Sideline spotlights North Carolina bluegrass
His home state was in the middle of an ice storm, with power outages in the Triad region. His band’s tour bus was in need of repairs in Florida, but Steve Dilling, banjo player and founder of the bluegrass group Sideline, was soon to be out on a cruise ship with a couple hundred pickers and fans of string-band music. So, on the one hand, things could have been better, but, on the other, they could have been worse, too. And it was a typically busy stretch for Dilling and his band.
Sideline will perform at The Crown at Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 19. I spoke with Dilling by phone while he and the band were in Jacksonville for a show, before heading out on Danny Stewart’s bluegrass cruise. After they play Greensboro, Dilling said the sextet would be driving up to Asheville, where they’d spend four days or so starting work on a new record, following up on last year’s Front and Center.
Bluegrass is American music, like jazz. And, like jazz, bluegrass, drew from a variety of traditions, such as the blues, old-time string music and sacred music, braiding together a number of elements into a unique genre, with revved-up string playing, tight vocal harmonies and kinetic energy that could be compared to be-bop. It’s worth noting that when Elvis Presley made those first landmark recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis back in 1954, along with “That’s Alright,” a remake of blues singer Arthur Crudup’s single, he also recorded a rock-ified version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a song by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. So bluegrass music has been infusing popular American music for over half a century, and it continues to spread its influence today.
I happened to speak to Dilling on the week that Google celebrated, with a featured drawing on the search giant’s homepage, the 95th anniversary of the birth of North Carolina banjo legend Earl Scruggs. (Scruggs was born near Shelby and he went on to play in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, as well as with his own legendary group the Foggy Mountain Boys, with his longtime musical collaborator Lester Flatt.)
Dilling said he had taken a screenshot of the Scruggs image to keep the memory of the honor to North Carolina music, to bluegrass, to the banjo and to his friend.
“Being a banjo player, Earl was my first hero,” Dilling said. “In later years, I got to be friends with Earl and to go to his house.”
Dilling grew up in the Raleigh area. His family used to travel to bluegrass festivals and events starting when he was about 8 years old.
“My dad had an electrician that worked for him that played the banjo, and we used to go see him perform,” Dilling said. That friend of the family helped Dilling’s parents select the first banjo he got when he was 12.
That connection from parents to children runs through bluegrass music. It’s music that is about close-knit community and tight familial bonds. Bluegrass music radiates that kind of intimacy.
“You see it now going from generation to generation within the same family,” Dilling said. “It’s family-oriented music.”
(Sideline is a family ensemble in the sense that guitarist Skip Cherryholmes is Dilling’s son-in-law. Cherryholmes, in turn, was a part of his own family’s band for over a dozen years.)
During the warm months, the setting of outdoor music-making and all-day events tend to encourage a kind of camaraderie.
“You go to a bluegrass festival, you’re not only playing music, but you’re camping, you’re cooking,” Dilling said.
Pickers swap riffs and tunes. Oldsters take youngsters under their wings. There’s a fair amount of tradition that gets passed down. And the music itself celebrates the idea of old ways, with songs about faith, rural life and time-tested wisdom.
And yet, at the same time, bluegrass remains music that’s in conversation with the present. There are numerous bluegrass outfits and string bands that take the music of artists such as Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley or the Grateful Dead and give those familiar songs a high-lonesome spin. (Sideline recorded a bluegrassified Gordon Lightfoot tune for their last record.) On top of that, the sound of traditional bluegrass, in the form of mandolin and banjo particularly, has slid into popular music, to Americana, to pop and even into hip-hop, in surprising ways. Hit-makers with traditional bluegrass credentials, such as Alison Krauss, have sent popular audiences back to the music. And others, like Mumford & Sons, have simply demonstrated how the banjo can fit into a radio single. It all translates to sustained growth of the fanbase, and a chance for traditionalists like Sideline to continue performing bluegrass in a live setting, with the music’s dynamism can be most easily felt.
“Audiences tend to be up in numbers at live performances, and the audiences tend to be younger in age,” Dilling said. “There’s a whole lot more young people than there used to be.”
Sideline is able to straddle both sides of that line, playing traditional bluegrass, throwing in gospel tunes, or giving their set a jam-band twist, if the venue and the audience seemed receptive to a little more wide-ranging improvisation and stretched-out structures.
Sideline will take their first trip to Europe this summer, connecting with bluegrass fans in Ireland, where acoustic music, communal singing and ballad traditions all remain strong. Bluegrass may be global music now, with festivals and performance opportunities all over the world, but Dilling said that one of the reasons that the members of Sideline can achieve their tight blend of fast-moving instrumental playing paired with the close vocal harmonies that dip and rise like a school of fish moving in mesmerizing unison is because the players all grew up with the same regional styles.
“Most of the whole band is from North Carolina or Eastern Tennessee,” Dilling said. They all came of age playing hard-driving traditional music. “I think that helps us a lot. We pronounce things the same.”
See Sideline along with NuBlu at The Crown, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.