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MICHAEL DAVES: Renegade Traditionalist

About a year ago, people began sending me a David Letterman clip in which Steve Martin, who also plays banjo, performs a bluegrass tune alongside world-famous Béla Fleck and a guitarist named Michael Daves, who I had never heard of. Daves looked odd next to his sleekly dressed stage partners. He had unruly hair, sported a pair of thick-rimmed, vintage spectacles, and wore an ill-fittingly large suit, which hung off his lanky figure like it was covering a scarecrow. A pair of Converse jutted out noticeably from under his slacks. Daves played his part, which was impressive, but not memorable in the company of celebrity musicians. As I would later learn, this was not a typical Daves show—he was being watered down.

Although Daves is relatively unknown outside New York, he    is generally considered to be the city’s foremost bluegrass musician, and has won a striking amount of adulation from a music community that often saves such reverence for long-deceased legends. Daves has no skills in self-promotion, yet he has managed to develop a devout following—a hodgepodge of New Yorkers who dutifully attend his weekly shows at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. Every Daves fan I have talked with discovered him through word of mouth, and listens to his music almost exclusively live. His listeners are so devoted that small friendship circles have formed based on the shared Tuesday-night experience.

Portrait of Michael Daves. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Michael Daves. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Retrograde is hip now, but Daves wears the Deep South, churchgoing look so convincingly that it’s no surprise to learn that he actually attends Sunday services regularly. He is rarely seen without one of his characteristic western-style, button-up shirts and a clean shave that complements his delicate features. His glasses—bulky Red or Dead brand, which he purchased in the Village—are so integral to his look that he refuses to remove them for photo ops.

Daves intends his musical style to be as viscerally jarring—“gut-wrenching,” in his words—as possible. When speaking of the Ramones’ influence on his music, he excitedly begins to strum hard-driving air guitar. Soft-spoken and meticulously measured in speech, Daves brings to the stage a jagged landscape of shrieking tenor climaxes paced with low, despairing intervals. The high-register shrill of his voice rings with androgyny and sexual undertones, and allows a wide channel for rattling emotional output. His incessant, animal-like falsetto yelps solidly confirm that he is not in the business of background music. He could easily be taken for a virtuosic, genre-defying musician from Brooklyn, but Daves considers himself to be a bluegrass traditionalist.

He explained his logic to me recently, crammed in the backseat of his bandmates’ sedan with an upright bass lying on top of him, its headstock prodding him with every bump. We were en route to a show at a dingy bar and grill in Teaneck, New Jersey. (Even successful bluegrass musicians must settle for dreary, out-of-town venues.)

Shrinking away from the malingering bass, Daves began to piece together his views on the nature of bluegrass and his complex relationship with it. The story starts centuries ago, as settlers from Scotland and Ireland brought their fiddles and ballads with them to the Appalachian Mountains. Slaves in the South introduced banjos, which were appropriated by Scotch-Irish settlers. By the Reconstruction era, the mountains had incubated a new form of music, now called “old-time,” centered on banjo and fiddle medleys. Compositions were passed down through families and villages. Different regions had different sounds and myriad versions of standard tunes. By the 1930s, as Alan Lomax was making field recordings of mountain music for the Smithsonian’s archives, this music had become a bedrock cultural institution in the Appalachian Mountains.

-In the mid-20th century, this music underwent a dramatic mutation, sparked by Bill Monroe, a hulking man with a squealing voice. Born in 1911 in the Kentucky hills and raised in the tradition of old-time fiddle music, Monroe catalyzed a movement that broke decisively from tradition. By 1945 Monroe’s band was experimenting with a synthesis of breakneck tempos, the discordance of Delta blues, vibrant gospel harmony structures, and individualized lead parts, which allowed musicians far greater personal creative license. Although currents of tradition pervaded this new music, it represented a confluence of disparate American music styles into a postmodern mosaic of appropriated elements.

“Those guys were just in it to destroy,” Daves says. “In 1952, Bill Monroe was screaming his head off. He was essentially doing rock ’n’ roll before there was such a thing. There is a direct line between what he was doing and Iggy Pop—perhaps not stylistically, but in terms of the raw energy and emotional catharsis. It’s immediate and honest. To me, that is the tradition of bluegrass.”

