Anyone who thinks bluegrass music is a dying art or just mountain music with a somewhat narrow following isn’t familiar with the bluegrass scene in Columbia. Kissing cousins with “newgrass,” a progressive, improvisational subgenre of bluegrass, and “Americana,” an amalgam of various influences in American music, this music genre is alive and well — from the traditional music hall at Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor to the various city breweries with outdoor stages.
Columbia has become a fertile field for the expanding variety of music styles that incorporate the traditions of bluegrass with genres as varied as classic rock and gospel. Plus, the people who play and enjoy these iterations of bluegrass are just as diverse as the music. Some are highly successful full-time musicians while others have “day jobs” and see their music as a fun side hustle, hobby, or a “someday” dream career.
According to the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, the roots of traditional bluegrass music date back to the 1600s with immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England bringing their music styles with them to the early Virginia settlements. When these settlers began moving south and west into North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, they captured their new life experiences in “mountain music” songs.
The granddaddy of bluegrass music is Bill Monroe, a native of the Bluegrass State, Kentucky. He and his band, the Bluegrass Boys, used a style of playing called “the jazz break” in which each musician got the chance to play his own interpretation of the melody. As this style of music became more popular, many referred to it as playing “like the Bluegrass Boys,” and later, just bluegrass.
Various histories of the genre date bluegrass music as we know it today back to 1939 with Bill’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Others point to the sound that came together when Earl Scruggs joined the band in December 1945.
Columbia has its own traditions and historical connections to the bluegrass days gone by. Todd Hicks plays guitar with the Mustache Brothers, a local bluegrass band, and points to bandmate Fred Berry’s grandfather, Frank Berry, as a contemporary of Bill Monroe; Frank and Bill played on radio stations together in the 1940s. Todd adds that Columbia is also the home of bluegrass legend Snuffy Jenkins. “A lot of people attribute the three-finger banjo style to Earl Scruggs, but early on Snuffy was pioneering that here in Columbia.”
Today, bands that play bluegrass often morph their sound into what some call newgrass, Americana, or modern bluegrass. Others call it a mash-up between folk and bluegrass. Todd labels the Mustache Brothers’ music as progressive bluegrass and honky tonk. “It’s traditional bluegrass songs played in a more progressive way.”
Regardless, one common thread between the old and new is the combination of traditional tunes blending the five standard bluegrass instruments: banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and string bass. Thus, often people who have never met are able to play together, and this ease is what frequently draws musicians to this genre.
Skip Hardin, a Columbia attorney, started playing bluegrass at “slow jams” hosted weekly at Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor in Cayce. He took up guitar lessons several years ago with an instructor in Camden. Skip says, “Bill told me I could come take lessons but that the way to learn is to find a group and play. I’d been going to Bill’s for years and just listening. I started going to the slow jam group one Saturday a month with 30 or so people who get together for two and a half hours. That really jump-started my playing.”
For new players, a slow jam is an unintimidating place to start. “A lot of what we do is play from sheet music, which means you really only need to know three chords. Bluegrass is pretty standard stuff — usually in the key of G, C or D,” adds Skip, explaining that he had not listened to much bluegrass until he started playing and realized that bluegrass is a very accessible genre of music. “The music lends itself to musicians of various levels playing with each other so you can just play along or lead. You can sit alongside greats and strum along and learn.”
That is exactly the vibe that Willie Wells, Bill’s son and the current owner of Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor, wants to encourage. Willie is the second generation who took over after his father died in 2012. Whether showcasing Grammy-winning bluegrass superstars like Rhonda Vincent or hosting local youth jams, Bill’s is described by many in the bluegrass community as the area’s epicenter for this type of music.
Willie grew up in his dad’s business and with his dad’s bluegrass band, the Blue Ridge Mountain Grass. “I started playing bluegrass with my dad in high school,” says Willie. “Then when I went to college, I took up drums and played drums in a couple of country rock groups for many years. I’m sure my dad wasn’t happy about it, but it was a great experience for me.”
Willie was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and following his own career when he got word of his father’s cancer diagnosis in 2011. He came back to Columbia and worked for four months with his dad to learn the business before his death. Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor had been a mainstay on Meeting Street in Cayce, where it moved in 1987 after two years of occupying a smaller space on State Street near the railroad tracks.
“It got so crowded in the first place that people were playing out in the streets,” Willie says. “When I took it over after my dad passed, I wanted to try and take a look at leaving the same feeling and decor but try to open things up a little bit.”
One visible change Willie made was to move the stage and open up the music hall to accommodate an additional 100 people. This change came about largely to attract one major bluegrass name who had performed at Bill’s because of her connection to Willie’s dad. Rhonda Vincent is known as the Grande Dame among bluegrass aficionados. After Bill’s death, Willie contacted Rhonda about continuing to play at the Pickin’ Parlor. Her manager told Willie she only did the shows at the Pickin’ Parlor as a favor to his dad, whom Rhonda had known her whole life. Plus, her manager said she only played venues with at least 400 seats.
