The Closest Thing To Bluegrass Is… Heavy Metal?
Yes, I said heavy metal.
Lately I’ve been obsessing over the concert that happened several weeks ago at the Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville. It was the bluegrass legend; Béla Fleck, and he had a star-studded lineup alongside him. Some of the notable newer faces in this lineup included; Sierra Hull on mandolin, and Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings on Guitar.
I specifically have been watching this video, from the encore:
It starts with Hull and Tuttle doing a rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day” and is followed by Billy Strings singing Jimmy Martin’s “Tennessee.”
Watching this over and over again, takes me back to when I was a kid, watching the local bluegrass ensembles play in the high school auditorium, and some of the “bigger” one’s like, IIIrd Time Out, at the town center.
I find myself in awe of the way that a live bluegrass show can captivate an audience. I see how happy the musicians are to be on stage, and how they have no issue slowing down, and letting everyone, and their instruments get their turn in the spotlight. If you look at their faces you can see just how concentrated they are during their solos.
My mind began to wonder; is there any other genre of music where this type of experience is present? Then it hit me — heavy metal.
After I came to this realization, I began scouring live videos of different heavy metal tunes to see if my theory would hold up, and it did.
Sure, Metallica is definitely a different vibe than Béla Fleck, but the similarities are fairly easy to spot. They have no issue giving each other the spotlight, and everyone gets their turn. You can see that same passion on the faces of the musicians, as they’re playing their solos. The crowd is extremely into it as well.
It’s also present in this Disturbed performance:
The same can be seen in this performance of one of my favorite songs by the legendary, AC/DC:
Heading back to bluegrass, we can see that one of, if not the most, influential bluegrass songs of all time, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” is entirely based upon this principle of letting each instrument shine.
So with the live details pinned down, we can move on to the similarities in genre itself.
I’ll start with the lyrical content.
You may not think of death, or destruction when you think of bluegrass, but it’s definitely not absent from the genre.
If it’s a sorrowful song about death you want, bluegrass has you covered with songs like; “Oh, Death” by Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, and “Death Came Creeping In My Room” by The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers (thanks to Steven Hale for introducing me to that one).
If you want a murder ballad, you’ve got it in, “River Bottom” by The Country Gentlemen, or “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” by The Steeldrivers.
There are lots of dark songs in bluegrass that can easily hold their own against the more expected darkness of hard rock, like Avenged Sevenfold’s “Hail To The King,” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name” by Iron Maiden. Obviously metal tends to go a bit more extreme than bluegrass probably will (looking at you, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck”) , but bluegrass definitely competes with the average metal song.
Now let’s talk about the artists.
It’s no secret that I am a massive fan of Billy Strings, and he is a prime example of the bridge between bluegrass and metal. He was raised on bluegrass, and got into hard rock in his teens. His music reflects this in several ways.
He writes many of his songs in minor chords, which is contrary to the usual for bluegrass, but fits more-so in the rock genres. I often point to his heavily praised performance of his original; “Turmoil and Tinfoil” for Music City Roots in 2017, as a means of showing just how metal, bluegrass can be.
Billy Strings wasn’t the first to do this though. In the early 90s a group formed, called, Bad Livers. They had a similar, but darker, even more metal influenced, sound. They used minor chords as well, and most of their songs had an edge, like “Shit Creek,” or “Death Trip.”
The Native Howl is very up front about marketing themselves as a metal bluegrass band entirely, and they’re really good at filling that niche.
The Dead South, who are known for their hit song “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company,” are also pretty solidly influenced by rock.
There have also been a few actual rock figures turn to bluegrass, like Doug Yule, from Velvet Underground, who formed his own little string band called RedDog. Tommy Ramone of The Ramones also had a bluegrass/folk band, called Uncle Monk.
Even if it’s not entirely traceable, and somewhat peculiar, there is an undeniable link between bluegrass fans, and metal fans, which leads us into our next section:
It’s hard to say why there is an overlap, but it’s there. Maybe it’s some of the shared themes, maybe it’s the degree of polarity there is surrounding both genres. It’s impossible to nail down one specific cause of this merger.
What we can do though is look at how many dedicated fans of both genres there are.
The amount of metal/bluegrass covers is unprecedented. There are even a few bands whose main shtick is playing bluegrass covers of iconic metal songs.
You’ve got Steve ’n’ Seagulls, who went super viral from their cover of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” There’s also Iron Horse, who most notably covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
I think the absurd virality of covers like this only shows how significant the overlap is. If nobody enjoyed these mash-ups, they’d never get seen. Instead they get millions, upon millions of views, and shares. Sure, there’s a level of novelty to some of it, but it’s undeniable that there is a link.
Hell, my own dad is an example of this bizarre overlap. He is one of the most southern guys you’ll ever meet, and loves his bluegrass and country music, more than anything else. In his heyday though, he was a big fan of the up-and-coming stars in rock, and AC/DC was his favorite. He absolutely loves them to this day, and for some reason, still completely vibes with rock in general. He never really seeks it out, but if it’s on, he loves it. This country bumpkin dad, is perfectly happy when I play him My Chemical Romance songs. Let that sink in.
I think for the older people who enjoy both genres, it’s a generational thing. They got to see some of the heavy rock powerhouses in their primes, while never leaving their older roots of bluegrass tunes.
For the younger people (like moi) I think it’s the fact that both genres are rebellious in nature, and we’re at a time on earth where the young people feel that energy. I think hipsters and contrarians (also like moi) are also a factor. I can’t even count the number of times someone has rolled their eyes at bluegrass, and the same can be said for metal. Liking both of those is a way to have a very “unique” music taste.
Thanks for reading! What do ya’ll think are some of the factors? Are you part of this group of fans? Do you have any other knowledge to add?
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