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Thread: Accordion in bluegrass?

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    I don't want to start a tiff on whether or not the use of instruments other than guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, mando, or Dobro can be considered bluegrass (so please don't)...

    ... but I searched through some old threads here and saw that Allen Hopkins made this reference "Some oddities creep in -- accordion (Wilene Forrester w/Bill Monroe),..."

    Is Monroe the only bluegrass traditionalist that's used the accordion? #What recording(s) is the accordion used on?

    Gene

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    As far as Monroe's music is concerned, he included the wife of Howdy Forrester, his fiddler in the early pre-Flatt-&-Scruggs versions of the Blue Grass Boys, as accordion player 1943-46. Goldie Sue Wilene Russell Forrester, Wilene for short and "Sally Ann" as nicknamed by Monroe, not only played accordion, but kept the band's books, collected gate receipts, etc. Richard Smith, in his Monroe biography Can't You Hear Me Callin', says Ms. Forrester's musical contributions made the band sound a bit like a "western swing outfit." When Howdy Forrester returned from military service in 1946, he and his wife moved to Texas, and Chubby Wise rejoined the Blue Grass Boys, which also at that point included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. We all know what happened next.

    Wilene Forrester participated in one set of Monroe's Columbia recordings, February 13, 1945; titles included Rocky Road Blues, Kentucky Waltz, True Life Blues, Nobody Loves Me, Goodbye Old Pal, Footprints In the Snow, Blue Grass Special, and Come Back To Me In My Dreams. Analysis of Ms. Forrester's contributions to the band's sound said that she mostly played offbeats and accents, not many lead solos, and also sang several vocals in the band's stage show.

    I don't know of other bluegrass bands using accordion. Monroe apparently made no effort to hire another accordionist; he seized upon the Flatt/Scruggs/Wise sound as representing how he wanted his bands to sound, although he did record frequently with double and even triple fiddles, and also included other instruments from time to time on his records -- mostly at the suggestion of his producers, as talked about in your other thread on organ.
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    I think John Doherty plays some button accordion and pennywhistle on Skaggs' recent live CD.
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    Thank you so much for the details on Forrester! #...Including the analysis of her musical "contribution". #That's very interesting... #Is that set of 2/13/45 recordings available on cd?

    I have to admit that in my musical life, I'm a pianist and accordionist first & foremost (please don't hold it against me!). #The mandolin (and banjo, Dobro, and dulcimer) are fairly recent "projects" of mine. #Of all of them though, the mandolin is the instrument I just "can't put down".

    I can envision how the accordion could fit in to the bluegrass sound (no flames, please! ) if played tastefully (I know, I know... that's a real oxymoron!) - but really, I think I can imagine an accordion contribution. #I know the Dirt Band has used accordion - but we wouldn't classify them as "traditional". #(...but electronic organ... no way! #Thanks for putting your foot down about that, Bill! (see electronic organ thread))

    Allen said that Monroe "...seized upon the Flatt/Scruggs/Wise sound as representing how he wanted his bands to sound,..."

    Do you think that any variation in that formula would render the music something other than "bluegrass". #What about the Dobro? #I really don't mean to start anything with this - I would like to hear opinions.

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    I don't think you could get away with calling it bluegrass, but stringband music with accordion is a great sound. There were a number of cowboy outfits that used accordion (Sons of the Pioneers et al), and I love the way keyboard and diatonic accordions and concertinas sound with the mandolin. Not to everyone's liking--and I sure wouldn't try to pass it off as bluegrass or even old-time music--but it sounds good to me.
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    I understood that Wilene Forrester was hired by Monroe as a favour to Howdy, to look after her during the war years. I don't think he particularly wanted an accordian in the group, but she did add some variety to the show. Richard Smith says that while Monroe was quite a predator on unmarried women, he was fiercly loyal to his friends and never bothered their wives.

