Authenticity, Experience, and “Real” Bluegrass
As we head into IBMA week in Raleigh, I’m thinking about where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.
My guide for the past few days has been a wonderful book recommended in a column a few weeks ago by Easy Ed (In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff). It’s a wonderfully written visit into the lives and careers of a number of country and bluegrass pioneers. Published in 1998, the book covers many of those we’ve lost in the nearly 20 years since it was published. The richness of Dawidoff’s writing, his obvious love for the men and women he meets, and his descriptive power have been challenging me to think about where bluegrass has come from and where it’s going.
IBMA’s World of Bluegrass — the signature awards banquets and showcase performances — always challenge those who love and follow bluegrass to think.
I write this on Monday morning, after a visit a couple of weeks ago to the Carter Fold — the historic home of the Carter family, near Bristol, Virginia, where Ralph Peer first recorded country music in 1927 and where we heard the Boxcars play and sing while cloggers danced on the cement dance floor. And it occurs to me that bluegrass, for many, carries the whiff of a no-longer-relevant nostalgia for days no longer remembered by the vast majority of music consumers in this country.
Yesterday, we watched a six-year-old holding a mandolin on a stage, mimicking his father, who was playing beside him, while his young uncle drew magic from the fiddle. The boy’s grandfather sat proudly in the audience, watching the tradition get passed down yet again. But the band, Sideline, perhaps the finest neo-traditional band playing today, truly sounds nothing like any band from the first or second generation of bluegrass music. Their sound truly acknowledges tradition, while it also sets a tone, even a standard for today’s bluegrass.
During the week, we’ll see probably half of the 30 official showcase bands — bands selected for their promise, their changes from previous conformations, or the release of new material. I’ll go to the gig fair, where bands have five minutes to present themselves to promoters of festivals, bookers at arts centers, or owners of regional and national attractions who hire bluegrass bands to perform at their venues. (Gig fair is IBMA’s equivalent of speed dating.)
Meanwhile, young musicians will be meeting in the youth area to get to know each other while they pick and learn. Important bands and well-known musicians will stop into this space to jam with the kids. On Saturday, at a large outdoor stage, they’ll present the results of their working together. Meanwhile, a specially designated youth stage will present youth bands all day and into the evening.
All of this contributes to my question about where we’re going. How will the future musicians, playing something they think of and call “bluegrass music” experience the world that traditional bluegrass has glorified in one form or another for the past 70 years?
The Carter family, rural people born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lived and struggled in a rural, isolated world where luxuries were few, education was limited, and today’s technology was unknown. The first external whispers of music aside from what they actually heard sung in the fields, at church, or at get-togethers where a few musicians played for dances, penetrated through the invention of the radio and the record player. Stories are legion about radios powered by car batteries that were brought indoors on Saturday night to capture the Grand Ole Opry on the 50,000 watts of WSM radio broadcast from Nashville, which first broadcast country music in 1925.
Today’s young musicians hear music through earbuds attached to smartphones, connected to a world of music that Jimmie Rodgers, Kitty Wells, or George Jones never could have imagined. Bill Monroe heard his music live, limited by both technology and proximity. But nothing limited his imagination. He created a genre that has spawned an industry. Monroe demanded change and growth — not stasis, not imitation, not sameness.
Traditional bluegrass songs tend to glorify the farm, hard work, and clean living. In bluegrass songs, people who move to the city almost invariably destroy their lives. There’s lots of killing in these songs — almost exclusively of wayward women who betrayed their man — and longing for days gone by. People yearn for the days when life was filled with simple joys of family and home.
Today, only about three percent of the US population lives on farms, and the small family farm hardly exists at all. Corporate farms dominate. Most young people grow up in suburban or urban settings, their world is centered on games played on devices, not playing fields. They don’t date, they “hook up.” I hear songs written by kids today, and most of them sound inauthentic — copies of great standards they’ve heard and seek to emulate. The music, too, adds little to creative expression.
Over a period of more than 50 years, the imagined and lived experiences of performers have changed. Each artists has been affected by previous ones, seen and heard through the accumulated impressions and understandings of their own world.
The Moore Brothers, who we first saw at IBMA’s Fan Fest in Nashville, perhaps eight years ago, cannot possibly do anything other than copy Monroe or the Kingston Trio if they repeat the interpretations of this song, whose beginnings are lost in the mists of time. But these kids are brilliant young musicians discovering themselves through music they’ve heard, interpreted, and invented. Their version of the song is part of the chain, and is deeply influenced by earlier versions. This music may not be to everyone’s taste. It may never last, but it represents what these contemporary, searching kids hear in their heads today.
Who knows what we’ll hear at IBMA during the coming week. One of the headliners during Wide Open Bluegrass, the two-day free StreetFest and ticketed Amphitheater show on Friday and Saturday in downtown Raleigh, which will attact an estimated 180,000 people, is Greensky Bluegrass. Few hardcore bluegrass fans would call Greensky “bluegrass,” but the group plays bluegrass instruments and has a huge following. I’ve never seen them, but have listened to them with a good deal of pleasure. Whether they last and inform future bluegrass music as much as they’ve been informed by the past remains to be seen. But a week of listening to, making, and talking about bluegrass music at all levels will help shape the directions and understandings of many.