Kip Lornell – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Capital bluegrass : hillbilly music meets Washington D.C.”

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Kip Lornell – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Capital bluegrass : hillbilly music meets Washington D.C.”

Capital Bluegrass: Hillbilly Music Meets Washington, D.C. – Kip Lornell


Matthew B. Gilmore

(Kip Lornell interviews Kip Lornell...)

What inspired you to write this book? 

Since moving to Washington, DC, in 1988 for a post-doctoral fellowship at Smithsonian Folkways, I’ve been increasingly interested in exploring and  documentary local vernacular music. This started when I looked around at go-go music and culture and figured that if it was new to me, that it would be unknown to most folks outside of the District.

I ended up co-authoring a 2001 book, The Beat! that Charles Stephenson and I then  updated for a 2009 edition for the University Press of Mississippi.

While working on the second edition of The Beat! I noted the passing of a member of the Stoneman family. This got me thinking about the local bluegrass scene, which I knew had a rich history, but that had no book devoted to it. Back in 2011 I finally sat down, wrote a proposal, and sent it off to Oxford University Press because I thought it would be a perfect fit for the “American Musicspheres” series. And I was correct.

Why did it take so long to write Capital Bluegrass

Of the 17 books that I have published, this one had the longest gestation period. It’s almost the start of the third decade of this century and Capital Bluegrass: Hillbilly Music meets Washington, D.C. is finally out, some nine years after I first proposed it. Over the same period Anne Rasmussen and I put together expanded version of Music of Multicultural America. I also updated and expanded the scope of my American Folk Music textbook. The University Press of Mississippi published both books.  During this time I have been teaching in the music department at the George Washington University, which has been a comfortable half-time position since 1999.

I also worked with Alan Govenar to get the almost mythical Paul Oliver & Mack McCormick manuscript about blues in Texas (I first heard of it in 1975!) into shape for publication.

Since 2013 this task required a half-dozen trips down to Dallas to work with Alan who had possession of the nearly 5,000 pages of research material associated with the manuscript.

We got it done and in January 2019, Texas A&M Press published The Blues Come to Texas: Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s Unfinished BookIt ended up being nearly 700 pages long and with all modesty aside, I think it is one of the most important books about blues to be published in many years and I am a bit surprised it has not gotten more press. Perhaps it is simply too imposing? It is certainly not for the neophyte.

What was your research process and what challenges did you face? 

This was a two-prong effort. The first order of business was to assemble and assimilate the newspaper articles (going back to the 1940s), magazine profiles, record liner notes, and other writing associated with the DC bluegrass scene. I assure you this was a major task because of the sheer volume of material. There were gaps, of course, so I also conducted some 17 interviews to help fill in the gaps. The book is chock full of quotes from these interviews and greatly benefited from all the folks before me who wrote about bluegrass in and around Washington, DC. I was also able to include three dozen images, only a few of which have been previously published. (The 1992 reunion of the first important iteration of the Country Gentlemen provides you with a good introduction.)

Tell us about the writing of the actual book.

The first iteration of the book covered topics thematically: record companies, seminal musicians, venues, etc. I find it easier to think of writing a book as a series of connected or compatible articles.

So, instead of writing a book, per se, you end up writing anywhere between six and ten long articles that work together as a book. I started doing this for my dissertation and the resulting book, Happy in the Service of the Lord: African American Gospel Quartets in Memphis, is very close to the dissertation, which was completed and defending in August 1983.

When Oxford University Press sent it to an outside reader, he suggested that it work much better to follow a more standard chronological approach and laid out his reasoning in a clear and compelling report.

I hesitated initially but ultimately agreed that he was correct and totally reshaped the book. The result is a stronger and more approachable book, thanks to Fred Bartenstein’s careful reading and his suggested revisions. BTW, in my experience most outside expert readers are OK with revealing their identity, but they can remain anonymous. I have reviewed several dozen manuscripts for (mostly) University presses and always reveal my identity, if asked.

What is next for you?

My next book project is a biography of bluegrass great, Buzz Busby, who greatly impacted the local scene beginning in the early 1950s.  It is a project that I am working on with Tom Mindte and our proposal is now at the University of Illinois Press.  This book, and really all my books, are geared towards adult readers with an interest in the topic and not at a narrow swath of academic scholars.

From the publisher description:

Table of Contents
Introduction and Thanks

Chapter One: Before Bluegrass (1920s-1946)
Chapter Two: Back Then It Was Called Hillbilly Music (1946-1957)
Chapter Three: Country Gentlemen and The Folk Music Revival (1957-1966)
Chapter Four: Bluegrass Unlimited (1966-1977)
Chapter Five: Not Seldom Heard or Scene (1977-1991)
Chapter Six: ‘A Cold Wind A Blowin’ (1991-2018)

With its rich but underappreciated musical heritage, Washington, D.C. is often overlooked as a cradle for punk, the birthplace of go go, and as the urban center for bluegrass in the Untied States. Capital Bluegrass: Hillbilly Music Meets Washington, D.C. richly documents the history and development of bluegrass in and around the nation’s capital since it emerged in the 1950s.

In his seventeenth book, American vernacular music scholar Kip Lornell discusses both well-known progressive bluegrass bands including the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, and lesser known groups like the Happy Melody Boys, Benny and Vallie Cain and the Country Clan, and Foggy Bottom. Lornell focuses on colorful figures such as the brilliant and eccentric mandolin player, Buzz Busby, and Connie B. Gay, who helped found the Country Music Association in Nashville. Moving beyond the musicians to the institutions that were central to the development of the genre, Lornell brings the reader into the nationally recognized Birchmere Music Hall, and tunes in to NPR powerhouse WAMU-FM, which for five decades broadcast as much as 40 hours a week of bluegrass programming.

Dozens of images illuminate the story of bluegrass in the D.C. area, photographs and flyers that will be new to even the most veteran bluegrass enthusiast. Bringing to life a music and musical community integral to the history of the city itself, Capital Bluegrass tells an essential tale of bluegrass in the United States.