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    we dont play bluegrass, more like modern folk, but one of the guys plays accordion, and when he does, it's a wonderful thing. very full and rich sound.
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    Jeff Taylor plays accordion (and pennywhistle) on Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder's "Instrumentals" CD. Given that Irish music is one of bluegrass music's many influences, it's not illogical, and it sounds fine to me on Ricky's CD.
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    I kinda like what she did with it. Bluegrass Special is rockin.
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    Quote Originally Posted by (Der Musiker @ Aug. 24 2007, 13:21)
    Thank you so much for the details on Forrester! #...Including the analysis of her musical "contribution". #That's very interesting... #Is that set of 2/13/45 recordings available on cd?
    All of those Wilene Forrester recordings are available on the Bear Family box set "Blue Moon of Kentucky, 1936-1939" ( http://www.bear-family.de/mailord....D+16399 ). #Of course, you may not want to spend $120 on an exhaustive, 6-CD box set, in which case you might check out JSP's budget-priced 4-CD set "All the Classic Releases, 1937-1949" ( http://www.amazon.com/Classic....&sr=8-4 ), which I think includes a few of the songs with Wilene on accordion.

    There are several one or two disc compilations of Bill's early work which include at least one track from those February, 1945 sessions:

    "Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys: The Early Years, 1945-1949"

    "The Essential Bill Monroe, 1945-1949"

    "Bill Monroe, 16 Gems"

    "Father of Bluegrass, The Early Years 1940-1947"




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    Quote Originally Posted by (Der Musiker @ Aug. 24 2007, 13:21)
    Allen said that Monroe "...seized upon the Flatt/Scruggs/Wise sound as representing how he wanted his bands to sound,..."

    Do you think that any variation in that formula would render the music something other than "bluegrass". What about the Dobro? I really don't mean to start anything with this - I would like to hear opinions.
    Actually, I'm not sure you'd like to hear those opinions; you're opening one of the largest cans of worms ever tapped on this (or several other) forums: "what is bluegrass?"

    Monroe never hired a Dobro player, but since Flatt & Scruggs picked up Burkett "Buck""Josh" Graves in the early '50's, the acoustic resonator steel guitar has been pretty much accepted. The instrument had a very acceptable "country" pedigree, at least since Jimmie Rodgers, and Roy Acuff, Wilma Lee & Stony Cooper etc. had used Dobro.

    Flatt & Scruggs seldom let their mandolin players (for years that was Curly Sechler) step out front, at least on their recordings. Their producers brought in harmonica (Charlie McCoy) on some of their '60's albums, but the instrument never caught on in bluegrass.

    Drums -- a whole article could be written on that subject! Jimmy Martin used a snare drum in live performance occasionally (I think to give a family member a job [?]), and quite a few bands included laid-back percussion on recordings -- Flatt & Scruggs (toward the end), Jim & Jesse, some others.

    Monroe, as we discussed, recorded with piano, organ, vibraphone, electric guitar, etc. at different times, mostly at the suggestion of his producers. Once Wilene Forrester left his band in 1946, he kept his instrumentation to "the basic five": mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass fiddle. He recorded with double and triple "stacked" fiddles at different times.

    Other bands have used pedal and lap steel guitar, electric lead guitar, Autoharp, lap and hammered dulcimers, mandola, and other variants from time to time. Osborne Brothers recordings from the late '50's/early '60's had a touch of tiple (played by Nashville sessionist Ray Edenton).

    So: a lot more instruments have ventured into bluegrass than the purists would probably care to admit. On the other hand, most of these forays have been limited, and haven't "stuck." And you still raise the hackles of 50%+ of a bluegrass audience when you bring anything onstage other than mandolin, 5-string banjo, guitar, fiddle, Dobro and bass fiddle.
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    Accordion would not be too odd a fit if employed for colorings that were not overly obtrusive, and of limited duration, or to evoke a particular feeling. Too much might sound a little maudlin, but like a harmonica it could be employed for a bluesy influence. I play lots of harmonicas; and bought an old Burini accordion just 'cause it was a huge box of reeds for cheap. I've been scratching my head and wondering how it would sound with the mandolin, but it would be with a more folk/blues direction than traditional bluegrass. Tastefully done I would see no problem; but bluegrass style is associated with a pretty specific set of instrumentation and singing style and messin' with it could raise some hackels!

