THE SMELL OF BLUEGRASS ON THE ASPHALT OF POP MUSIC

Bluegrass is a genre of American country music. The style was invented by Bill Monroe, based on the folk music of the rural, white population of America at the end of the 1920s.
(BLUEGRASS ALSO ORIGINAL NAME OF A FLOWER FROM APPALACHIA)

I had no idea that someday I would have an opportunity to meet a music critic. Of course, everyone loves music, but the same cannot be said about music critiquing. Nowadays there are as many styles, it seems, as people. Nevertheless, it is sometimes so difficult to find something that will speak to your soul in this boundless world of music. But one day I happened to read in my favorite newspaper, Moscovsky Komso-molets, about Farmer, a festival of country and folk music. I decided to visit it just out of curiosity. Can you imagine my impressions? I myself did not expect that I would like it. There were a lot of groups. And they were not all alike. Most of all I was impressed by Kukuruza; Svoya Igra, featuring a brilliant violinist, Tamara Sidorova; Ya-bloko, with Marina Kapuro singing; and the extraordinary Nadezhda Babkina, with her "Russian Song." All of this was so amazing, it differed so much from what 1 had been used to listening to, that I wanted to learn more about this style.

So what is country music? Of course, I know that it came from America, but it is so hard to imagine a cowboy sitting near the house and playing an old banjo or guitar. What does it really look like?

"You know, in general it is really so," answers Andrey Gor-batov with a smile. Andrey is the organizer of the Farmer Festival in Russia, and one of the first organizers of this movement here.

"Speaking seriously, country is an original and independent style, not just an antecedent of rock."

"We are living in a time when everyone can be called a preacher. Are you a preacher of country music in the USSR?"

"I'm not sure that I can be called a preacher, but country musicians are really striving for communion with God. In some American churches you can hear country songs. If you've watched Jimmy Swaggert's programs on TV, you've heard his country songs. All this is part of American culture, well known all over the world. But Russians are just starting to learn about it."

"So, what is 'Great Country'?"

"It is not difficult to understand. Over the past three hundred years people from different countries have emigrated to America. Each nation brought along its own culture and its own music - Scottish ballads and French chansons, German songs and Slavic melodies, Italian canzones and Spanish cantatas. Along with such different roots as African blues and bittersweet Jewish melodies, these various influences combined and interlaced to yield an original and brilliant style. American country music, then, can be seen as a kind of musical melting pot of world civilization."

"So it's like the Americans themselves. As for the music, is it just a reflection of the people?"

"That's right. Just as it is for us, where everything taking place in Soviet society is reflected in our music. Although we no longer have Vertinski or Shalyapin, today we have the talent of Gradskiy and the intellect and philosophy of Boris Gre-benshchikov. It's a great pity that Khvorostovskiy, Ros-tropovich and many other talented musicians work outside of our country. But perhaps that is their fate."

"Andrey, you place rock and classic musicians in the same class. Can we really compare them?"

"Without a doubt. I'm sure that neither Vishnevskaya nor Spivakov would be offended by this comparison, because there are musicians of a very high caliber even among rock musicians."

"Well, OK, I know that you are the author of more than 70 articles abut rock music. But tell me about country music and the Farmer festival."

I began to study rock music in 1987. I received my diploma in the history of the development of rock music in Sverdlovsk [Yekaterinburg], where at the end of the '70s rock began its rapid development in the Soviet Union. For instance, such groups as Nautilus Pompilius, Urfin Juice and Agatha Christie were formed there. It was really very impressive. So, I decided to learn about "Sverdlovskii Rock." Perhaps because I was born there - a damned, though not really guilty city, where the Bolsheviks murdered the tsar and his family. But that's another story.... I received my diploma on this topic [rock music] at the university, and decided to close the book on this topic for myself."

"Did you feel sorry when you were through?"

"Of course I felt sorry, because it was already so close to my heart."

"And then country music won your heart, didn't it?"

"It was not necessary for this music to win me over. I had always loved this style."

"Really? From early childhood?"

"Well, I'll tell you my 'love story.' It happened during the Period of Stagnation [under Brezhnev] when, because of Jimmy Carter, we heard the word 'disarmament.' Our cultural contacts with the USA became closer. The central cities felt it more, of course. Americans started to visit our country. The 'tsar' of country music, Roy Clark, came to Moscow in 1976 with his group. After that, many other famous country groups came to the USSR. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band came to Moscow in 1978. Pro-Soviet Dean Reed also sang some American songs. By the way, the Communist Pete Seger, folk singer and banjo player, loved visiting Moscow from the first time he arrived here in 1956 to sing at the Festival of Youth. He also gave several concerts during the Period of Stagnation. And in the '80s I heard Travellers and Swimmers, country bands from Czechoslovakia. I was lucky enough to have met all of them. But Roy Clark impressed me most of all. He influenced me greatly. During his visit in 1989 I told him that he had made me love country music."

