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Find the One is the latest album by the alt-bluegrass act The Coal Porters, led by Sid Griffin (far left). (Courtesy of the artist)

The Coal Porters: Pulling Bluegrass Up By The Roots

by NPR Staff
Sep 16, 2012 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Sid Griffin is an "alt" kind of guy: In the 1980s, he got in on the ground floor of the alt-country music scene in Los Angeles with his band the Long Ryders.

Griffin is an eighth-generation Kentuckian who now lives in England. In addition to playing the mandolin, harmonica and autoharp, Griffin writes documentary radio scripts for the BBC and has authored several books, including a couple about Bob Dylan. He and his band the Coal Porters have just released their fifth album, Find the One. Here, he speaks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the new record and adding an "alt" to bluegrass music.


Interview Highlights

On what exactly he means by 'alt-bluegrass'

"I love bluegrass in it's purest, most distinct form. The problem is, particularly with young people or folks that are into rock 'n' roll, they think there's going to be a number of songs about "dear old mother" and "the old village bridge." And we don't sing that kind of music. The one thing that's in old bluegrass that we've carried on with is, of course, death, which is just a universal. But a lot of the bluegrass themes, we've had to jettison."

On covering The Rolling Stones' 'Paint It Black'

"It's lovely because it allows people that are new to the Coal Porters show to grasp something — something they've heard before if they come out of rock 'n' roll or pop music. I must say, at the end, even if they've not had a beer and certainly if they have had a beer, everyone likes going, 'Na na na na na na na.' The audience all sings along like Pete Seeger at some folk concert."

On working with Richard Thompson in the song 'Hush U Babe'

"I thought, 'Who could we have playing this record?' If there's ever a human being whose musicianship is not just stellar, but broke down barriers and crossed musical borders and brought people together, it has to be Richard Thompson. It was easy to get Richard on the record. I should say it was hard and 'his people met my people' — but no people met any people. We just made one phone call and he was in."

On the rewards of reaching beyond the band's target crowd

"There's no question, we go over a little better when there's an element of a nontraditional audience there. We just played a traditional bluegrass festival, and I could tell they thought we were sort of a curiosity. I particularly like it when The Coal Porters play an indie-rock festival and they think, 'Who are these guys?' And at the end of a 40-, 45-minute set, at some big festival stage, we've got them dancing in the aisles."

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