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TV Preview: All-star special pays tribute to bluegrass, its originators

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" changed everything. Bluegrass music is in the spotlight with the Coen Brothers film and Grammy-winning, platinum-selling soundtrack.

To its credit, PBS has occasionally found room for traditional Appalachian mountain music, particularly on its landmark "Austin City Limits." But with "O Brother" on a roll, the broadcast system is banking on bluegrass's newfound popularity with a musical hoedown pledge special, the "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration."

"All-Star Bluegrass Celebration"

WHEN: 10 p.m. tomorrow on WQED/WQEX


Hosted by Ricky Skaggs, who gave up mainstream country stardom to play the music he loves, the show was taped before a live audience at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and spotlights the past and present of a musical style with a bright future.

Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder open the show with a brief romp through "Shady Grove" before country crooner Vince Gill goes gospel with The Del McCoury Band. Alison Krauss and Union Station slow the pace with "Let Me Touch You for Awhile," from their recent "New Favorite" disc. The musical centerpiece of "O Brother" was the repeated lament of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," performed by various bands. Dan Tyminski, on the heels of his first solo album, reunites with Union Station for a new take on the classic.

When you're talking bluegrass, you can't say "classic" without including 78-year-old Earl Scruggs, who was with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Mountain Boys. Director James Burton weaves in educational bios on Scruggs and Monroe, who died in 1996. Very much alive, Scruggs and his five-string "banjer" rip through an explosive "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Ralph Stanley gets the same bio treatment before soloing a cappella on a chilling "O Death." Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt provide contemporary star quality, and Bruce Hornsby's piano interpretations are totally unexpected. Nickel Creek pitches the old-time bluegrass performance line to do "Seven Wonders" grouped like a modern band.

The only thing the "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration" lacks is time. Each act does only one or two songs and no one builds the kind of momentum that drives most live concerts. But the show works as a sampler of the state of the art of an American original.

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