"What happened then?"

"I began to enlarge my knowledge. I tried to get tapes and information, which were almost inaccessible in the USSR, and learned to play the guitar and the four-string banjo, called 'claw hammer' or 'old banjo' in the U.S. I regret that I never learned to play the classical five-string banjo, but I had to stop playing because of my urge towards journalism. In 1985 I met John Denver, a brilliant country player. In 1987 I saw Kris Kristofferson play in Moscow. That was unforgettable! Oh, and I sang in a country group while still at the university. We shared a rehearsal room on a rotating basis with Nautilus Pompilius, the most popular rock group at the end of the '80s. I can even boast that I was one of the first people to hear their famous song 'Goodbye, America,' which was composed by my friend Dmitry Oumetsky. Incidentally, the real name of the composition is 'Goodbye, Letter'; 'America' is used here not in the geographic sense, but as a metaphor. This song is a real masterpiece and, though its style is far from country music, I thought it would be interesting to try to give it a newgrass arrangement. However, I've never had the courage to propose it to the musicians."

"It seems that you never parted with country music. Is it a kind of religion for you?"

"Maybe. This 'religion,' if you will, has its own idols and temples. The center of it is an American town called Nashville, in the state of Tennessee. During the '40s an original style, bluegrass, became independent though it wasn't until the '50s that it was named and recognized as a unique form]. Its centers are in Owensboro and Petersboro, Kentucky. The 'father' of bluegrass is Bill Monroe, a mandolin player and leader of the group The Blue Grass Boys. This new 'religion' was joined by thousands of Americans and later was taken up in Europe and all over the world."

"What are the differences between country and bluegrass?"

"Country music is a very wide phenomenon. Bluegrass is a specific trend, nearer to the folk music of America. 'Nashville country' primarily uses electric instruments and a rhythm section. Sometimes, it seems to me to be too sweet. Bluegrass is an acoustic music, closer to folk; its instruments are contrabass, banjo, guitar, mandolin, often violin, and sometimes harmonica and Dobro. It's real music! I hope Russia will have an opportunity to hear the famous blue-grass groups."

"But why don't the stars of country music want to visit us?"

"First of all, because our society doesn't know them. We were brought up on other songs: Young Pioneer songs, dull Communist hymns, fast songs about heroic deeds, and pop music --as a rule, feeble and untalented. Most of our listeners have absolutely no taste. Nobody came to listen to Bob Dylan in Leningrad [St. Petersburg] in 1989; the hall was empty when Paul Simon played Moscow in 1990. The other reasons are our infamous Russian 'service' and the political situation in the country, which are even more important."

"I'm sure you have visited various country festivals. What have you found that was really impressive?"

"I often visit Estonia. An international festival takes place there every year. Groups from other part of the world usually come - even from Finland. I was really impressed by the Finnish group Lake Country Boys. Later, I was lucky enough to visit a family in Finland, Borje Nieulund, a musician in the band Country Life, and his wife, the Danish country singer Tina Silvest. They really love, and moreover play, country music. They are farmers. Can you imagine this?"

"It would seem that Finland would be far from any American influences. Is country music so popular among the Finns?"

"Oh, yes! They have a lot of professional country groups, and they also hold international festivals in, for example, Helsinki and Turku. I was also impressed by Czechoslovakia. Every year I visit the Porta festival there. This country has the largest number of country groups of any in Europe. I also like to visit a festival in Poland. Musicians from all over Europe gather there."

"Are there any other festivals of country music in Russia besides Farmer?"

"It is a great pity, but we are far behind Europe in this field. They have hundreds of groups and dozens of festivals. But in all of the ex-USSR only the Baltic republics of Estonia and Lithuania have interesting country groups. I'm in contact with almost all of the musicians in the Baltics and, in my opinion, the country singer Virgis Stakenas and the group Jonis from Shauliai are the most promising and interesting revelations of the last few years."

"Can you tell us about the best of the Russian country groups?" "You know, I've been telling you a lot about professionals, but we have many young country groups. They are very talented and original: Country-bandists, Country Saloon, Ladushki and many others. My personal favorite is Vesyolyi Dil-izhans (Merry Stagecoach) from Obninsk. They are only teenagers, but they are working so hard to become professionals. As for me, I'm always trying to help musicians. I try to organize tours for them, and I write a lot about their life and work. I have a dream, to write a book about Russian country music. In general, I am fond of many different kinds of music. Somebody once said that there could be no bad music, just as there could be no really ugly woman. I think that everyone must simply have his own music...."

I'm beginning to understand something. Now I see that country music is not only a cowboy with a banjo, but a lifestyle, a way of thinking, maybe even a philosophy. For me, it is a great pity that I didn't ask my school friends about this music when I visited America last year. And the only "cowboys" I saw were not real, but just models in advertising photos. After this talk with Andrey, I started to listen to country music. It can really help you to stay happy and lighthearted.