On a list of the world's most dubious and difficult tasks not involving risk to life and limb, you might be hard pressed to find many more daunting than this:
Deliver a paper of scholarly research to a convention of Bluegrass musicians, promoters and fans.
Bluegrass people like to cultivate a folksy, down-home image. They enjoy describing what they do as "pickin' and grinnin.' " It would be hard to conceive of an audience less geared to the frownin' and expoundin' one expects from an academic lecturer.
If anyone can bridge that gap, it's Dan Crary. For the past 17 years, Crary has been a speech communications professor at Cal State Fullerton, lecturing on the theory, ethics and philosophy of human expression. During that time, he has also emerged as one of the most esteemed guitar players in bluegrass and traditional folk circles.
Crary's policy has been to keep his two vocations separate, fitting his touring and recording schedule into the gaps in the academic calendar.
But lately, Crary said in a recent interview, he has been working on a project that will "try to unite the two sides of my life." It's a scholarly study of bluegrass as a social phenomenon, in which the professor will explore just what it is about the music and its fans that has allowed a generally uncommercial enterprise to form a lasting community of listeners. Crary said he will present his research in September at the International Bluegrass Music Assn. convention in Owensboro, Ky.
Given the goodwill commanded by Crary the guitarist, Crary the academic figures to receive a respectful hearing.
Crary, 51, made his first impact on bluegrass more than 20 years ago when he was dividing his time between music and theological studies at a college in Kentucky. During that late-'60s stint with the band Bluegrass Alliance, Crary was credited with bringing the guitar back to prominence as a solo instrument in bluegrass at a time when its importance had lapsed.
Since arriving in Fullerton in 1974, Crary has followed his parallel track. On the musical side, he has been a member of the '70s country-rock band Sundance, played bluegrass in the trio of Berline, Crary and Hickman (now expanded to a quintet and renamed California), and carried on a solo performing and recording career.
He has been an eclectic player, incorporating elements of Celtic and flamenco music along with bluegrass and other American folk styles. His solo recordings have brought together some all-star assemblages: On his 1989 album, "Take a Step Over," Crary's backing crew included Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and John Cowan of New Grass Revival; Herb Pederson of the Desert Rose Band, and Jerry Scheff, bass player to the Elvises (Presley and Costello).
Crary's fifth solo album is the just-released "Thunderation," in which he applies some New Age production atmospherics to traditional guitar styles.
In concert, Crary has a delightful way of uniting the two strands of his life. The skills of a practiced teacher come out in his informed but folksy, anecdote-spiked chats on how various traditional guitar forms evolved. Then he will show what he was talking about with daring, supremely accomplished playing that can leave an audience agape. Crary's show in Anaheim this weekend is part a Living Tradition monthly folk music series, and there are few musicians more qualified to show how the guitar fits into that tradition.
Who: Dan Crary.
When: Saturday, June 8, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim.
Whereabouts: Riverside (91) Freeway to Harbor Boulevard, then go south. Or Santa Ana (5) Freeway to Harbor Boulevard, then go north.
Wherewithal: $8; free for children under 12 accompanied by an adult.
Where to call: (714) 638-1466 or (213) 834-4554.