About 20 years ago, when the Johnson Mountain Boys called it quits, there were serious fears for the future of bluegrass music. Those fears seem quaint now, for bluegrass is everywhere. Witness the emergence of Bearfoot, from the unlikely locale of Anchorage, Alaska. Their style is something like that of another contemporary group, the Australian-British trio the Greencards. Bearfoot runs bluegrass camps in Alaska, so you can pack your kids off to that scenic state to be initiated into the mysteries of the mandolin and to learn to carry on this American tradition for themselves.
Of course, the tradition has changed as it has come up out of the hollows and farms of Appalachia and the mid-South; musicians who've grown up with pop and jazz and singer-songwriter folk have mixed the classical style with what they know, and they use the acoustic instruments of bluegrass as a kind of distillation of other styles (Bearfoot's label, Compass, also records and markets jazz). Bearfoot is one of a number of new bands that look both forward and back: many of their original songs are guitar-based, folky creations that reflect, or seem to reflect, personal experiences, but they also do traditional songs and other pieces that draw on the old-time upbeat string band music from which bluegrass was born in the 1930s and 1940s.
Bearfoot's gender composition--three women and two men--would have been unusual indeed in the classic era, and some of these old-time or old-timey pieces have a feminist tinge that Bearfoot shares with other young groups like the Ann Arbor-originated Uncle Earl. The group teases out traditional songs like "Single Girl" that come from a wryly painful female perspective, and to go with them they offer originals like "Caroline" that expand on traditional ideas: "Caroline's comin' into town / She's got a black eye, big and round. / Caroline's got her dancing shoes; / She ain't got a thing to lose."
Most of Bearfoot's music is on the slower and
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