By Emily J. Weitz
Bluegrass music may have its origins in the hills of West Virginia and found a home in the mountains of Colorado, but here on Long Island bluegrass also has a presence, and it is growing.
This weekend, on Sunday, December 2, the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike will continue its ongoing bluegrass series with a performance by Eastbound Freight, a bluegrass band that’s been on Long Island for over 20 years.
“We’ve been playing together for so long now,” says John Brisotti, mandolin player and singer in the band. “I’ve seen a change over the years. There was a time when there were only two or three bluegrass groups on Long Island. But now, there’s a lot more interest in it.”
The band’s fiddle player, Bill Ayasse, is a teacher and has observed first time some of the young, bluegrass talent emerging here.
“Some of Bill’s students are amazing,” says Brisotti. “You can see a lot of talent at some of the monthly jams.”
The first Sunday of every month, bluegrass players of all levels get together for an open jam at the Long Island Bluegrass Club in Smithtown. These jams — quintessential in bluegrass culture, said Brisotti — often consist of multiple pockets of musicians, gathered around one set of music, or squeezed into a corner of the room, picking out unique renditions of traditional songs. Walking through the venue, it is as if several mini concerts are taking place, all at once.
This Sunday’s event will feature just Eastbound Freight, which consists of a guitar, a bass, a mandolin, a banjo, and a fiddle. Without a percussion section, bluegrass music is designed to drive the rhythm through the strings.
“The crucial thing in bluegrass is the rhythm,” says Brisotti. “The rhythm has to be consistent. Usually we’ll do it with more drive to the music, and come in right on the beat.”
As the mandolin player, Brisotti mostly plays the melody.
“The mandolin is pure melody,” he explains. “It’s also a rhythm instrument, but the primary rhythm instrument is the guitar.”
Brisotti also plays the guitar, but he passed the role of guitarist on to Dave Thompson.
“He was so fabulous I just had to switch to a different instrument,” says Brisotti.
One unique thing about Eastbound Freight is that all five members of the group sing.
“Everybody sings,” says Brisotti, “and everybody sings almost every part. In trios and quartets we often switch parts. This gives the songs different textures. It’s unusual to have people who can sing lead and bass and tenor.”
Eastbound Freight plays a combination of original songs, written by banjo player Bill DeTurk, and traditional bluegrass tunes. For the original songs, DeTurk, who was born in Nashville and raised in North Carolina, writes a lot of autobiographical material.
“He comes to the band with the melodies and the words,” says Brisotti, “and we arrange them together. We figure out all the vocal arrangements.”
For the songs they cover, they turn to bluegrass greats, who have strongly influenced the band like the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin.
“Those were the seminal groups of the music,” says Brisotti. “We have a connection to the traditional music. I’m not even talking about second or third generation… We take our lead from the original groups.”
Eastbound Frieght will also re-interpret other genres, like folk music, to bluegrass. For example, they’ve been playing a Billy Edd Wheeler tune, “Coal Tattoo.” It’s a folk song, but they increased the velocity to “make it bluegrass”.
Another feature that makes bluegrass what it is, besides the instruments and the rhythm, is the content and tenor of the songs. The bright sound of the strings lightens the heart, while the words themselves are usually gutting. It’s this juxtaposition that has been said to define bluegrass music.
“It’s hard to come up with a song that isn’t sad in this genre,” agrees Brisotti. “It’s the happiest sounding music about the most dreadful things.”
As Eastbound Freight has watched the genre begin to take hold on Long Island, they are sure to hold fast to the roots of bluegrass music, to the legacy of Bill Monroe.
“Whatever we do,” says Brisotti, “it contains that original sound.”
That sound will rise up to the rafters at the last of the bluegrass series at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House on Sunday, December 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20. Go to uucsf.org to buy tickets through PayPal or call Tip Brolin at 237-4821 for more information.