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    When my son was little he asked his Mom if anyone in the family played a musical instrument. My wife quickly said " I think your Uncle Mike plays the accordion". Then after she thought about what she said she told my boy, "On second thought no one in the family plays a musical instrument" .
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    Oh, boy - I love this controversial topic, and have appreciated the information & different perspectives presented here! As a bluegrass lover & mandolin & accordion player, Wilene "Sally Ann" Forrester is one of my heroes as one of the Blue Grass Boys. I believe that Murphy Henry wrote a dissertation on Wilene's contribution to bluegrass music. She also mentioned her in her 1998 IBMA Keynote Address on Women in Bluegrass. You can read it on her website @ www.murphymethod.com - click on Women in Bluegrass & scroll down to the bottom of the page. Murphy Henry had a quarterly newsletter on women in bluegrass - which is now on hold, while she is writing a book on the same subject.
    I usually limit my accordion playing to an occasional bluegrass gospel tune or fiddle tune, although I have played it on, "Blue Moon of Kentucky". And yes, I do receive the occasional jokes/comments - which, I think, are often recycled banjo jokes!

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    Quote Originally Posted by (allenhopkins @ Aug. 26 2007, 15:11)
    Osborne Brothers recordings from the late '50's/early '60's had a touch of tiple (played by Nashville sessionist Ray Edenton).
    i had read about that before, do you know which album(s) it was used on?
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    Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, Country Pickin' and Hillside Singing' is where I've heard it. A great LP, with the original twin banjo (Bobby and Sonny) version of Ruby, Are You Mad?

    I remember the tiple sound on Fair and Tender Ladies.
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    For interesting and tasteful interplay between accordion and mandolin, check out The Bills` CD "Let em run". The Bills are a Canadian roots/americana band- close to bluegrass but not quite. Great musicians, great singing. If you are an emusic member, you can download their album there. Or probably on itunes, too.
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    My band has an accordion player (alongside mando, fiddle, guitar, double bass and percussion). We definitely have elements of bluegrass in our sound but also plenty of eastern European folk influences. The accordion sounds great to me in this context and gives us a character we wouldn't have otherwise.

    It's a hard instrument to compete with acoustically though!
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    Here's a sentence I got by going to Google and typing in "Bill Monroe" and accordion: "Monroe learned his musical craft (in between hard work on the farm and schooling) from his mother, Melissa Vandiver Monroe, an accomplished accordion and fiddle player." So we can't argue that the accordion is an unacceptable instrument for bluegrass because it wasn't found in the hills of Kentucky.

    Both the accordion and the concertina were used by soldiers during the Civil War, and they were very popular in the last half of the 19th century. The same Elias Howe who sold the Howe-Orme Mandolinetto also published concertina methods. So accordion and concertina certainly have as much claim to being good American instruments as does the mandolin.

    I've been thinking about the question you asked, as it's an interesting one. I'm just back from the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, where I saw about thirty bands. Most instruments used mics. There was one electric bass (played by a banjo player). There were several stand-up electric basses. Most of the basses seemed to be plugged in to the sound system (I didn't see any bass mics). No one complained.

    What is necessary for a bluegrass band? Every band had a guitar, but some bands' guitarists played only rhythm--no solos at all. Most had mandolins, but not all (and as pointed out above, Flatt & Scruggs have very few mandolin solos in their records). Many had fiddles, but not all. Most had banjos, but not all. Many had dobros, but not all. There were several mandolas. What was Cia Cherryholmes playing? A long-necked mandola? An octave mandolin? I couldn't tell. Any other instruments? None occur to me at present, though there may have been.

    What will people put up with? The Gary Ferguson Band plays at Gettysburg frequently, and they do flat out Gordon Lightfoot style songs, generally. Very little bluegrass. Emory Lester was there mandolin player, but he didn't play much bluegrass, either. I think people are maybe a little more openminded than they used to be, so long as that isn't abused.

    So what about an accordion in bluegrass. After pondering it, it seems to me that we need to be more specific. The bouncy, polka-style accordion with a heavy emphasis on using three or four banks of reeds at once is a sound that I think doesn't really fit in well with bluegrass. As mentioned above, accordion can be pretty loud, pretty overpowering.

