Bluegrass is acoustic music, with tight harmonies and an old time feel…
Interview with Archie Warnock, bluegrass writer, festival board member and musician
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly
After I completed my work as a Fulbright scholar in Kentucky and Tennessee, I decided to stay for couple of days with my longtime friends Archie and Priscilla Warnock near Baltimore, Maryland. Archie is a bluegrass writer and musician. He reviewed one of my early CDs in “Bluegrass Unlimited.” Priscilla is a talented photographer and she is a vice president of the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, which sponsors the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival. It was nice to catch up with things and talk about bluegrass and country music. Unfortunately, all three of us got a bad cold and we couldn’t visit events as planned. I had a chance to interview Archie in his home and here is what he shared:
How did you get involved with bluegrass and country music?
In the late 60s my brother was listening to bluegrass music in high school. He attended some bluegrass festivals around Washington, DC. In 1971, my friend and I went to see the Dillards at the old Cellar Door nightclub in Washington, where the Seldom Scene recorded their famous record. That was the first bluegrass band I saw live. About a year later, I heard them again when they toured as the opening act for Elton John. I was inspired to start playing bluegrass guitar in college.
How would you describe bluegrass?
It is acoustic music, with tight harmonies and an old time feel.
What is the difference between bluegrass and country music?
I don’t think there is a very big difference other than the instruments that it is played on. It continues from folk music and is found also in rock and roll (for example “Folk-rock”).
Who are your favorite singers?
Keith Whitley and John Starling.
Who are your favorite guitarists?
I am a rhythm guitar player. I think a good rhythm guitar is the foundation of a bluegrass band. I like Dudley Cornell.
And what about bass players?
I didn’t really have many bass player influences. I learned to play out of self defense (laughs). We hired a guitar player to play bass in my first bluegrass band, and he wanted someone else to play bass part of the time so he could switch to guitar, and I was elected. But I’ve probably worked more bluegrass gigs on bass than on guitar – it seems like bands are always looking for bass players but never guitar players.
Why is bluegrass music so exciting?
Bluegrass fans are very passionate about the music. It is accessible. You understand what the singing is about. People who play it are accessible. They are not big stars hidden behind security. You feel like you can get to know the people who make the music. But this could also be a draw back. Since everybody plays, it is sometimes hard to draw the line between those who play well and those who don’t. I have an emotional connection with the lyrics. I enjoy singing them.
What is the future of bluegrass music? Will it continue to exist?
It will continue. It may grow a bit, because I think the overall entertainment business is growing a bit. The Internet gives a wider access to fans. Skilled bluegrass musicians will always be able to find high profile jobs in the music industry. There will be always the struggle between people who don’t want bluegrass to change and those who do.
Why is bluegrass music never going to be commercial?
Because I don’t think it appeals to enough people. Fans often have a background in music in order to appreciate the skills, or in the culture, to appreciate the sentiments of the songs.
What other music do you like?
Country! I am a hard-core traditionalist.
Where is country music going in a digital age?
Artists have to make money in the future through multiple revenue streams. Making records is not enough. It’s going to be harder for several reasons. Records sales are going down. People have less time to listen to music. With the Internet, it becomes more available. More and more people are making music and posting their videos. There is more product and less demand. So everyone’s market share is going to get smaller. But that’s the nature of competition.
One of your jobs is to review CDs for “Bluegrass Unlimited”. How do you do it?
I make a distinction between a critic and a reviewer. I am a reviewer. The reader decides whether or not to buy an album based being familiar with my likes and dislikes. The artists send their CDs to “Bluegrass Unlimited,” not to the reviewer directly. The editor decides which ones to give to me. Every reviewer has a profile of the kinds of music they prefer. They would never send me something that I really don’t like. For example, I am not very familiar with old time music, so I don’t get much of that to review. On the other hand, the magazine sends me a lot of foreign recordings, also books and videos. Before I write a review, I listen to the CD several times. I pay attention to several things: the material that is recorded (is it original?), the quality of playing (is it on pitch and in time?), the creativity, the layout, the promotional material. I try to be consistent because people read my reviews over the years.
Thanks Archie for an interesting interview!