Coping with crisisThe Carolina Bluegrass Band, comprised of UNC-Chapel Hill students and directed by Russell Johnson, presented their spring concert streamed, on Youtube. The concert was pre-recorded, which made for a pleasantly snappy viewing experience and eliminated any downtime between sets. This was the band’s first concert since December 2019, but they have been rehearsing online and in person since then, navigating the restrictions of the pandemic. The Carolina Bluegrass Band is in its fifth year as an official ensemble of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Music. Thirteen musicians, nearly all of them hailing from North Carolina, make up the band, and this concert featured two different band groupings of six and seven musicians. The band seems to be welcoming to all levels – over half the ensemble is only in their second semester in the band, and several students have been learning their instruments for the first time this year. What a monumental accomplishment, especially in this past year!

The first half of the concert opened with three traditional instrumental tunes, each with a steady groove as a vehicle to feature each instrument on short solos. Not only did this consistent backdrop have a calming effect, but it also seemed to support the students as they maintained a strong sense of ensemble, despite being spread farther apart onstage.

Throughout the concert, and especially through the ebb and flow of solos, the sound management and balance were very clear. The intentional stage set-up, with some players having as many as four different microphones positioned in front of them, was highly effective, especially when the musicians began to add lead and back-up vocals to the texture.

Johnny Bond’s “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” was the band’s first song with vocals, including backup harmonies that continued to showcase the newer ensemble’s hard work. There was some particularly easygoing interaction in this song between the fiddle’s melody and the lead vocals. The lead vocal duties were split up amongst band members, creating lots of variety in the program. The more contemporary style “Watch It Fall” (written by the young Bluegrass artist Billy Strings) contained some lovely upper harmonies, as well as “Sitting on Top of the World.”

There are four graduating seniors in UNC’s bluegrass band this year: Sophie Nachman, Brandon Koluch, Anne Frances Jarrell, and George Morris. In the interim between the two bands’ sets, fiddler Nachman was presented with the Joanne and Victor Marshall Bluegrass Award, recognizing her talent, dedication, and her seven semesters in the band.

The second half of the concert began with Bela Fleck’s “Whitewater” – a fast tempo of this and the succeeding songs showcased the more experienced players’ picking and ensemble abilities. In contrast, “White Dove” by Carter Stanley was more relaxed, and featured a languid fiddle melody in its triple-metered texture. Confident vocals in “Walls of Time” and two fiddle players in Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss” and “Roanoke” were other highlights of this set. The final selection, “Carolina in the Pines” by Michael Martin Murphy, added piano and cajon, creating a unique addition to the band’s texture.

With all the esteemed Bluegrass players that have come out of Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas, it’s no wonder that UNC Chapel Hill has such a wonderful student-centered bluegrass band. Given the restrictions on rehearsals and performances, this concert represented quite an accomplishment for the Carolina Bluegrass Band.

Note: The concert remains available online, here.