- Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy by Tim Newby
Among cultural perceptions of North American music and geography, few are as strongly linked as country music and the southern United States. However, important recent studies are complicating this idea, examining the country music legacy of places and regions away from the core of the American South. Examples include the work of Keith Cady, Henry Glassie, Craig Maki, Clifford R. Murphy, and Douglas Dowling Peach. Baltimore, located on the fringes of the South, has similarly avoided scholarly scrutiny regarding its significance to this music. With Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy, Tim Newby aims to help rectify this shortcoming by examining the city’s bluegrass music scene, revealing Baltimore’s “permanent . . . footprint on the history and development of bluegrass” (p. 7).
Beginning with an introduction, the book proceeds mostly chronologically. Chapters 1–5 tell the stories of key musicians—Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Russ Hooper, Mike Seeger, Earl Taylor—and their roles in the nascent Baltimore bluegrass scene of the 1950s and 1960s. The next three chapters each focus on an influential musician with strong ties to the area: contemporary bluegrass icon Del McCoury, old-time music luminary Ola Belle Reed, and the oft-overlooked banjo innovator Walt Hensley. In the last two chapters Newby traces the evolution of bluegrass in Baltimore from the 1970s to 2014, including profiles of Cris Jacobs and Patrick McAvinue, young mainstays of the current scene.
Overall, Newby’s book delivers solid contributions to the historiography of bluegrass music, offering a fresh investigation of urban bluegrass in a working-class city. The book effectively expands the biographies of both long-revered artists (Dickens, Gerrard, McCoury, Seeger) and those less recognized (Hensley, Hooper, Taylor). The in-depth profile of Taylor’s career and contextualization of his group’s historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1959 are long overdue. In addition, the chapter on Reed incorporates illuminating discussions of Sunset Park and New River Ranch, two rural parks just outside Baltimore that were critical venues in the early days of bluegrass.
With an approach that reflects Newby’s primary experience writing for music trade publications, the book may not satisfy readers hoping for a robust scholarly treatment. Oral interviews conducted since 2011 constitute a significant basis of his research, which can cause concern. For example, Newby’s portrayal of the Baltimore bluegrass scene as a unique product of intermingling populations of Appalachian migrants and urban folk revivalists is compelling, but it relies chiefly on interview recollections and does not reference such relevant migration studies as those by Chad Berry and James N. Gregory. This writing style also affects the structure and character of the prose. Tangential anecdotes and asides sometimes clutter the clarity and direction of the narrative, and multiple statements unequivocally present certain music and musicians as “pure” and “authentic” (pp. 10, 42). However, these aspects of methodology and style do not outweigh the book’s overall contributions, which make Bluegrass in Baltimore a welcome addition to literature documenting the [End Page 978] importance of broader North America in the history and development of “southern” bluegrass and country music.