By Anna Chandler
IF YOU thank your lucky stars for clawhammer pickin’, freight-train-rapid mandolin, and the mellifluous sounds of Appalachia, praise Bill Monroe.
On Friday, the Tybee Post Theater will pay tribute to the Father of Bluegrass himself in an evening of music and oral history.
Atlanta’s New South String Band leads the production with selections from Monroe’s expansive catalog and stories of the legend’s life and legacy. Comprised of fiddle player Kenny Lambert, guitarist, banjoist, and vocalist Brian Stephens, clog dancer and bassist Maggie Aderhold Stephens and bluegrass pioneer Joel Aderhold, New South String Band is a troupe of champions who have scooped up many esteemed awards for their talents.
Lambert began his musical life on the fiddle and has enjoyed success as a symphonic violinist, touring with the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Robin Thicke, Casting Crowns, Wynnona Judd. He holds the 2012 Georgia Mountain Fiddle King crown from the Georgia State Championship fiddle contest, and is first violinist in the Savannah Philharmonic and Greenville Symphony Orchestra.
Brian Stephens has certainly racked up recognition at Georgia Official State Fiddlers’ Convention, taking home First Place honors in Mandolin, Banjo, Guitar – Finger Style, and Second Place in Guitar – Flat Pick.
Maggie Aderhold Stephens grew up with Georgia bluegrass and currently is a mainstay at Suwanee’s Everett Music Barn, where she and husband Brian perform together on Saturday nights.
Tybee Post Theater Music Programming Director Ricardo Ochoa predicts that the New Year will be filled with memories and loving tributes to Monroe’s legacy.
“It will be twenty years since his passing in 2016,” he notes.
Picking up the mandolin at the young age of 10, Monroe got his live performance start while playing guitar in his fiddler uncle’s band. Monroe formed a group with his brothers Birch and Charlie when he was 18, playing for evening barn dances after getting off work at the Sinclair Oil refinery. The Monroe Brothers toured, signed on to RCA-Victor’s Bluebird division to record in 1936, and scored a minor hit, “What Would You Give in Exchange,” before members went separate ways to form new groups.
After a brief stint in Little Rock, Bill headed to Atlanta, where he formed his seminal group. The Blue Grass Boys is the reason we have the term “bluegrass” today; Monroe himself invented a genre characterized by tight harmonies, quick tempos, and incredible musical precision that would change music forever.
Guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, banjoist Earl Scruggs, fiddler Chubby Wise, bassist Howard Watts, and Monroe comprised the “classic” Blue Grass Boys lineup that recorded with Monroe in 1945. With mandolin as a centerpiece, Monroe and his Blue Grass Playboys developed a hard-driving string band style; they hit the charts for the first time in 1946 with “Kentucky Waltz.” “Footprints in the Snow” followed, clocking in at Number Five on the charts.
Though Tybee’s tribute may not take place beneath Monroe’s classic circus-style tent, the Tybee Post Theater is a magical setting, perfect for a journey into the mind of a great American artist. Amidst the earthy scent of fresh-laid brick, handsome rows of stadium seats (originally from Trustees Theater), and a large American flag backdrop, the charming auditorium has a coziness and intimacy that’s perfectly suited for acoustic music.
If you’ve ever seen Ochoa’s gypsy jazz band Velvet Caravan, you probably are familiar with the group’s deep admiration for gypsy jazz pioneer guitarist Django Reinhardt; when they cover his songs, Ochoa and the Velvet Caravan boys often tell stories to contextualize the work. Naturally, Ochoa is very excited for Monroe devotees Lambert and Stephens to share their wealth of knowledge on Monroe’s life.
“Having them present and play makes it more interesting for the audience,” Ochoa says. “When I see an artist, I want to know about them. In a historical context, it will make you appreciate bluegrass more. It makes people love and appreciate the music more.”
This is a key moment for the resurrection of old-time, bluegrass, and traditional music. In a fast-paced, multi-tasking, screen-glow world, Ochoa thinks music lovers are searching for a certain kind of authenticity in their concert-going.
“More people are looking for an intimate setting and are getting away from the arena sound,” he observes.
An evening of mountain music by the sea? It doesn’t get much further from the arena than that.