The Showmen Bluegrass Extraordinaire personifies the music’s heritage with genteel charm
It sneaks up on you, the way bright green leaves appear on trees in springtime.
One minute you’re sauntering absent-mindedly through Georgetown Market Days, taking in the wares, smells, and sunshine. Then you notice your head nodding, your toes tapping, and your face smiling as you listen to The Showmen Bluegrass Extraordinaire display mastery of their genre and tell stories that reveal an innocently mischievous side.
Such is the vibe bluegrass music gifts to virtually everyone within ear’s reach of its lively pace, distinctive harmonies, and old-fashioned array of acoustic stringed instruments that take turns leading and accompanying the melody.
Less obvious than the mood lift to the passerby is the genre’s extemporaneous nature. Just how much of the music during a show is improvised?
“Most of it,” says Bill Lloyd, the group’s banjoist. “Ben [Buchanan, the lead vocalist] will say, ‘I’m going to sing this in G.’ While I’m playing the first verse, I’m thinking of my break, which I’ll play during the chorus.”
The band completes the genuine atmosphere with their matching jackets—the lead vocalist’s is light gray, the rest wear black—blue jeans, and black shoes, happily transporting listeners back six decades.
Bluegrass is both one of the oldest and youngest styles of American music. Immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and England brought with them dance music and ballads in the 1600s, planting the original seeds. In the orchard of musical styles, the American Folk family tree of the early 1900s provided the trunk for roots music, from which grew bluegrass and other subgenres such as country, gospel, and blues.
But bluegrass didn’t start to stake its claim as the music of Appalachia until Bill and Charlie Monroe began harmonizing and playing their mandolin and guitar, respectively, in the 1920s. Their split led to the formation of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the name a nod to Monroe’s home state of Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, with his three-finger style of picking the banjo, joined the band in 1945, leading to the sound and style that became known in the 1950s as bluegrass music.
Traditional bluegrass sounds today much like it did then, though subgenres such as progressive bluegrass (with electric instruments), bluegrass gospel (with Christian lyrics and four-part harmony), and neo-bluegrass (with more than one lead singer) have emerged.
“Everyone wants to play bluegrass,” says Lloyd, a native of Annandale, Virginia, in his Appalachian inflection. “You can’t make any money at it, but everyone wants to play it.”
While that statement may be biased, perhaps it explains why the genre has remained so pure while rock and roll and country have morphed into completely different musical styles.
“When you hear the pop and rock that’s being played now, there is so much going on,” says fiddler Justin Farrow, a Georgetown resident from south Austin. “To me, bluegrass is a simpler, clean sound that still has a lot of soul and depth to it.”
Bluegrass musicians play for the love of the culture, the sound, and the somehow natural dichotomy of individuality and teamwork it requires.
“I played country for several years,” says Ben, whose musical career began in a church band when he was 10 years old in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. “But I got tired of the honky-tonks and night life. I came back to bluegrass because it is wholesome.”
Doug Taylor, an Oklahoma native who started playing folk music in 1966 but converted to bluegrass because of the movie Deliverance, agrees.
“It’s the people of bluegrass—honest, straight-shooters—that’s why I love it,” he says. “We’re all so passionate about it, almost evangelical.”
Unlike the subtle way the music grabs the unsuspecting soul, there’s no question that the members of The Showmen Bluegrass Extraordinaire embody their music’s culture. They declare it with their first notes.
Ben Buchanan—lead vocals, guitar
Wes Green—mandolin, vocals
Bill Lloyd—5-string banjo
Doug Taylor—bass, guitar, vocals
For more information, go to the band’s Facebook page.