Beer and grass
The Back Forty Band
Beer goes well with everything. That’s just one of its many magical properties. Beer tastes great alongside any kind of food and is fun to drink while enjoying just about every kind of music. But everyone I know who’s really, really into beer—not the alcoholics, but the brewers and connoisseurs, the folks who really know the history of the world’s third most popular beverage (after water and tea), the people who brew their own and will patiently explain the difference between a lager and an ale—besides loving beer, the one other thing they all have in common is that they also love bluegrass music.
The smart and observant people over at KTHX also noticed the beer-and-bluegrass connection, which is why they’re hosting XFest Brewgrass 2009 on Saturday, June 13, outside at the Harrah’s plaza in downtown Reno. The party will feature beer from some of the area’s breweries—Great Basin, Silver Peak, Buckbean, BJ’s, Doppleganger’s and Mammoth Brewing Company—and bluegrass-influenced music from Axton Kincaid, Crooked Still, local favorites Buster Blue and the traditional bluegrass act the Back Forty Band.
The Back Forty Band has been based out of Carson City since 1993. Vicki Hass, the band’s fiddler and bandleader, has a theory about why beer is so popular with the bluegrass crowd.
“Beer is usually the afternoon drink,” she says. And bluegrass is afternoon music. The beverage and the music are both evocative of a descending sun.
“It’s usually hot at the festivals a lot of the time. It’s just a good way to kick back and relax, or kick back and pick, whatever we’re doing,” says Hass.
And, like beer, bluegrass is a community-oriented artform.
“I love the festivals because you just see all walks of life,” says Hass. “The young ones are out there, the old ones are out there playing. … The old ones are encouraging the young ones. It’s just heartful, soulful. Family. And the bluegrass world is like a family. We may see these people once a year, but you’re so entrenched within the group, they’re like family. Whether you’ve met them once or twice, it doesn’t even matter, you’re very welcomed into the community of bluegrass.”
The Back Forty Band performs tunes by Merle Haggard and, of course, bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, as well as some intriguingly titled original tunes like “Cold Sheets of Rain.”
With their original tunes, as is often the case with bluegrass music, the Back Forty Band spins the lyrical content and the musical momentum in opposite directions.
“We joke about bluegrass music because it’s plum pitiful and sorrowful,” says Hass. “It’s happy music that’s plum pitiful and sorrowful. … A lot of the traditional tunes were about killing their wives. ‘The Banks of Ohio,’ for instance, he killed his wife and sent her down the river. It’s a little bit morbid and would probably be X-rated these days, but because it’s so happy, I don’t think anybody really listens to the words.”
For Hass, the vocal harmonies are the most important part of a good bluegrass performance.
“If the harmonies are right on and doing what they’re supposed to do … you’ve got that blues harmony. You’ve got that blue note in there that creates that sound that just makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”