If bluegrass was founded on this sort of iconoclasm, Daves thinks the tradition has in large part faded. In the 60s, during the American folk revival, bluegrass broke out of the South and gained popularity in Northeastern cities and college campuses. In the 70s, rednecks were smoking pot and growing out their hair, and progressives were listening to country and bluegrass. Somewhere along the way, Daves speculates, people began to see Bill Monroe as a practitioner of tradition rather than a revolutionary—and the genre of bluegrass was canonized and polished up, made more soothing to the ears. It became an object of sentimentality, a museum piece. Berklee College of Music in Boston began offering a bachelor of fine arts degree in bluegrass.

The music became confused, according to Daves, who, even when stuffed in the back of a dumpy Buick, gives an almost academic air when discussing bluegrass. Bluegrass musicians came to believe that technical ability and packaging, and “raw, emotional honesty” were mutually exclusive. “The music has become very clean and predictable,” Daves said. “It has become obsessed with presenting itself to the world as not a hayseed, backward, redneck thing, but as something sophisticated and presentable. I don’t see it as hayseed in the first place, and I don’t see a need to dress it up—I’d rather take it and destroy things with it.”

To Daves, being a bluegrass traditionalist is being a renegade of sorts, a fact that almost everyone seems to have forgotten. Nostalgia for tradition made the genre stale and static, he says. Innovations have been made, but not in the spirit of Bill Monroe’s boldness.

Daves was born in Atlanta to a family of bluegrass musicians entrenched in the genre’s softer elements (à la Jerry Garcia and Pete Seeger). His dad played banjo and his mom played fiddle. From an early age Daves attended local jams where musicians from the region, including the legendary Buzz Busby, gathered and learned from each other. He played bluegrass growing up and throughout his years as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, where he studied jazz, but it was only after he moved to New York six years ago that he became serious about the music. This was not a coincidence; New York audiences were more receptive to Daves’s style. “Here, I could finally do what I consider traditional bluegrass, and with a trashier take on it, and people were like, ‘Sure!’” Daves says. “Audiences outside New York will walk out when I get too trashy and scary with the music. They have far more rigid expectations of what the music should be.”

In Teaneck Daves performed alongside a few musicians considered among the best in the industry. The stage’s backdrop was a gaudy arrangement of Christmas lights, which oscillated neon colors. The banjo player, Tony Trishka, introduced Daves as “truly the best guy in the world at what he does.” The show consisted of mostly bluegrass standards, played with virtuosic precision—a baffling output of notes that often ventured into the territory of jazz. Occasionally Daves would play one of his arrangements, and the band would fall back as accompanists. For these songs there was something incongruous about the band’s dynamic. Daves was engaging in a personal, hot-blooded, viscerally emotive expression; the rest of the band continued to focus on precise mastery of notes, as they’d done through the entire show. Daves played a song, originally recorded by the Stanley Brothers, about betrayal, anguish, and revenge. Its tone was menacing, even confounded. Daves’s guitar playing, though on technical par with the rest of the group, contained all sorts of deliberate unevenness to reflect the song’s tumult. Although the piece visibly thrilled his band, it seemed that they couldn’t quite cross into his world. They continued to play with their immaculate, level precision.

It amuses Daves to think of himself as navigating a bluegrass world that has become a factional collection of political parties. The hard-line conservatives—represented by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music (SPIGMA)—view the music as inseparable from Southern agrarian culture; they discourage alcohol at festivals and encourage reverence for family values in music. The hippies in Colorado and the Northwest take a jam-band approach, and hold festivals brimming with drugs and intoxication. And then there are the Northeastern progressives, with their highly educated take on the music, taking it into uncharted realms of sophistication.

As a musician, Daves traverses this entire patchwork with ease, but rather than aligning himself with any one movement he likes to think of himself as an agitator, unsentimentally stirring things up for the sake of keeping the genre interesting and visible. Daves’ real-life politics are progressive, but he did mention a metaphorical kinship he feels to one particularly unscrupulous icon of the 1980s conservative movement.

Originally from South Carolina, Lee Atwater was a chief strategist in the Reagan administration, and went on to manage George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988, which many regarded as the dirtiest in history up to that point. Atwater had a gift for smear jobs, and exploiting the inner most fears of the American psyche to serve his ends. Bush’s defeat of Dukakis in ’88, and the Republican party’s long-term adoption of Machiavellian tactics, are attributed to Atwater’s thinking.

“He was pure evil, but extremely effective,” Daves said of Atwater. “He was Carl Rove’s mentor—but the difference between them was that, to Atwater, it was all just a game. He didn’t care about the politics behind it. He was just in it to win it. Rove actually believes in all the party’s crap, which makes him less fun.”

“Bluegrass needs a Lee Atwater.” 


Spencer Woodman

Spencer Woodman studies economics at Sarah Lawrence College.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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