North Carolina: First in Flight, yes, but first in bluegrass?
Tucked away on the third floor of a grand Art Moderne edifice in downtown Asheville sits a dimly lit room with a rich, muted, even hallowed, quality to it.
"So this is studio A," said my host, Gar Ragland, showing off the room's acoustic, fabric-lined walls, Art Deco sconces, and the embossed image of a 33-rpm record adorning the original vinyl flooring from when it was home to WWNC.
"And this is the room where thousands of acts over decades starting in 1939 performed," Ragland added.
Ragland is the founder and CEO of Citizen Vinyl, an industrial-scale record press that pumps out 30,000 records a month and is the centerpiece of what he calls a "craft collective" at the old Asheville Citizen-Times building.
"We have an analog record and art store and we have a vinyl themed craft cocktail bar and we have a wonderful farm-to-table cafe called 'Session Cafe,'" Ragland said during a tour of the restored building's ground floor. It is a multi-purpose commercial space that perfectly captures Asheville's deep cultural history as a cosmopolitan enclave in the heart of Appalachia and redecorates it with hipster flair.
Back in 1939, the third-floor space that Ragland has repurposed as a state-of-the-art recording studio was the home of WWNC, whose call letters stand for Wonderful Western North Carolina.
"WWNC being the highest elevation radio station east of the Mississippi River it had a reach, it could throw its signal all the way into west Texas and up into Canada," he said. "So the station had a very, very powerful role in discovering or breaking new artists."
One of the artists you could hear on WWNC's early morning program, Mountain Music Time, in 1939, was none other than Bill Monroe, the Kentucky-born, mandolin-playing bandleader later dubbed the "Father of Bluegrass," known for the high, lonesome sound of his voice.
And Ragland makes the bold claim that through his residency at WWNC, Monroe introduced a new musical sound to a national audience shortly before he went to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, where his fame — and reputation as the progenitor of bluegrass — would spread. In other words, bluegrass was born in western North Carolina. But was it?
Was Bluegrass Born In Western North Carolina? Perhaps, But That's Besides The Point
Not quite, said Jim Mills, and he would know.
The Raleigh native is a master musician, multiple Grammy winner, and has been named Banjo Player of the Year six times by the International Bluegrass Music Association, more than anyone else. Mills also was a member of Ricky Skaggs's band, The Kentucky Thunder, for 14 years, and was a personal friend of his hero, Earl Scruggs, the legendary banjo picker from Cleveland County, North Carolina, who died 10 years ago.
"I would have called that, and I think a lot of people would today, 'string band music,'" Mills said about what Bill Monroe would have been playing at WWNC and other North Carolina stations in the late 1930s. Bluegrass as is it is known today surfaced on Dec. 8, 1945, according to aficionados and knowledgeable fans of the genre.
"That was the first show where Earl Scruggs appeared in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and it was unlike anything anybody had ever heard," said David Menconi, music journalist and author of the book "Step it Up & Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music." Menconi also is a former writer for the News and Observer of Raleigh and hosts a podcast about North Carolina music called "Carolina Calling."
Menconi said Scruggs's innovative three-finger picking was a distinctly North Carolina style of banjo playing, much more driving and fiery than its claw-hammer antecedent.
"Fisher Hendley and Snuffy Jenkins and various other banjo players were playing in a sort of modified three-finger style a good decade before that, and Earl Scruggs, who perfected that, grew up hearing that on the radio," Menconi said.
And banjo picker Jim Mills said Bill Monroe probably heard the beginnings of that revolutionary hard-driving style of playing as he journeyed through North Carolina in the mid- to late-1930s, building a name — and musical style — for himself while performing at WWNC, in Asheville, WBT, in Charlotte, and before that, with his brother, Charlie, at WPTF, in Raleigh.
"I think that Bill was listening on the radio to all these string bands as we should call them," Mills said. "Especially here in North Carolina, in Charlotte, Raleigh, Asheville, and little towns in between, there were all these little radio stations that these bands were playing a portion of what would become bluegrass."
I met with Mills in the basement of his home, a veritable museum and showroom. He specializes in collecting, buying and selling vintage pre-War Gibson banjos. The space features bluegrass memorabilia and photos of musical legends along with banjo parts and components arrayed in neat rows on countertops and hanging from the wall.
Mills theorized that Monroe would have heard three-finger pickers like Don Reno, Snuffy Jenkins, maybe even a young Earl Scruggs playing with the Morris Brothers.
"And," Mills added, "I think he said, 'Man, that's the sound I'm looking for.'"
