Book Review: Tim Newby “Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Driving Sound & Its Legacy”

McFarland & Company Inc. 2021

This is the “new” book from Americana-UK’s very own Tim Newby. Those of you who read Tim’s regular column, ‘Americana Roots’ will already know he’s something of an authority on America’s bluegrass scene. In fact, Tim started writing for us following our review of his last book, “Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival”. Now Tim’s back with a book about the history of Bluegrass in the town he calls home, Baltimore.

I say “new” because this was actually Tim’s first book, originally published back in 2015 when it was met with considerable critical acclaim and was praised for the depth of the research that had gone into it. Now it’s back in a new pressing, re-vamped and re-promoted, to tie in with the author’s involvement in a new storyteller performance, that will celebrate the story of bluegrass migration and evolution, through narration and song, and is set to become part of the Baltimore tourist experience.

This book grew out of a magazine interview Tim conducted with the great Del McCoury. McCoury talked about his early days as a bluegrass musician in Baltimore and this got Tim thinking about the music and its connection to the city and he decided to research the history of that connection for this book, and it is a fascinating tale that is brought to life by Tim’s natural ability to tell a story.

Bluegrass music is more commonly associated with the Appalachian mountains and rural communities, which is where it originated, based on English, Irish and Scottish ballads and dance tunes often associated with clog and other rural styles of dancing. Inevitably, most forms of rural, folk-based music eventually migrate to the cities and that’s where they, often, take on a different form and develop in a different way, and that’s really what this book is all about.

Much as the Delta Blues musicians moving to Chicago developed a tougher, urban sound, the Bluegrass of Baltimore becomes more representative of a harder, urban environment than its country cousin. Through a series of interviews with musicians who have first-hand knowledge of the Baltimore scene, some of them going right back to the early 1950s, and through his own research into the history of various venues and meeting places, Tim Newby paints a colourful picture of an emerging set of folk enthusiasts who are intent on creating an exciting and hard-driving sound. Early in the book he has a quote from Mike Seeger, half brother of Pete and a recognised music folklorist, that really leaps out at you and makes you understand what an exhilarating time this must have been –

“We were quite conscious in Baltimore of being a place where the city and the country met. You’d have tough bluegrass bars, where the city people were the outsiders. You’d have bohemian parties, where the country people were the outsiders. It was a place where different classes and different cultures were meeting. It was a time of curiosity and discovery and friction and exhilaration.”

While there were other cities that can claim a vibrant bluegrass scene, Nashville of course, Washington D.C, even Detroit, reading this book it’s obvious that Baltimore had something special and provided adventurous musicians with a fertile ground for experimentation and development. This, after all, is the city that Bill Monroe would come to on recruitment drives for his own band (which is how he discovered Del McCoury!). The book concentrates mainly on the “golden age” of Baltimore Bluegrass, the 1950’s and 60s, the years when the Baltimore sound was really being established, but there is plenty of reference to significant developments in other years, and the author constantly connects with the modern-day bluegrass scene and how it has grown from these early beginnings. This book is full of great stories, concerning a host of larger-than-life characters who all helped to build a distinct sound in one of the most exciting musical genres around. There are plenty of photos throughout the book and the author also supplies recommended listening advice at the head of each chapter. This really is a very comprehensive book about the history of Bluegrass in Baltimore and the publishers should be congratulated on bringing it back into the spotlight at this time, with interest in the genre very much on the rise.

If you enjoy the sound of bluegrass then you’ll want to read this book for details of Baltimore’s contribution to the rich history of the music. If you’re not a fan of the music this is still a great read, because the musicians themselves are fascinating characters that really come to life through Tim Newby’s anecdotes.

An enjoyable book, well written. Much as you’d expect from an AUK writer!

Bluegrass in Baltimore is available in the UK from online sellers.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Martin Johnson

I must admit to being surprised when I got to know Del McCoury’s music and I found out there was such a thing as Baltimore Bluegrass, and just how influential it has been. Let’s hope Tim’s book helps maintain interest in this sometime little known sub-genre.

Tim Newby

If anyone makes it to the US. There is an amazing festival in Baltimore called the Charm City Bluegrass Festival that keeps alive the music from the city. In addition to attracted national acts, it also features newer bands from the city as well as traditional acts.

Martin Johnson

Hi Tim, just a wild thought, is there any scope in Baltimore setting up Bluegrass Heritage trail?