Foggy-headed breakdown:

Nickel Creek
Chris Thile

I came to bluegrass through my children, who came to bluegrass through my insistence and their mother’s amazing skills at locating the most gifted teachers imaginable.Both kids have had a violin in their hands a part of everyday since they were five. A few years ago, I thought it would be good if they were exposed to some indigenous usage of the instrument to balance their repertoire of music by dead Europeans.

We didn’t have to look far for an instructor. Indeed, finding a bluegrass fiddler in Nashville is as easy as finding a paper shredder at Enron. But we really lucked out when Ann discovered Crystal Plohman across the hall from their violin teacher’s class at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Crystal is not only a former Canadian national champion fiddler, she is a noted (and gifted) children’s instructor who is in demand nationally for her workshops. That our kids get to spend time with her each week is a special gift to both of them and to me.

My humble bluegrass journey made it to the mountain top last night when the four of us attended a taping at the Ryman Auditorium of a PBS special that will air this spring. My limited musical-criticism vocabulary and skills prevent me from doing justice to the technical aspects of the evening. I can only share how it overwhelmed me.

Since it was a TV taping, there was an informality to the evening that had a couple of benefits. First, there was a sense of intimacy between performer and audience, a feeling of “we’re all in this show together.” I found myself hoping they would have to re-do songs and was glad the two-hour TV special took over four hours to tape.

Some of the highlights: The Ryman. (I’m convinced they could have turned off all of the sound equipment and the musicians could have been heard by everyone in the audience.) Ralph Stanley singing “O Death” (.wav file) acapella. Patty Loveless singing duets with just about everyone from Stanley to Travis Tritt. Nickle Creek’s Chris Thile. Alison Kraus, who I’m convinced is about to do for bluegrass what Diana Krall is doing for jazz (I’ll expalin this theory later). The Del McCoury Band. Ricky Skaggs doing anything. Vince Gill sitting in with nearly every other performer playing mandolin, even stand-up bass. Bruce Hornsby (Bruce Hornsby? Yes. Just watch.) Earl Scruggs. Three songs performed by ALL the musicians: an amazing assemble anywhere, but on the stage of the Ryman, well, amazing.

It will be on PBS in March (in February in Nashville) so watch your local listings.