Fred Bartenstein knows Charley Pennell's massive database, Bluegrass Discography, will likely never reach the mainstream.
"It's more of a needle in a haystack than a flashing neon sign in Times Square," explains Bartenstein, a bluegrass musician, scholar, author and broadcaster. Pennell's project, launched in 1996, aspires to list every known bluegrass music recording in existence, from the mid-1930s to the present day. It's not the flashiest mission, but as the music continues to sprawl between physical and digital formats, it is perhaps more crucial than ever in firming up the foundation of what bluegrass is and what it can be.
"One of the big problems I have is that the universe of all these kinds of music is just getting so huge," Pennell explains. "You really can't keep track of all the recordings that people are just personally publishing and selling at their shows or offering from some website."
But he's trying: Pennell, who retired as the principal cataloger for metadata for N.C. State Libraries in May, received a distinguished achievement award for his work from the International Bluegrass Music Association at its first World of Bluegrass conference in Raleigh in 2013. As of last week, as he sorted columns on the desktop computer in his home studio, he had described 24,629 full recordings, altogether comprising 186,276 songs. Every few days, those numbers inch higher.
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Talk to Pennell, and you'll soon find that much of the information in his database is duplicated in his head. A conversation takes the form of search requests. He retrieves the label information, a summary of the band's makeup, variations on the lineup and potential reasons why the personnel changed. He's a storyteller, too, offering the context that makes the music mean something more than sound. Pennell's discography enables such storytelling to interface with the music.
"You can't innovate without a foundation," says Hank Smith, a self-styled bluegrass ambassador who hosts a weekly music series at Raleigh's Tir Na Nog and masterminds Blu-Bop, a Béla Fleck tribute. "The music that came before is important because you're going to want to build off of that."
Like a lot of young bluegrass musicians now, Smith didn't grow up plucking a banjo next to his parents at the church barbecue. He discovered and learned the music through recordings, a process Pennell's discography is meant to goad and potentially guide.
"I heard banjo growing up on Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard and thought it sounded cool, but then you start doing research and you figure out the tradition of things that came before," he says. "I heard Béla Fleck and the Flecktones before I heard Flatt & Scruggs, but I went back and learned the Flatt & Scruggs. I don't consider myself a traditional musician by any means, but I know how to play 'Whiskey Before Breakfast.' You have to know that before you can move into uncharted territory."
Pennell's discography offers a map of that territory, all 24,629 known colonies included.