Bluegrass Ambassadors: The McLain Family Band in Appalachia and the World

West Virginia Univ. Nov. 2020. 228p. ISBN 9781949199680. pap. $26.99. MUSIC
Although the McLain Family Band is hardly a household name, the group’s innovative mixing of blues, pop, folk, and even classical music with bluegrass captivated audiences and record buyers from its founding in 1968 through 1989, with a 50-year reunion in 2018. Jenkins (university librarian, Franklin Pierce Univ., NH; Teaching the Beatles) lovingly traces the McLains’ path, from their origins in the hills of Kentucky, where they confronted adversity while honing their talents at dances and festivals, to worldwide acclaim, as they appeared on the Today Show and at Carnegie Hall. Along the way, he offers an in-depth analysis of each album’s songs, both vocal and instrumental, illustrating how the McLains served as cultural ambassadors for the United States in more than 60 countries, and how they remain focused on educating young musicians. Excerpts from diaries and quotes from band members and associates, a helpful family tree and chronology, and copious photos add to the work’s appeal.
VERDICT Jenkins brings renewed focus to an important and influential, if possibly overlooked group from the heyday of bluegrass performance. One might wish for a more dispassionate gaze than his almost universal approbation of their musical contributions, but this is a small quibble in an excellent effort brimming with infectious joy, a signature of the McLain Family Band.
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