And Monroe finally found it, not in Asheville, at WWNC, but backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Mills recalled sitting in Earl Scruggs's kitchen and listening to Scruggs talk about when he first went to the Opry, in Nashville.
Mills said Scruggs remembered sitting backstage, just noodling, playing a tune like Sally Goodin, on his banjo.
"And he said all these musicians just gathered around him and they couldn't believe the sound he was getting out of a banjo, they never heard anything like it," Mills recounted of Scruggs. "He said, 'I felt like an animal in a cage.'"
Mills said that before Scruggs came along, most banjo players were valued for their comedic personas as much as anything, guys like Uncle Dave Macon and Stringbean.
"When Earl Scruggs came along that all stopped," Mills said. "He was a serious musician, he wanted people to hear what he was playing and the banjo was the star, not a joke."
The origins of the bango
The banjo is, of course, an essential part of the bluegrass sound but any discussion of the instrument must include its fraught history.
Its origins can be traced to West Africa. While a beloved and central part of bluegrass and other American folk genres, including the grotesque caricature of minstrelsy, the banjo also is deeply entwined with, and somewhat symbolic of, cultural appropriation, racism and the enslavement of African people.
The instrument's rich but checkered history is thoroughly examined in works like the penetrating PBS documentary, Give Me the Banjo.
"And there you have an example of an instrument which is literally a drum with strings attached," said UNC Chapel Hill Prof. Emeritus Robert Cantwell, author of the book "Bluegrass Breakdown."
Written around 1979-80, Cantwell's book takes a scholarly look at the historical, musicological and sociological roots of the genre. While researching his book, Cantwell interviewed, and became a friendly acquaintance of, Bill Monroe's.
"And so with the banjo you have essentially a rhythmic instrument but which plays tunes," Cantwell said. "So the banjo absolutely embodies this particular feeling for rhythm and this way of playing music."
You weren't getting up and checking out Good Morning America. You tuned into WWNC to get the news and know what was going on and get to hear Bill Monroe.
Cantwell said Monroe deeply loved music rooted in African-American culture, like the blues, New Orleans jazz, gospel and spirituals and that it showed in the complex rhythms and syncopation he used in his bluegrass playing.
"The rhythm in a bluegrass band is stratified," Cantwell said, recalling that Monroe compared making bluegrass music to "putting a motor together," with all its moving parts operating distinctly and harmoniously at the same time.
While Monroe certainly benefited from Scruggs joining his band, Jim Mills said the payoff went both ways. Most important of all perhaps, according to Mills, Monroe, in addition to his excellent percussive mandolin playing, gave Earl Scruggs a platform to display his virtuosity.
By 1945, when Scruggs joined Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, Monroe was an established star, broadcasting from the Grand Ole Opry, on WSM.
And that brings us back to WWNC and Monroe's years in North Carolina. Because without them, Monroe might not have ended up hearing the sounds that would lead him to that fateful encounter with Scruggs. And Monroe became a star thanks to his sojourn at WWNC and other North Carolina stations.
Today, WWNC has relocated to another part of Asheville, outside the downtown area, and primarily delivers news as a Clear Channel station. Back then, however, the station had an extremely long reach and a large audience, according to John Roten, Jr., a radio producer who has worked at WWNC since the early 1990s.
"You weren't getting up and checking out Good Morning America," Roten said of the pre-television era. "You tuned into WWNC to get the news and know what was going on and get to hear Bill Monroe."
Shows like WWNC's Mountain Music Time were essential way stations for itinerant musicians striving to establish themselves, according to Roten. And the same went for Monroe before he made it to the Opry.
"Bill would do a new song," Roten said, describing the routine for Monroe and other musicians like him who played at WWNC, "then they would go out to the schoolhouse or the community center or wherever they went that night and can you imagine the folks that come up? 'I heard that new song you did this morning, you gon' do that tonight?'"
Pursuing the question of where Bluegrass was born, kind of reminded me of the First in Flight debate. Who has the rightful claim to that title?
Ohio, where the Wright Brothers lived and worked, developing ideas for flight in the back of their Dayton bicycle shop? Or North Carolina, where Orville and Wilbur used the winds off Kitty Hawk to lift their plane into the sky?
The correct answer probably is: both.
The birth of bluegrass, a quintessentially American amalgamation of Appalachian string music, the blues, Celtic and an array of other folk music traditions, technically might have happened at the Grand Ole Opry at the end of 1945. But its conception coincided with Monroe's journey through North Carolina, his musical quest and his residencies at stations like WWNC.