Kenny Blackwell

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The mandolinist Kenny Blackwell has had a trill a minute -- that's a mandolin joke -- on the West Coast bluegrass scene since the late '80s. Becoming part of the clique surrounding membership in groups…
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The mandolinist Kenny Blackwell has had a trill a minute -- that's a mandolin joke -- on the West Coast bluegrass scene since the late '80s. Becoming part of the clique surrounding membership in groups such as the Desert Rose Band and the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, Blackwell also gets studio calls for various recording artists working in Los Angeles who might want a progressive bluegrass sound on a track or two. The fact that these types of sessions might not represent the most inspired side of his playing might be evident from the title of a brief Randy Newman track on which Blackwell contributed guitar, none other than "Tartine De Merde" or "sh*t pie." Disc jockeys looking to create an unappetizing program might think of combining the latter track with "Hair Pie, Bake One" by Captain Beefheart.

In the manner of many young mandolinists, Blackwell studied with Jethro Burns, one of the small instrument's most brilliant exponents and a dandy instructor to boot. After relocating to California, Blackwell began collaborating with the strongly progressive fiddler Richard Greene in his bands such as the Grass Is Greener in the early '90s. As he carefully inserted the neck of his tiny instrument in the door of studio, television, and film recording sessions, Blackwell became a founding member of the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, a legendary California bluegrass outfit that involved several ex-members of Chris Hillman's Desert Rose Band. The Laurel Canyon Ramblers recorded off and on during the '90s, reuniting in 1998 to announce to the record-buying public that the group was Back on the Street Again, most likely the winding, often backed-up Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

The mandolinist is assuredly a participant in the often ludicrous attempts to vastly expand the bluegrass repertoire. As in the case of some musical styles as bebop, it is possible to change almost any song into bluegrass simply by giving it the proper rhythm and, in most cases, playing it faster than normal. Blackwell has contributed to bluegrass treatments of songs by rock bands such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Dave Matthews Band. Blackwell has played regularly in a trio featuring guitarist Dorian Michael and bassist Piper Heisig.