Mapping the Bluegrass Genome

“The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that.  It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days.  It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith.  To learn the code, no stereotype will do.  You have to descend into the music and listen.”


In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical to study, pray, and feed the senses.  I went to art museums, read books, went to Nashville to learn about the music industry and played at open mic at the Bluebird Café, reaching one

Shuffler and Boosinger
Shuffler and Boosinger

of my bucket list items (the ultimate would be a gig on the “Prairie Home Companion Show” while Garrison Keillor is still on earth!).  But a lot of that time was “exploring my roots,” musical, theological and spiritual—which led to a week at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp.

I’d been to the Kamp before, in Maryville, Tennessee.  Unless you are a devotee of the guitar and acoustic cousins like the mandolin, the “fiddle” (violin played a certain way), bass, banjo or dobro, you don’t realize that hundreds of camps happen every year across the world where musicians gather and play and learn the heritage of “roots” music—folk, jazz, country, celtic, and so on. In these places, campers rub shoulders with the legends of bluegrass, swing, fingerpicking and new acoustic music.  I met legends like Bill Keith, Clarence White, John Carlini, and took classes from the best pickers on the planet.  Every night, we were treated to concerts by the faculty and sent off to “jam” as long as we could stay awake. I also heard the best bluegrass joke ever.  One of the players said he’d been teaching an FBI agent who said the murders of bluegrass pickers were the most difficult to solve.  “Why?” he asked.  “Because, they have no dental records and they all share the same DNA.”  Haw, haw, we laughed, we love this music while everyone ridicules us as leftovers from “Deliverance,” the most harmful caricature of Southern rural people ever.  A little truth turned into a stereotype (Seen those bumper stickers?  PADDLE FASTER! I HEAR BANJOS!!!) The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that.  It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days.  It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith.  To learn the code, no stereotype will do.  You have to descend into the music and listen.

Shuffler (in the back) with the legendary Stanley Brothers.
Shuffler (in the back) with the legendary Stanley Brothers.

On one of the first nights I was there in 2005, before the blazing, 10,000 note flatpickers and mandolin virtuosos wowed us, we heard a great old legend from North Carolina, George Shuffler, perform with North Carolina old-time banjo player Laura Boosinger.  It was the first time I heard either live, and I was mesmorized.  Simple, old tunes filled the hour and half while they played—“Cluck Old Hen,” “Down in the Valley,” “Rabbit in the Log” (which I loved so much I put an abbrieviated version played with only my Dad and me at the end of my first CD, “permanent world of pretend”). I felt like I had found a family scrapbook.  Something reverberated deep inside.  Somehow, my ancestors from North Carolina were there in that music.  Appropriately, I was at the camp with my Dad, who inspired me originally to love playing and singing with the guitar. This music, and therefore my music, isn’t like what music business feels like today—heavy on marketing, money and fame.  It’s closer to the earth.  It’s handed down one song at a time.  It’s like a family Bible with all the names, marriages and baptisms written in the front.  Handle with care.  It can get a little stiff, of course, with some fans zealously insisting that it always be played EXACTLY as  (fill in favorite legend here). No, it’s more like blood flowing in the veins and a reading of the will.  You got something to remember the people who, by no more than being able to be born, have children, and raise them, enabled us to be here.  Their music is our own DNA. George Shuffler had a long career in country and bluegrass.  He played off and on for eighteen years with the Stanley Brothers, and was renowned as one of the first guitar players to explore “cross-picking” style of playing to accompany

Young George Shuffler
Young George Shuffler

the banjo.  He said in an interview that he did it out of necessity, trying to figure out “how to fill up the spaces.”  Now it is standard fare in playing. None of that mattered in 2005.  I just liked the songs.  They came from somewhere familiar, stirring something of the old homeplace that I had mostly in my imagination.  George Shuffler died this week.  (read the Charlotte News and Observer piece on him CLICK HERE)  He will be remembered and appreciated by players, unknown to most of the current generation, but to anyone who loves a guitar, with appreciation whenever we finally learn how to “crosspick” without thinking about it.  Rest in peace.  You’ll live on in the songs you left us.


“Down in the Valley”   



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Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

2 thoughts on “Mapping the Bluegrass Genome”

  1. Love this piece Gary! I talk about liking roots music, but did not know that included jazz–how do you define roots?

    Looks like we have a townhouse. Will make inspection this Saturday.

    Peace, LaM

    1. The Analyzers, ever out to destroy everything fun by giving it labels and categories, call roots music, according to Wikipedia,
      “Folk music, American folk music, Americana (music), roots reggae, Roots revival, a trend which includes young performers popularizing the traditional musical styles of their ancestors, Traditional music, music transmitted as part of an oral culture, World music.”

      I call jazz “roots” music because it is primarily music developed from fusion of cultural traditions, mostly African American, and Latin, Cuban, etc. with European forms. It is almost purely improvisational, which to me puts it there also.

      So called “world music” (an ambiguous term if ever there was one!) opens it to just about everything. Jazz is a hybrid, but then, I would put blues in there too.

      Musically, I simply dislike categories. They are mostly for critics and people organizing their CDs. Music is alive and always changing. Even “roots” music.

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