Interview with Erika Brady, university professor in Kentucky
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly
Dr. Erika Brady is a professor in the department of Folk Studies and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. She teaches the following courses: Roots of Southern Culture, Supernatural Folklore, Folklore and Medicine, American Traditional Music and Folklore Fieldwork. Erika is also a musician and co-host of the Barren River Breakdown radio show at WKU.
The first time I met Erika Brady was at the Leadership Bluegrass Program in 2005 in Nashville. Eight years later we met again in Bowling Green, KY where I worked as a Fulbright scholar. Erika was very helpful with my research, providing me with suitable bibliography and contacts. We had memorable conversations, lunches and dinners during which I asked her some questions. Here is what she shared with me:
– How did you get involved with bluegrass music?
I grew up in Washington, DC. I listened to the blues. In the 1970s, during my college years, I heard bluegrass music. It became popular in the area, due to bands such as the Seldom Scene, Country Gentlemen, Bluegrass Cardinals. It kind of sneaked up on me.
– What do you like about it?
I like the energy, the singing, the community; I like the density of the sound, the improvisational aspect; the fact that more non-professionals play it; the presence of a bond.
– What is bluegrass?
It is a variety of country music, rooted in American folk. It has very particular instrumentation; the presence of the banjo is crucial.
– What are the topics in the bluegrass songs?
Love, death, money, tragedy, religion, booze… all the important things in life (laughs), which is another thing that I like about it.
– What other genres do you like?
I have a very broad spectrum of taste. I love blues and classical music, some jazz as well.
– What is American folk music like?
Usually I don’t use the term “folk” a lot. It would be hard for me to come up with one. Maybe it is because I work with it so closely: blues, bluegrass, country, Cajun, polka… there are so many. It is a very rich tradition.
– What is “native” American music like?
Well, you can’t really talk about one style. Different tribes have different sounds. Generally the drum is very central. The men who play it have a substantial role in the tribe. I say “men”, because it is mostly men. Native Americans usually don’t have a perception of music as separate from ceremony or recreation.
– Do you like country music?
Yes, I love the songs, the singing, the sentimentality. I like the directness of it; I like the old country music, the way people played it in their garage.
– What do you think about current country music?
I don’t follow it. Contemporary country music is not so easily distinguished from pop. The performers themselves have very little understanding and appreciation of the history of country music. The emphasis is on very young, very attractive performers. That’s why Americana and alternative country music is growing.
– What is blues to you?
It is a style of music, with a particular structure and a scale and an improvisatory element. Urban and country blues are very different.
– You are a blues singer yourself?
Yes, I grew up listening to it. I feel the music. I learned a lot from John (my partner with whom I perform at a black Baptist church). I listen quite a lot to the old blues. I present it on my radio show.