This gorgeous music, I just love it so much.
I have a question for our musicians up in the balcony:
What kind of musical instruments do you have up there?
What are you using to create this wonderful sound called bluegrass?
[Answer: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, dobro, accordion(!)]
When you bring together
an upright bass,
and maybe a dobro or harmonica,
you get something very unique.
Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass,
called it “that high lonesome sound”
when he began playing it.
But there’s one more instrument that wasn’t named
that is often used in bluegrass music:
The human voice.
But not just any human voice.
It has to be a voice
that has lived—
Lived and loved and lost and lamented—
The kind of voice that has known
both great joy and great pain.
The kind of voice that can convey
deep sorrow and even deeper faith.
The kind of voice that might have
written words like those we read in psalm 43.
In one verse hearing:
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
And in the very next:
Put your trust in God;
For I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
Somehow, today’s psalm just seems to capture what bluegrass is all about:
That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness;
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
The beauty of the psalms
is that they convey the whole range of human emotion…
and they resonate because
they help us to know that God
hears and values every feeling we have:
it’s all there in the Psalter,
each feeling expressed honestly
and with a lovely and timeless simplicity.
Well, that same authenticity and simplicity
and all those same emotions
are also found in the
of bluegrass music.
The music communicates a special kind of faith,
The faith of one who is simultaneously broken and whole,
The faith of one who loves Jesus,
and is no stranger to struggles and hard work.
A faith that holds onto hope
Not in spite of life’s pains
but because of them.
In the early part of last century,
in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina,
descendants of Scotch Irish immigrants
would play the traditional songs of their homelands.
Those old folk tunes blended with
African American blues and gospel music,
allowing someone like Bill Monroe
to combine the folk music of his childhood
with the gospel message
and the syncopated rhythms
of the world outside his home in Kentucky.
Monroe’s childhood had been hard.
He was the youngest of 8 kids
And his parents died when he was still a youth.
He had poor vision because he was cross-eyed
and got made fun of a lot.
Because of his eyesight, he never joined the choir school at his church.
As he later said, “they couldn’t learn me anything in singing school.”
So he taught himself how to sing by ear.
His older brothers had already laid claim
To the family guitar and fiddle,
All that was left was the plucky little mandolin,
So young Bill started practicing with it
He began creating music
that was sometimes unabashedly melancholy,
sometimes shamelessly joyful,
and always deeply faithful.
Monroe grew up,
and joined with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
to form a band called the “Bluegrass Boys”
and their high, lonesome sound began to spread.
In 1925, my hometown of Nashville, TN
began to broadcast a Saturday night barn dance
over the radio airwaves.
The show became known as the Grand Ole Opry,
and eventually, Bill Monroe was invited to perform.
When he played, listeners far and wide
heard something that sounded both new and ancient.
With this exposure on the radio,
other bluegrass bands began to form.
They took the music in new and exciting directions.
The folk music revival of the 1960s
produced a new generation of bluegrass—
folks like the Sceldom Scene and Del McCoury.
But the music never lost its timeless quality,
It never lost that joy and pain.
Because bluegrass is, first and foremost,
for people who, in the words of Earl Scruggs,
“get up in the morning and bake a lot of biscuits.”
Bluegrass, like the psalms,
Is for all of us who are both faithful and fearful,
all of us who are both saints and sinners.
What other musical genre could have such diverse song titles as:
• “I’m Usin’ My Bible as a Roadmap”
• “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey, Tellin’ White Lies”
• “I saw the Light”
• “When Jesus Beckons Me Home”
And my personal favorite:
• “You Ain’t the Kind of Woman I Wanted But You’re the Kind of Woman I Got”
Bill Monre, father of bluegrass, died in 1996.
Last month, NPR did a story about him
On what would have been his 100th birthday.
They told a wonderful anecdote about
how he used to give out quarters to all the children he met.
[Preacher holds up a quarter.]
They say he never forgot what is was like to be a cross-eyed, orphaned kid,
And so he was very generous with his quarters.
One of those kids who was a recipient of a quarter from Bill Monroe
Was a young musical prodigy named Chris.
25 cents may not seem like a great deal of money,
But that quarter from Bill Monroe
had a profound impact on the life of young Chris.
Chris Thile has become of the premier
bluegrass musicians of our day,
and he has helped to popularize bluegrass music
for a whole new generation—MY generation.
So, this being Pledge Sunday (you know I would get there!)
When we gather to offer our annual financial commitments
to our faith community,
I want you to ask yourself—
What sort of unknown future impact might your gift have?
Psalm 43 reads,
“That I may go up to the altar of God,
To the God of my joy and gladness;
And on the stringed instrument
I will give thanks to you, O God my God.”
That pretty much sums it up.
[Preacher approaches the altar and places quarter on it.]
All I would add is,
Be generous with your quarters.