Bluegrass Gold Rush 

Just like the rest of the country, Richmond has renewed interest in bluegrass.

Robin Chandler, owner of the Cary Street Cafe, saw the revival begin before the movie came out. "Three or four years ago I couldn't find a bluegrass band to save my soul," she says. "All of a sudden, I got all these bluegrass demos. It goes all the way from traditional to newgrass to slamgrass — slamgrass is to bluegrass as heavy metal is to rock."

Now offering bluegrass as many as five times a week, Chandler's cafe is just meeting demand. "We're definitely filling the place up. I'm not the only one who can't get enough." A quick count of other venues serving up bluegrass includes Ashland Coffee & Tea, Poe's Pub, Shenanigan's, Legend Brewery, Red Oak Cafe, The Canal Club and The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen.

Wally Thulin, who heads Fieldcrest Productions, has brought bluegrass to Richmond for nearly 10 years. The resurgence really hit home last fall when the Ralph Stanley show at Glen Allen sold out nearly a month before the show. Thulin further notes that "O Brother" isn't the only factor bringing people to bluegrass, citing the young group Nickel Creek. Other artists partly responsible for bluegrass' surge are such crossover talents as Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Mark O'Connor, Alison Krauss and Alison Brown.

Credit must also go to the lasting influence of the Grateful Dead, whose fans tried on Jerry Garcia's bluegrass efforts with Old & in the Way almost 30 years ago, and continue to voraciously support the music today. The latest heirs to the Grateful Dead throne are the neo-bluegrass outfit String Cheese Incident, who are not beyond mixing a little John Coltrane with their Bill Monroe. Thulin experiences occasional consternation from the old guard over such bluegrass innovation but asserts that "traditional bluegrass will be around forever. It's just too good."

A quick scan of the nightclub listings reveals a number of local acts, including Jackass Flats, Old School Freight Train, The Slack Family, Cook County Bluegrass, Smokin' Grass, Flesh Mountain Boys, Chris Fuller's All Star Bluegrass Jam, and Special Ed and the Short Bus Bluegrass Band. The dean of them all, of course, is George Winn and the Bluegrass Partners, who hold down every other Saturday night at Poe's Pub. How long has Winn been at it? Chuck Wrenn, who books the music at Poe's, remembers seeing Winn at the old Cock 'n' Bull when he was in high school — back in 1963.

Winn himself notes that he goes back even further. "This October I will have had a band for 48 years," he says. "The surge for it now has been happening for many years, but each time the loop gets bigger." Having seen a gentleman like Winn play for about five people at the old Cock 'n' Bull, I am gratified to hear from Poe's owner, Mike Britt, that Winn's nights are "packed — the steadiest night of the week for us."

George Winn playing mandolin for a full house of young and old on a Saturday night is a nice image. Winn — like Stanley and his spoils and bluegrass music itself — deserves that and nothing less. S


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