June 06--Monroe Crossing is not a shallow spot in a river, or even a place where two roads meet. It is a bluegrass band from Minneapolis/St. Paul that owes its existence to Bill Monroe.
The five band members -- Derek Johnson on guitar and lead/harmony vocals; Lisa Fuglie on fiddle, mandolin and lead/harmony vocals; Matt Thompson on mandolin, fiddle and baritone vocals; Mark Anderson on bass and bass vocals; and David Robinson on banjo -- first crossed paths because of their love of the music of Bill Monroe.
Thus, Monroe Crossing was the obvious choice for a band name.
But bluegrass from Minnesota? It's not as strange as it might sound. And you can hear it for yourself when the band plays the Fine Arts Center in Brigham City on Friday, June 7.
"We are more famous in Minnesota for Prince and the punks than we are for bluegrass," said Johnson, riding with the band away from the devastation in Oklahoma, where flooding forced one of the band's scheduled festivals to cancel.
"But the fact is, we have a really healthy bluegrass scene, thanks in part to the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Association. Minnesota has always had a very artistic community. A lot of music all around."
The band began in 2000. (Johnson joined a few years ago, when founding member Art Blackburn left the road to act as full-time manager.) Monroe Crossing has since recorded 13 CDs and one concert DVD, and the band averages about 125 shows and festivals a year.
All band members have Minnesota roots, even the member who came the farthest to play in the band. Fuglie grew up in Nigeria -- by way of Kenya and Thailand.
"But her parents were from here," said Johnson. "And her brothers were also musicians, so she grew up in a musical family, and when she got back here, she got fiddling and worked her way into the music community."
Community is a huge part of the appeal of this music, said Johnson.
"The bass player, Mark, and I are former rock 'n' rollers," said Johnson. "I always appreciated bluegrass, but I really got into it when I started going to festivals. You can walk up to anyone and all of a sudden, you are making music together.
"So many talented people, just enjoying making music on the spot -- I found that so much different than the rock scene. There, you'd go to a party, and no one would be playing music. But that right there is the core of the bluegrass scene."
Sense of belonging
Bluegrass and old-time music is not just a big deal in Minnesota and Utah. Al over the world, that genre has gotten as hot as a Flatt and Scruggs breakdown.
And many of the young players are as good, or better, than ever. How is it that a five-string without a plug has grabbed the ear of such tech-savvy youth?
"I think the appeal is the authenticity," said Johnson. "With just your fingers and your voice, you can make all this music. You don't need all the expensive trappings."
Johnson thinks that is the core of it, and that the popularity of the music will remain.
"It is not a fad, because it really gives something back," he said. "Young people are drawn to that sense of belonging. This is something where they can participate. Sure, you can go to a show and have people entertain you, but here, at these festivals, you can also go back to the campfire and play with people. You have workshops where you are sitting next to some of the top-notch players and see how humble they are."
Johnson remembers his first bluegrass fest, and meeting the legendary banjoist Eddie Adcock.
"My friend was there with a guitar and the next thing I knew, he (Adcock) was showing us things on it. Impromptu lesson from one of the masters, without asking for it! I've been able to pay the favor back to other musicians, too. I love doing it, too.
"The authenticity breeds loyal fans, ones that live and breathe it. It is not just entertainment to them. There is a real culture."
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