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Bluegrass sidesteps radio with television exposure
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Television is the new best friend of bluegrass music, which was boosted by a hit film soundtrack last year but still gets scant radio airplay.
Video play on the Country Music Television cable channel played a key role in the 2001 success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, and the breakthrough of photogenic young trio Nickel Creek.
Both acts were well represented on the last year's nationally televised music awards shows, and Ralph Stanley will sing his "O Brother" song "O Death" at the Grammys on Feb. 27.
Now, the Public Broadcasting Service is adding to bluegrass' TV exposure with "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration," which will anchor its March pledge drives across the country.
Filmed last month at the Ryman Auditorium, which was home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to '74, the show features Stanley, Ricky Scaggs, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek, Earl Scruggs and Travis Tritt.
"We want to show what is going on in bluegrass right now," said Skaggs, the show's host. "We want to show that Vince is out singing and playing bluegrass. We want to show that Patty has done a bluegrass record. We want to show that Ralph Stanley is a hot commodity right now, in his 70s.
"We want to show Alison Krauss in all her radiance. But we also want to show a new side of bluegrass, a youthful side with Nickel Creek."
The spring pledge drive is the most important of the year for PBS, said Neil Mahrer, a former PBS executive who was instrumental in getting "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration" made. Public stations are counting on the show to help raise up to $60 million.
"I think bluegrass and PBS is a good fit, and certainly well worth this test," said Mahrer, who now works in independent television production. "The most popular fund-raising program of all time for PBS is a doo-wop show, and we've also done well with other music theme shows."
Bluegrass -- acoustic music featuring fast-paced musicianship and bluesy, "high-lonesome" vocal harmonies -- has long had a small but devoted following. The soundtrack for "O Brother" gave it a massive commercial boost, despite most of the music on the album actually being Depression era music that predates bluegrass.
Even with the "O Brother" success, country radio stations have resisted the bluegrass single "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," and haven't shown much interest in Nickel Creek or recent bluegrass projects by established stars such as Loveless and Dolly Parton.
"For some reason there seems to be a fear about it, that it doesn't sound like everything else that's come out in the last decade that passes for commercial country," said Brian Phillips, a former radio programmer who now programs CMT. "And we're getting a lot of audience feedback that they're looking for something exactly like that."
Phillips said a recent weeklong CMT promotion of bluegrass-themed programs drew 7.1 million viewers, as good a week as the station has ever had.
CMT is planning more bluegrass programming. The "Down from the Mountain" tour, featuring performers from "O Brother," is selling out in many cities. And Skaggs said bluegrass will soon anchor a Disney animated film titled "My Peoples" about the Appalachian region. It's scheduled for a 2005 release.
"I really think that this music can continue to get onto the silver screen, can continue to get on television," Skaggs said. "All we have to do is get past the stigma that it's not commercial music. Who is the person that said that, anyway?
"I'd like to meet that person and say 'Who told you that this is not commercial music? Who told you that this can't be accepted on country radio? You're stupid!"'