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Rockin' bluegrass: ‘Strummin' with the Devil’

Nashville pickers continue tradition of paying homage to classic rock
/ Source: The Associated Press

As soon as the music starts, there's something at once odd yet familiar about it. The oh-so-'80s keyboard part has been replaced by a mandolin, and the searing electric guitar solo is now a down-home fiddle break.

But the melody is unmistakable — Van Halen's "Jump."

"Strummin' With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen," a collection of the heavy metal band's music performed by some of Nashville's top pickers, might be the latest bluegrass salute to classic rock, but it's far from the only one. Bluegrass musicians have paid homage to everyone from Elton John to the Moody Blues to AC-DC in recent years.

Some bluegrass artists are simply trying to make money off a novelty song, but others say they are honoring a tradition that goes back to pioneers Flatt & Scruggs.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs covered Bob Dylan tunes in the late 1960s, and after the duo split, Scruggs in particular continued to mine rock and pop songs by Sting, Melissa Etheridge, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis Presley and others.

Even Bill Monroe, who shaped traditional bluegrass by melding old-time string band music with blues, gospel and other styles, covered "Muleskinner Blues" for his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1939. The song had been a hit earlier for Jimmie Rodgers, a Mississippi native who influenced both country and rock 'n' roll.

"Most people today think of `Fox on the Run' as a bluegrass standard, but it actually started as a British rock song," Dan Hayes, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association, says of the 1960s hit by Manfred Mann. "And Jim & Jessie did Chuck Berry's `Maybelline' and things like that, so it's not a new fad."

But it seems to be gaining steam. Since 1999, bluegrass musicians have recorded tributes to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Many of the albums were released by Los Angeles-based CMH Records as part of their "Pickin' On" series, but not all.

Alison Krauss, probably the most widely known contemporary bluegrass artist, has included songs by Bad Company, the Allman Brothers, Todd Rundgren and Michael McDonald on her records.

Interpreting popular songs can make bluegrass more accessible to the masses, but it also can hurt the genre if done as a novelty or purely to sell records, says John Cowan, former lead singer for the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival.

"It's really delicate, and you have to be careful about doing this stuff or it becomes cheesy," he says. "In those situations, bluegrass takes a back seat, and opposed to being viewed as a valid art form, it starts to look like `Oh, there's those crazy inbred mountain people again standing on hay bales.'"

Cowan performs on the Van Halen tribute record and on 2004's "Moody Bluegrass: A Nashville Tribute to the Moody Blues." The Moody Blues album, in particular, was a labor of love.

"I'm getting ready to turn 53, so I was an avid collector of Moody Blues records in the 1970s and late '60s, and I'm truly a fan," he says.

The musicians performed the album at the Ryman Auditorum where they were joined by the famed British rock group.

"Whether they know anything about bluegrass music or not, I think they understood immediately that it was handled in a very caring, beautiful way," he says of the Moody Blues.

Former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth sings two tracks on the bluegrass tribute to his old band. He said the new treatment brings a fresh perspective to the songs.

"Elements present themselves that you may not have been conscious of before," Roth said. "The song `I'll Wait,' for instance, sounds alternately hopeful and a trip down to where the bus doesn't go after dark. There's always a bittersweet kind of tone to Van Halen's best music. Is it happy or is it sad? Hopefully, it's both, just like ragtime. With that song, I think they really seized on the teeth of it as opposed to whoopin' and hollerin' through it."

Bluegrass has a long kinship with rock 'n' roll. Groups like the Eagles and the Byrds incorporated banjo and mandolin. Bluegrass artists such as Flatts, Scruggs, Del McCoury, New Grass Revival and Ralph Stanley have recorded and shared concert bills with rock acts.

Hayes said bluegrass musicians are always looking for good songs, and rock is a comfortable fit because it also emphasizes driving rhythm and improvisation.

As for the inclination to do classic rock, Cowan thinks it's only natural.

"We grew up with that stuff and a lot of us have a soft spot in our hearts for it," he says. "I think to try to do soul music might be a stretch. I don't know if there's going to be a bluegrass tribute to Smokey Robinson."

Then, pausing a moment, he adds, "But if there is, I'd be in line."