“The way my dad set it up was only 300 seats,” Willie says. “We added five more rows of 20, so now we have 400. I called Rhonda’s manager back and we worked it out.” Rhonda has appeared at Bill’s several times since then to packed houses.
That extra space also allowed Willie to add a 1,200-square-foot dance floor for weekly Saturday night classic country music and dancing. “It starts with line dance lessons at 6 p.m. and rotates different bands every week. That pretty much caters to the older crowd.”
Willie points to Ella Thomas, a 17-year-old state junior fiddle champion, as one of the best he has ever met. Ella says she became interested in bluegrass when she was 10. She had been classically trained on the violin since she was 4.
“My parents took me to Bill’s Music Shop and Pickin’ Parlor for their bluegrass open stage on a Friday night to meet fiddlers who occasionally play there,” Ella says. “I loved the freedom of improvisation, so I kept going back for more. Slowly over time, I learned from several fiddlers who frequented Bill’s, and eventually I began taking lessons from Kristen Harris, a local fiddler and music instructor.”
Ella plays fiddle with her family’s gospel group, Thomas Family Music, and also subs with other local bluegrass bands, including the Blue Iguanas. “She is a phenom on the fiddle,” says Steve Bennett, the Blue Iguanas’ lead guitarist and vocalist.
Steve, who also writes the band’s original music, describes the Blue Iguanas’ music in the tradition of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana. The band came together 10 years ago when Steve and his friend Allen Fisher, who sings and plays banjo and blues harmonica, were part of a weekly informal jam at Doc’s Gumbo Grill, then located on Assembly Street. “I really didn’t want it to be a formal band,” says Steve. “Allen was playing with High Lonesome but didn’t want to just play that kind of music. Jim Graddick, the band’s fiddler, wanted to branch out a little too. Now we don’t limit ourselves to traditional bluegrass.”
The Blue Iguanas enjoy playing at venues ranging from the Haynes Auditorium Bluegrass Series in Leesville and Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor for their more traditional bluegrass tunes to Steel Hands Brewery in Cayce to Tombo Grill in Forest Acres, where their set lists can include creative arrangements. During the quarantine, the Blue Iguanas even got into the streaming trend to participate in a fundraiser online for the USC McKissick Museum.
Bluegrass lovers often come together to play through circuitous routes. For the Mustache Brothers, Todd says their band came together with Fred Berry, who plays guitar, and Walker Daves, who plays mandolin. Todd, a professional airline pilot, says, “When we first started playing together, our significant others called it ‘pretend band practice.’”
This past year, the Mustache Brothers played at numerous private parties and fundraisers, like Historic Columbia’s bluegrass and BBQ event and the Yule Jam fundraiser at The Senate in the Vista.
Another circuitous route brought Barrett Smith, a Columbia native, to the national bluegrass music stage. Barrett, who came into bluegrass as a young adult, has parlayed his talent into a successful career touring with the nationally renowned bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. While some people may initially be familiar with the band because of its association with comedian, actor, and talented banjo player Steve Martin, the band is a national chart-topper and Grammy winner with comparisons to greats like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Zac Brown Band. Not only do the Steep Canyon Rangers tour on their own, but they are also the house band for Steve Martin and Martin Short’s traveling comedy show.
After studying classical guitar at UNC-Chapel Hill, Barrett returned to Columbia and planned on a career playing in that genre of music. His focus began to expand toward bluegrass when he met with some friends to play on the porch and in the parking lot at El Burrito, a small locally owned Mexican restaurant then located on Harden Street.
“I was bringing in something that had nothing to do with traditional bluegrass. I loved rock and roll and jam bands that were open ended and improvisational. I started there and learned for many years.”
Gradually, more established local bluegrass names began playing at the now closed El Burrito as word got around. Barrett quickly ticks off the names of local bluegrass greats who played with him at El Burrito and who continue to dominate the bluegrass scene in Columbia. “Randy Lucas is a real virtuoso. He’s one of the most naturally gifted, clever, and technical musicians I’ve been around. Then there are other great characters like Danny Harlow, who has won a mandolin championship. Plus, there’s Dave Holder, Carey Taylor, Susan Taylor, Ronnie Gregory, and Blue Iguanas’ fiddler Jim Graddick, who was just a teen at the time.”
After playing at El Burrito for at least six years, Barrett started branching out by going to Asheville, where he had some friends in the music scene. As with many aspects associated with bluegrass, his music career didn’t turn out as he thought it would. “It’s such a strange thing. If you’d have told me I could make a good living touring and playing music that I really love, with people I really like, and encountering people I really love, it sounds like a pretty unlikely situation. I’m very grateful every day to be playing music and doing it with Steve Martin — a comedy icon and celebrity.”