The Big Bang Theory of Bluegrass

Rural Roots of Bluegrass by Wayne Erbsen

By Wayne Erbsen

If the “big bang theory” helps to explain the origin of the universe, perhaps “the big bang theory of bluegrass” will shed some light on the origin of the bluegrass music universe.

There are two schools of thought as to the origins of bluegrass music. One has Bill Monroe singlehandedly inventing bluegrass music around 1945. The other takes a more evolutionary approach, with a number of musicians and bands contributing to the sound we now call “bluegrass.” In particular, this approach points to Wade and JE Mainer’s Mountaineers as the first band that had all the ingredients

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My Apple-Picking Gizmo and the Song ‘June Apple’ + Banjo Tab

By Wayne Erbsen

Why is it that when you drop a slice of bread that you’ve just slathered with peanut butter, it always lands peanut- butter-side down?  Maybe it’s the same cosmic forces at work that cause the best apples to be at the very top of the tree. That’s the predicament I found myself in yesterday as I contemplated how I was going to get some juicy apples down from 35 feet up a tree that was too skinny to climb.

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But wait! I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started this fall weekend when I was up at

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The History of Tuning Gizmos

By Wayne Erbsen

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Over the years, there’s been a dizzying array of gizmos created to help us find the right pitch for singing or to help us tune our instruments. The first one I remember was a round pitch pipe the music teacher in my elementary school used when we would sing in class.

Tuning ForkWhen I first started playing the guitar in the early 1960s, it was common to use a tuning fork. Since that time I’ve heard that tuning forks have been produced in different sizes and pitches, but my only experience was with an “A” tuning fork. I

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Rattlesnake Fangs, Fiddles, Mandolins & Folklore

By Wayne Erbsen

Jarrell & Cockerham Archives of Appalachia, ETSU +People have always had a strange fascination with rattlesnakes. As one of America’s most poisonous snakes, they are both feared and hated, and yet their rattles are prized for their mythical and magical properties.

While doing research for this article, I ran across an amazing number of stories, some true, some pure myth, about rattlesnakes or “rattlers,” as they are sometimes called. One old timer personally told me the following story as the gospel truth, but I have since found versions of it that were collected both in the Southern Appalachians, and in Western Europe.

It seemed

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Log Cabin Diaries, Part 3: The Log Cabin Band

By Wayne Erbsen

We love log cabins. Always have. As far as we’re concerned, you can’t have too many of them. In addition to our rustic log cabin way up in Big Pine, North Carolina, we have an authentic log cabin here in Asheville on the same piece of land as our Native Ground office. This is where we teach our Appalachian music and cooking classes. We think this cabin was built in the 1940s out of a kit sold by Sears, of all things. That is the rumor, anyway. The original cabin has been added on to twice

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Mangled Bluegrass Song Lyrics : ‘Two Meatballs in the Sand’

By Wayne Erbsen

I guess you can say I’ve had a love affair with words almost since before I learned to talk. Since moving to North Carolina from California in 1972, I’ve learned that a mountains“minner dipper” is a mandolin, a “scratch box” is a fiddle, and a “starvation box” is a guitar. I’ve learned that a “cathead” is a biscuit, a “ballet” is a ballad and “catawampus” means crosswise. I’ve met fleshy (overweight) people and those who could hide behind a straw (skinny). I’ve seen people who cootered around aimlessly while being bumfusticated, flummoxed, and flustrated. I’ve been told

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Log Cabin Diaries, Part 2: The New, Old Cabin

For Part 1, click HERE

By Wayne Erbsen
topo map ncLong before the days of Mapquest, Google Maps, or iPhones, we had to rely on honest-to-goodness paper maps to find our way around. Spreading a North Carolina map on the kitchen table, we finally found Big Pine, which was only a tiny dot on the map. Looking at a topo map, we soon learned that it was way back in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina, which is about an hour’s drive northwest from Asheville

I remember excitedly telling my mother on the phone that we had possibly found our dream

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Log Cabin Diaries, Part 1: The Search

By Wayne Erbsen
 cabin In 1999, my wife Barbara looked me straight in the eyes and said that we needed to find a cabin or farmhouse way back in the mountains.  She wanted to find a old-timey place so far back in the sticks that we could hear only the sounds of birds chirping. No electricity, no plumbing, no cars, no computers, no cell phones, no nuthin’. You know, that didn’t sound half bad, so I bought into the idea.

After looking at a slew of so-called cabins right next to busy roads, Barb came into my office with a crazed

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Log Cabin Music: ‘Little Log Cabin in the Lane’ + Lyrics

By Wayne Erbsen

Now and then I write a column called “Log Cabin Music” for several bluegrass music magazines. I don’t call it that fer nuthin’. In fact, my wife Barbara and I own two log cabins. The one that sits next to our primary residence in Asheville, North Carolina, is home to our business, “Log Cabin Cooking & Music.” In the retro kitchen of this 1940s cabin, Barbara teaches workshops in old-timey Appalachian cooking on our 1928 Home Comfort wood cookstove. In some of the classes she uses our rock fireplace to teach hearth cooking skills.

The large and

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The Secret Signals of Musicians

By Wayne Erbsen

It’s Saturday night. Instead of relaxing safe at home plopped comfortably in front of your big screen TV, you’ve got your hind quarters parked squarely on a hard folding chair. If that’s the case, chances are you’re either at a festival watching your favorite bluegrass band, or perhaps you’re huddled under a tarp in the pouring rain jamming with friends or total strangers at a fiddlers convention. Either way, you often witness secret or not-so-secret signals or cues from one musician to the rest of the group to alert them that a song or tune is about

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