RADIO / Out of the blue: Robert Hanks listens to bluegrass and Billy Fury

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The Independent Culture
Just as there are two Nick Rosses (the dull one on television, the interesting one on radio), so there are two Radio 2s: the predominantly anodyne radio station, designed to offend nobody, and the sparky specialist channel of the evenings, designed to appeal to the enthusiast. In High and Lonesome (Radio 2, Thursday), a six-part history of bluegrass, Nick Barraclough made a comparison between the first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry Radio Show of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Eddie Van Halen playing Sunday Night at the London Palladium; and that sounds quite a neat summary of Radio 2's identity problem.

The programme opened with the claim that experiments have shown bluegrass sparks off more activity inside the brain than any other kind of music. Since this was being broadcast in the slot immediately before the Jamesons, you wondered if audiences were expected to take this as an advertisement or a put-down. A little bit of both, perhaps: the first programme showed that bluegrass's jangling, off-key harmonies are stimulating; but then, there is the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard. Stimulation is not always a good thing, and ideally music ought to be able to do other things. One thing High and Lonesome made plain was that there is a limited range of moods available to bluegrass, and lonesome is actually one of them. It's essentially fidgety and good-humoured music, and doesn't really accommodate straight emotion, so when it tries for melancholy, it tends to end up sounding ironic.

You can probably blame this on Bill Monroe, who more or less invented the style and who still dictates the way it is played. Interviewed by Barraclough, he came across, even in his eighties, as a remarkably tough, unsentimental critter. Plenty of musicians had stories about his cussedness and the demands he made on them, sometimes purely musical, but often involving heavy farmwork. You didn't feel tragedy would come naturally to him.

But the importance of bluegrass, as Barraclough told it, lies less in what it can do than what it has done. The country singer Ricky Skaggs said, without a trace of irony, that Monroe has been the most influential individual in popular music this century. The theory is that his vocal harmonising influenced the Louvin Brothers, who in turn influenced the Delmore Brothers, who influenced the Everlys, who influenced the Beatles; and listening to his yowling vocal style, with a touch of the coyote about it, you could see exactly how this might have worked. The programme gave you a sense of showing living history - only rock 'n' roll history but still worth seeing.

You didn't get anything approaching this sensation in The Sound of Fury (Radio 4, Saturday), the first in a series of plays dealing with the early days of rock. The thesis behind Mike Walker's story was that Billy Fury was a creative genius, perhaps the first artist of rock 'n' roll this century produced; but that he was betrayed by money men, particularly Larry Parnes, and forced to sell out to MOR. Even the sense of lurking doom about Fury, forever working in the shadow of death because of his weak heart, couldn't convince you that he was a man of destiny; and lines like 'The rest of your life is waiting for you' and 'You don't do rock 'n' roll, it's inside you or nowhere' didn't help. Still, even if it didn't work as history, it was splendid melodrama, thanks to Andy Jordan's straight-faced direction and excellent central performances by Peter Whitman, playing Parnes as Fagin, and Anton Lesser as Fury, full of a memorable fragility and intensity.