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Bluegrass is Trance (And Old-Time, Too)

Mar 2, 2021

Bluegrass is Trance (And Old-Time, Too)

Bluegrass is trance. Old-time, too. 

With a slightly more zoomed out perspective, this fact comes into focus pretty quickly. American roots music and its precursors, especially their string band forms, have been interwoven with dance for eons. Before the advent of recorded music, when the popular musics of the day could often only be consumed by upper classes, dancing and other social group activities were the center places music inhabited. Before radio shaved popular music down into bite-sized, three-minute chunks, the tunes would last as long as necessary to provide a backdrop for a reel, a hornpipe, or a square dance, extending fiddle tunes into ten- to twenty-minute, cyclical, musical meditations. “Turkey in the Straw” as mantra, “Chicken Reel” as a slightly wonky, onomatopoeic sound bed.

Detached from dance, it’s easy to forget that string band music has been designed with trance embedded within its structures. Chris Pandolfi is a banjo player who’s explored quite a bit in trance and trance-adjacent music with the Infamous Stringdusters, a seminal jamgrass band with a level of bluegrass’s technical virtuosity that’s unmatched in all but a select few ensembles in a similar vein. Pandolfi’s new record, Trance Banjo, which was released under his solo stage name, Trad Plus, moves further and further beyond American roots aesthetics, cementing the banjo and its musical vernacular within trance – the electronica variety as well as the age-old, human kind.

Trance Banjo, and tracks such as “Wallfacer” — whose trippy visualizer music video almost cements this article’s central argument — recalls albums by Scott Vestal, or live shows by post-metal shredders like Billy Strings, or experimental, avant garde compositions by cattywompus flattop mashers like Stash Wyslouch. It’s not just a simple coincidence that so many players from bluegrass and old-time backgrounds find themselves dabbling with trance.

John Mailander, a fiddler who’s toured with Molly Tuttle and Bruce Hornsby and has been hired as a side-musician with many a jamgrass-leaning band, is comfortably uncomfortable in a very similar musical realm as Trance Banjo. On an EP of sketches and improvisations released last summer (from the same sessions and experimentations that became his upcoming album, Forecast) Mailander and his bluegrass-veteran backing band play with trance centered on sparseness, vacancy, and negative space in a way that’s engaging and baffling, both. Mailander’s rubric of vulnerable, emotive, and transparent expression as a foundation for improv is key here.

That personal touch, the personality endemic in these trance experimentations, is certainly what makes them most compelling and it must be, at least in part, what ties these songs to the centuries-old tradition of music as meditation. Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi make more than just a musical brand of showcasing their personalities and identities in the music they create, it’s more like a mission statement. Giddens has an incredible aptitude for writing and composing music based on empathy and human connection and Turrisi holds expansive knowledge of world folk music and percussion.

Their compositions and collaborations illustrate that, when we connect our music to dance, percussion, and trance, we’re connecting it to thousands and thousands of years of history — of humans of all ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, and identities, gathering, connecting, sharing, and loving through music, dance, and trance. On stage, Turrisi and Giddens deliberately connect these dots as well, utilizing stage banter to educate their audiences about these exact connections.

While old-time has held onto its penchant for movement and choreography through the generations, bluegrass continues to grow distant from this and many of the other cultural phenomena that gave rise to it. Trance Banjo, and projects like it, while they seem to gleefully run away from what we perceive as “traditional” aspects of these genres, are in many ways guiding us right back to the very folkways that birthed them. 

Photo credit: Chris Pandolfi by Chris Pandolfi

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Bluegrass is Trance (And Old-Time, Too)
Bluegrass is Trance (And Old-Time, Too)