.

Alan Jesperson, who books the bands at Dulono’s, fronts the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, which formed in 1968 as one of the first modern-day bluegrass bands in the Twin Cities and once featured well-known mandolinist Peter Ostroushko. Jesperson also organizes the Laughing Waters Bluegrass Festival, a bluegrass and old-time music event that draws thousands to Minneapolis’s Minnehaha Park every September. He’s known as a gregarious, gentle man who has perhaps done more than anyone else to further bluegrass in Minnesota.

But so far, it appears Dulono’s won’t touch Pert’ Near with a 10-foot banjo. “I only book bluegrass bands,” Jesperson is said to have enigmatically told the band after listening to their first CD, leaving the band to wonder if the disc didn’t sound bluegrassy enough or good enough for him (in truth, the disc is fairly eclectic, even featuring a song by indie-rock weirdos Ween)—or if they simply haven’t paid enough dues.

“We’d be lying if we said there wasn’t some entrenchment in what is a pretty solid community of bands,” says Lenz. “They know who’s been around for how long, and there’s some of that ‘who do you know’ stuff, but we don’t pay attention to that, really.…We want to be a part of the community, not be on the outside looking in and grumbling.” Pert’ Near’s decision to launch their own showcase at the Hex has paid off; this fall, the band will tour the western United States with Charlie Parr, a popular retro bluesman from Duluth. But in general, insists Pert’ Near, the bluegrass scene is no more competitive than a campfire jam.

“It’s way easier to be in a bluegrass band than in a rock band,” says Lenz, who, by his own account, played in more than a dozen bands before settling in with Pert’ Near. “In rock, there are 1,500 other bands that sound like you, and many of them are ornery toward each other.” Pert’ Near doesn’t have any “enemy bands,” he says, while jokingly adding, “Perhaps we should start trying to find some.”

Not that the group is looking to make the tabloids, their band name being just one example of their down-to-earth ideals. Most of its members grew up in Brooklyn Park, “pert’ near” the sandstone of the Mississippi River. This is a band that never wants to forget its roots. And its members are genuinely genial—the band’s e-mail newsletters always open with “Howdy.”

THOUGH THE MUSIC Pert’ Near plays can sound as old as sandstone, bluegrass is a fairly recent invention, as music goes. In the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, fiddle-based forms of the ballads and dance music brought to America by British colonists commingled with the blues and gospel songs of African Americans. This music remained a localized curiosity until the late Bill Monroe brought it down from the mountains in the 1930s. Monroe called his band the Blue Grass Boys, after his home state of Kentucky, known as the Bluegrass State. Soon, any music that fit the Monroe model—hard-driving rhythm coupled with multiple harmonies—came to be called bluegrass.

Pert’ Near members describe their music as “new-timey,” as opposed to old-timey, a sort of disclaimer for the rock, jazz, and other alien vibes that inexorably creep into the band’s otherwise traditional-sounding songs. “We’re still really rooted in that old-time influence,” says Kevin Kniebel, the group’s lead vocalist and banjo player. “But we have a city-slicker attitude. You can’t write songs about baking corn bread and making it good and brown anymore. We buy our bread in stores, and a song about buying food in a store just wouldn’t be very good.”

Everyone in Pert’ Near contributes original songs, but Nate Sipe is the member whose music comes closest to sounding truly old-fashioned, featuring ramblin’, gamblin’ men and the women who love—and, inevitably, leave—them. And it’s not all ersatz attitude: Sipe has done some hard travelin’ himself, hopping trains and picking fruit throughout the Pacific Northwest. His fast and furious songs capture that adventurous spirit, and in concert they’re the ones that get the crowd on its feet.

At a recent showcase at the Hex, Sipe sports a bowler while Lenz, the rock and jazz veteran, is wearing a black knit cap, hip-hop style. A punk kid dances wildly in front of the stage, as college-age women spin each other in folk-dance moves. “I’m thinking about taking up clogging,” says a young woman clutching a can of Grain Belt beer.

Pert’ Near crowds around a single microphone, like Clooney and his cronies in O Brother, and Young rips into a song so hard he breaks a string on his fiddle. He’s rescued by an audience member, who retrieves her own violin from her nearby home and hands it to him onstage. “You won’t see that at a rock show,” whispers a patron, putting it pretty near perfectly.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.