Article: Bluegrass Pioneer Still Rolling On

New York Times, Arts & Entertainment
Published: January 7, 2001

JOHN HERALD, a pioneer of bluegrass music, recently returned to the recording studio for the first time in 17 years, and his new CD was released in September. The new release is titled ''Roll On John,'' a CD named not for him but for a 1930's mountain folk ballad. His admitted perfectionism accounts for the time that has elapsed since his last album. He waited for just the right combination of production conditions and backup musicians, finally settling on a group called The Radio Sweethearts.

Mr. Herald, 61, writes and performs bluegrass, folk, cajun, and what he calls ''old-timey mountain'' music, as well as a smattering of blues, ragtime and rockabilly. His guitar is joined by a powerful tenor voice that is capable of everything from precise subtle phrasing to a yodel reminiscent of a coyote's mournful howl.

Mr. Herald's house is an honest-to-goodness log cabin in the pines, a three-room former horse stall filled with musical instruments and memorabilia from a career critics have called legendary. In 1958, he was a founder of the Greenbriar Boys, the first professional bluegrass band to come out of the Northeast. He has written songs sung by Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, and has jammed with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. He plays solo and with his bands across the United States, and in Europe and Asia. He appears regularly in clubs, theaters and festivals throughout the Hudson Valley from Woodstock to Westchester.

Coleman Barkin, a Hastings resident who has produced music festivals for 20 years, said, ''John Herald is one of the finest, most creative performers and songwriters I've ever worked with. He has this ability to take something you ordinarily would never think about, and put a new look on it and make it into something that gets your brain cells working.''

Produced on the Spit & Polish label, ''Roll On John'' includes the haunting title song about an aging railroad man; a coal miner's lament, ''Dark as a Dungeon''; and the bluegrass tune ''I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.'' It also includes two of his original compositions, ''Hitchhike Fever'' and ''Martha and Me''; a gospel number, ''I'm Saved''; and Warren Zevon's rhythmic folk-rock account of heroin addiction, ''Carmelita.''

The eclectic quality of the CD reflects Mr. Herald's taste. ''I play almost any music that I enjoy, that I think I can do justice to on an acoustic guitar,'' he said in a recent interview. ''I think of it as Americana. If one had to give it a label, that's what it would be called.''

Versatility, however, is not always considered commercially viable. ''The music business machine has yet to consider Americana as a genre,'' he said. ''And they want to be able to put you in an already recognized niche so your CD can be filed under a specific category in the record store.''

''Roll On John'' has been released in Great Britain and Europe; it is available in the United States at his performances or through his Web site,

Mr. Herald was born in Greenwich Village in Manhattan; his father, an Armenian immigrant, was a poet. John went to school at Manumit, a progressive boarding school in Bucks County, Pa. There, he discovered a radio station that played bluegrass, the amalgam of intricate, fast-paced instrumentals and tightly woven tenor harmonies that he fell in love with. ''I'd race back to my dorm room during lunch break to listen to the radio,'' he said.

After Manumit, he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in the study of insects. ''I was going to be an entomologist,'' he said. ''Then I discovered guitar and that was the end of my academic pursuits.''

At college, he became friendly with two students from New York, Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman, who much later became famous for their composition ''Dueling Banjos'' from the movie ''Deliverance.''

''I followed them like a puppy dog and watched them like a hawk,'' Mr. Herald said. In 1958, he wound up back in Manhattan, and with Mr. Weissberg and a banjo player named Bob Yellin, he formed the Greenbriar Boys; in 1959, Ralph Rinzler, the noted mandolin player and folklorist, replaced Mr. Weissberg.

For the nine years they were together, the Greenbriar Boys sold many records and achieved tremendous popularity, introducing Northerners to bluegrass. Mr. Herald also remembers forays into the rural South to seek out the creators of the music, and speaks of the thrill of discovering talent in its raw, unsullied form. He still spends hours poring over old records, resurrecting obscure songs and playing them for new audiences.

Like many artists, he has lamented lost love: in ''Woodstock Mountains,'' written after a painful divorce, he addresses his former wife, an expert horsewoman. ''You'll always be my tomboy, my high-class garden belle.'' But he also comically berates a first date who is unhappy with his mode of transportation. ''If you don't like my car, girl, why get snooty with me? I just thought I'd see how the peasants live, while my chauffeur shines up the fleet.''

Also in his repertory are songs that reflect his respect for animals and plants. One of his most critically acclaimed compositions is about the passenger pigeon, a species hunted to extinction in America. Mr. Barkin said, ''It's a subject very few people ever would think about, then they hear that song, and they say to themselves, 'Oh my God, how interesting, how sad.' ''

During performances, Mr. Herald gives a discourse on the birds' fate, then sings about the death of the last one in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. ''And surrounded there by some who wept around her, in a corner of the cage they found her. She went as soft as she came, so shy to the last song. Oh, the passenger pigeon was gone.''

As for his own future, he is busy writing, performing and getting ready for a tour of California, England, Scotland and Ireland. ''Compared to rock and pop, the Americana music I play is a bit esoteric,'' he said. ''It's wonderful that I can bring it to so many people.''

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