Traditional bluegrass music is a melting pot. It has roots in Appalachian, Celtic and jazz music, and musicologists trace the origins of the banjo back to traditional stringed instruments from West Africa. It’s a genre that’s constantly evolving.
Pat Kay is a bluegrass musician and books shows at the Blue Note, a music venue in Columbia. He said the traditional style has seen a resurgence in recent years.
“I definitely think this music is coming back in its own shape and its own form,” Kay said.
Twenty-five years ago, Kay said, the future of traditional bluegrass music didn’t look promising. But then came bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and movies like “O Brother, Where Art Though.” They brought bluegrass back into the mainstream.
“The release of the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ pushed Alison Krauss and Dan Tominski and all of these players right into the spotlight who were relatively unknown at that point,” he said.
Now, Kay said, you can find bluegrass bands putting a new twist on traditional music across the country.
His band the Kay Brothers is one example. When Kay was growing up, bluegrass music wasn’t a big part of his life.
“I really didn’t know what bluegrass was growing up. I just assumed anything that had a fiddle a mandolin or a banjo in it was bluegrass,” he said.
He started playing in rock bands, and it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he discovered bluegrass. By that point, he didn’t feel he had the technical skill set that most traditional bluegrass players do.
“We would listen to traditional bluegrass and it was so fancy and the playing was so tasteful, and it far exceeded our capability. So, we had to find a way to make it worth listening to without having the chops that a lot of those traditional Bluegrass players had,” Kay said.
So, they tried something different.
“I started out using a wine crate that I stomped on,” Kay said. “One of the other guys had a tambourine that he played with his foot. It became an integral part of our sound, and as a result, it was very percussion heavy. We called it stomp grass.”
He said the band has experienced a surprising amount of success, with that mixture of old and new helping to attract a broad audience.
“People in their 20s and 30s really enjoy it, my parents love it, my grandmother still comes to see us play when she can, and she’s 98 years old,” he said. “I really like how many people you can make happy in one sitting.”
Kay said that, right now, there are only three or four well-known bluegrass bands playing shows in mid-Missouri. But, that could change. He said he’s always on the lookout for something new.
“It’s the sort of thing that has me and other people looking under the rocks,” he said, “going what else is going on around here, what else is existing under the radar that is unique and special to this area?”