Bluegrass and Country: What’s Happening?
Bluegrass emerged out of a bubbling world of country music that was changing from a simply regional music in the 1920s into what became known as Country & Western and was sold to the world as appealing to a strong, but not clearly defined, regional audience in the South and Southwest. Largely rural and white, it was an audience to be developed first to create demand for record players and then to purchase whatever small, mostly local radio stations wished to sell. With large national radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry on the powerful WSM in Nashville and Louisiana Hayride on KWKH, another 50,000 kilowatt station, in Shreveport, LA, the country sound went national. Later, as the audience widened, it also began to split into subgenres. At present, Sirius/XM radio lists eight country categories, including bluegrass. Twenty-four channels are devoted to various forms of rock music. At some point the barriers between genres and subgenres stretch to a point of thinness where they dissolve. I think, to a large extent, alarming to many bluegrass purists, that thin membrane is beginning to burst.
It must be emphasized that bluegrass is NOT the minor leagues of country music. There are plenty of major and minor, first-rate and mediocre bands, performers, and events to provide that distinction within each genre without suggesting one to be superior to the other. However, there do seem to be several fairly widely accepted differences between the genres. The banjo is almost ubiquitous in bluegrass bands, but these days nearly nonexistent in country music. On the other hand, country music uses the extremely difficult to play pedal steel guitar, while bluegrass relies, sometimes, on the Dobro for a similar sound. There’s wide agreement that there “gotta be a fiddle in the band,” as the song goes. Electric instruments are largely absent from bluegrass music, except for the bass, while most country instruments are electrified. Bluegrass largely, although not completely in live performance and almost never in recording, abjures percussion instruments, holding that each acoustic instrument in a bluegrass band serves a percussive as well as melodic role. Here is Porter Wagoner singing his original country song, “Highway Headed South in Dixie,” and Maryy Raybon doing the same song as a bluegrass song.
Many fine musicians came out of bluegrass and old-time music and found popularity in the larger and more financially rewarding world of country music, now often almost indistinguishable from mainstream pop. As bluegrass began to develop, led by Bill Monroe, but always with regional differences emerging, it was referred to as country music on steroids, characterized by its high-speed intensity, musical virtuosity, and ability to include and adapt a range of musical influences. Bluegrass has been treated as folk music, but Bill Monroe considered himself to be a country artist, as did Flatt & Scruggs, the Louvin Brothers, the McReynoldses and others. Vince Gill grew up in bluegrass, as did Ricky Skaggs, and each made his mark there. Each also has had a successful and lucrative career in country music. And each, in his own way, has returned to and stayed loyal to bluegrass music. Others have, too, like Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson.
Another element that has found its way into this conversation is the conviction among many country artists that country isn’t country any more, that “real” country only exists in the memories of those old enough to remember Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Porter Wagoner, and others. This position is best argued in Larry Cordle’s great song, “Murder on Music Row,” and is carried forward by other country traditionalists. However, as nearly as I can tell, “real” country is a radio genre developed to identify a certain kind of country music not infected too heavily by the evil rock and roll, although it remains a flexible, movable target for FM stations programming it.
I think I detect a narrowing of the barriers. Increasingly, at many of the festivals we attend, a bluegrass performer says something like, “Who’d like to hear a George Jones song?” Or you could substitute any of dozens of other country singers. The Malpass Brothers are a very popular band at bluegrass festivals these days. Their program consists almost entirely of traditional country covers from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash. They look and sing like the country musicians of the ’60s and ’70s, providing a refreshing change of pace for the typical bluegrass audience. Call them a tribute band, a cover band, impression or imitation, they’re good at what they do, and people enjoy their work. Here they sing Ernest Tubbs’ “I’m Walking the Floor Over You.”
Meanwhile, a group of country artists, many of them continuing to sing forms of country music no longer receiving widespread airplay on FM country radio, have nonetheless found willing audiences ready to enjoy their music. Artists like Gene Watson, Daryle Singletary, Eddy Raven, and Jimmy Fortune have all successfully been welcomed into primarily bluegrass events and collaborated with bluegrass bands. Rhonda Vincent has been instrumental in helping to encourage this crossover. Discussion will continue as to whether such cross-pollination is a good idea: only time will tell.