The historic Collins Theater in Paragould, Arkansas is the scene of a cultural resurgence embodied in a twang and strum, as traditional and contemporary blue grass music fill the air, as well as the hearts of those that listen.
On this particular February night Donna Ulisse and The Poor Mountain Boys are the instruments. The down home harmonies strike a blend of nostalgic emotions tempered by musicianship and showmanship providing a warm tapestry of lyrical comfort. The singers and the songs provide a reflection to the audience, mirroring the years and experiences of those who listen and sing along. The biblical Proverbs describe gray hair as “a crown of honor”, making the Collins Theater a throne room of Imperial dimensions. The songs are filled with stories paying tribute to the musical heroes of honky-tonks and transistor radios past and present alike. Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Ratite, Dottie Rambo, give those present a sense of shared heritage and kinship.
The heritage of the blue grass community is recorded in the voices of those who sing. What emerges is a shared cultural experience being passed from one generation to the next. Those who worry about the fans of this particular genre soon keeping the company of the roots of tall trees should remember that every generation that passes, does so with empty hands and hearts, because the music lives beyond the grave. Ulissie sings “Music is showing my roots, my past is shining like a beacon, singing in cowboy boots.” This is the lyrical Velcro, holding together the living and the dead. The instruments are simple, bass, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, held in the hands of simple men and one woman with talent forged on the front porches of rural Appellation communities and in urban conclaves of eclectic taste. This music refuses to be pigeonholed. The rhythm and pace isn’t contained to the stage, it fills the audience.
This is not an uneducated hoi polloi; these are musical and lyrical connoisseurs, qualified simply by their inclusion in this moment. The singers, the instruments, the voices of the audience, the applause, and the cacophony are symbiotic. They merge to form the shared moment, Blue Grass Monday. The songs are arranged by the band in a progression of fast to slow, fast again. Reflective and joyful, in sorrow and pain, diverse melancholy describes the myriad of emotions sweeping over the convocation transforming them into a congregation that would be envied by any preacher worth his salt. This is not a passive audience soaking up culture; this is a revival of spiritual significance. Through the catharsis of song the participants sin, repent, are baptized in the muddy waters of past regret and future hopes, and are reborn speaking in the tongues of instrumental soliloquys. “Red curtain, black snake, tar truck” unusual combinations resulting in new colors of musical content added to the pallet by the likes of “two-dollar Bill” “Papaw” and “Honey”. Donna leads these artists to paint beautifully a picture of a brilliant sunrise or glorious sunset, often in the context of the same song. The glue of personification holds the words of the songs together, mountains are alive, the moon is crying and the flowers are speaking.
This is Blue Grass Monday, not an event but a renaissance, an awakening. Interrupted only by intermission. The audience requires a brief moment to once again engage in reality, to feed the stomach, relieve the bladder. To smile, nod, comment on the weather, to purchase the experience so that they may relive the moment, or share it with others, although it will be no match for the living it. The band returns, the lobby clears, the bathroom doors swing shut, and the lights dim. The audience settles in to be dazzled once again. Musically and lyrically mesmerized, hypnotized, the audience reassumes its trance. Music is a thing. It can be touched, held, grasped, witnessed. Music engages the emotions and challenges the mind. The crowd inhales one more note, one more story, one more lyric, rhyme, rhythm with every strum and twang. There is movement, toe tapping, hand clapping, and the shouting of “Sing one more!” from the back of the auditorium followed by applause and accommodation by The Poor Mountain Boys. The band will not be released without a fight; a ransom in the currency of encore will be delivered. Another song, more applause, more shouting, hollering. Home.
Why does this matter? Humanity longs for a sense of belonging. A place of spontaneity and structure, and Blue Grass Monday provides this. People who have been challenged by the monotony of life find a refuge, in the nostalgia of the moment. Donna Ulissie is our father, the music our mother, each musician our brother our sister, every audience member our aunts, uncles and cousins. Grandmothers and grandfathers are ubiquitous. This is the grand family reunion we all long for! Authentic. Organic. This is home.