    However, I think that the three row diatonic button accordion (used for Norteno / Tex-Mex music and Zydeco) could work very well for bluegrass if played appropriately. I have a Hohner Corona II that is sort of the ideal Tex-Mex accordion. It's right hand melody notes are simple and pretty, not chords. Last night I put on a Monroe CD and tried playing along. Sounded interesting. The range of a GCF button accordion is about the same as that of a mandolin or fiddle. That means it could substitute for either, but you'd need to be careful not to clash with them. I think it would make a better fiddle substitute than mandolin substitute, though.

    I also have an old Lachenal Maccann Duet concertina. Concertina's (excluding the cheap new Chinese ones with accordion reeds in them) sound very different from accordions--thinner and more piercing. They are certainly good for fiddle tunes, as any lover of Irish music knows. I think a concertina would be very interesting in a band. And I think that a band that plays good bluegrass would be accepted if it hire's a concertina player, so long as it's used for bluegrass, and not for bringing in some other sort of music.

    Button accordions and concertinas are also very good for accompanying hymns, and hymns are a staple of bluegrass. Accordion (if played that way) and concertina can both excel at playing lonesome. They can also sound very happy. So I'd love to see a band or two give them a try.

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    As someone who plays mandolins and English concertina, and works in a band with a diatonic accordion player (doing Celtic instrumental music), I think that working reed instruments into bluegrass would have to be done gradually and tastefully. There has been fairly extensive use of harmonica in country, old-time, and some bluegrass music, but it doesn't seem to have "stuck."

    It's not just the inherent conservatism of a much of the bluegrass audience that would inhibit adding accordion, concertina, et. al. It's really a question of how the sound of that instrument would work in the bluegrass style. Most of the chording in BG accompaniment is done on the off beat, with a bass emphasis on the down beat. Concertina, since it's not basically a chord instrument, wouldn't really interfere, but accordion chords would have to be done very tastefully. Bluegrass tempos, especially for instrumentals, tend to be very fast; I would expect that a "dry" tuned accordion might be able to add good instrumental leads, but a "wet" (vibrato) tuned accordion would have a good chance of sounding muddy.

    Besides, think of the general disrespect in which accordions are held. There's already a widely disrespected instrument in almost every bluegrass band -- banjo. Why dilute the ridicule by adding another? (Just kidding, really...)
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    Very interesting thread.

    If you added accordion to bluegrass, then replaced the bass with a tuba, you'd get the three most reviled instruments all at once! (I, for one, love them all, though).

    This thread has got me thinking about how accordion and mandolin would sound together. Funny that I never thought about that before--my girlfriend is an accordionist. I think a small 12-button accordion (you see these onstage a lot) would be better than the full-bore models, but it's worth some experimentation.
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    Jumbotron, you made me think of the joke... Q. If you drop a tenor banjo and an accordion from 20 stories, which would hit the pavement first? A. Who cares?!

    I started out on the accordion at the age of 5. My undergraduate degree (B.Mus.) was in performance on the accordion! For my junior and senior recitals I was playing classical pieces such as Bach's French Suites and numerous contemporary pieces written for the instrument. After college in the '70's, I migrated to the piano and synthesizers. Way before I got interested in bluegrass and "old-time" music, I played keyboards in "top-40" bands. I always had an idea of doing "top 40" and jazz tunes with an acoustic ensemble of: guitar, accordion, bass, percussion (congas, etc.), and maybe a violin or oboe. Well, the idea never materialized for me - MTV ended up doing their "Unplugged" series, though. I agree with you, Jumbotron... I think the mandolin and accordion would be great together.

    Bluemountain and Allenhopkins - I also agree with your insights re: multiple banks of reeds and wet tuning - those are things which need to be used sparingly and tastefully no matter what kind of music is being played! All of my accordions have been full size with multiple sets of reeds but none were tuned "wet" - that sound just didn't "fit" with classical music (I know, many would argue that the accordion itself doesn't "fit" with classical music - I've been a musical "misfit" all my life!)

    If you've ever heard "Riders In The Sky"... IMHO, Joey Miskulin does some nice accordion work in the "jazzy cowboy" music that they do.

    I guess I'm attracted to instruments that are reviled: the accordion... I tried bagpipes and gave up due to hyperventilation!... now, I recently got a banjo! (Don't shoot!)

    The mandolin isn't reviled, but I'm amazed at how many people ask me what it is!
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    Gene

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