Bluegrass and Country: Why Choose?
In the beginning, it was all country. The truth and the myth came together on the front porches and parlors as well as at the small village churches, stores with cracker barrels, corner bars, and honky-tonks … all the places where people gathered to make music. Country’s breakthrough moment happened when Ralph Peer sent out invitations for musicians to come to Bristol, TN/VA (the state line between Virginia and Tennessee runs down the center of Bristol).
Until 1927, musicians had been required to travel to New York to record their songs, a trip that was both costly and threatening to them. Then, taking the advice of Earnest “Pop” Stoneman from Galax, VA, Peer advertised in local newspapers that he would be holding open recording sessions in a studio he had set up in Bristol. Eventually, 19 musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, recorded a total of 76 songs there. Johnny Cash called the Bristol Sessions between July 27 and August 5, 1927, “The single most important moment in country music history.”
Many of the songs recorded then and there are still part of the standard repertoire of country and bluegrass singers. The Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” Jimmie Rodgers “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” J.P. Nestor’s “Train on the Island,” and more. The music was what we would today call old-time, which many have dismissed as hillbilly music; but the world had been introduced to high-quality, recorded music from the Appalachian highlands, an area not easily accessible in the third decade of the 20th century.
The music of the Carter Family became the foundation of country music and Jimmie Rodgers a national star.
Several technological and economic factors led to the further spread of this newly discovered music. During the 1920s and ’30s, small, low-power radio stations burgeoned throughout the South. Performers traveled from town to town to perform live on local radio stations. Once commercial radio became the preferred model of broadcasting, those stations were always in need of live performers in their quest to attract listeners and help connect the advertisements. These artists performed for a pittance, but were able to advertise local performances to be held in the area in schools, churches, and tents. Radio ads proved to be an attractive alternative to posters nailed to walls and trees. Times were hard during the Great Depression, but people clustered around the radio to listen to “their” music, often powered by the battery of the old Model A Ford the family might have owned.
The allure of Northern cities, where there were jobs, drew people out of the mountains and away from the farms, toward the Northeast and Midwestern industrial cities. As economic conditions began to improve in the ’30s, and then with the advent of World War II, what has become known as the Southern Diaspora occurred as poor white farmers and African-Americans seeking to escape the social conditions in the South moved in increasing numbers to the steel mills in Indiana and Pennsylvania, the auto manufacturers in Detroit, and the mills and – later – the defense industries in New England. They brought their music with them.
Among these Southern migrants were three brothers from Rosine, KY, named Charlie, Birch, and Bill Monroe. They came to work in an oil refinery in Hammond, IN, and they brought their instruments. They worked, and they played at barn dances for people hungry for the music they had left behind them.
Bill Monroe, who was always seeking a distinctive sound to set his music apart, developed a hard-driving, fast sound based on a few acoustic instruments, particularly the mandolin, which he played. He attracted some success and became a regular on the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1939. Then, in 1946, lightning hit when Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt debuted with Monroe’s band, adding forever the three-finger rolling banjo style made popular by Scruggs. Because Monroe’s band was called The Blue Grass Boys, this variant of country music became known as Bluegrass, but its founder and the others considered themselves to be country musicians until the name caught on and identified Monroe by his music.
Monroe’s music was seen as innovative, even radical at the time, and Monroe himself ceaselessly sought to improve and adapt his music to the trends of the time. He was able to make adjustments to become an elder statesman in folk music and rock and roll as they emerged, so much so that he’s a member of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
Now, let’s jump forward to the more-or-less now.
A few years ago Larry Cordle proclaimed that:
Someone killed country music
Cut out its heart and soul
They got away with murder
Down on music row
“’Real’ country music has been killed,” say Cordle and all the others who have recorded his great song. But perhaps it’s not death that’s being mourned, but birth proclaimed.
As Taylor Swift grows up, her music is becoming more widely accepted. Former gangsta rappers are finding new and more mature ways to express themselves. I’m often reminded of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which was greeted by a near riot at the Paris Opera in 1913. Every era has its chair clappers, people who leave the arena when they hear music not fitting their idea of “real.” Time and maturity change our perceptions of new ideas, in whatever form they occur. Young bluegrass musicians will always be influenced by the much larger musical universe available, not just here in the U.S., but worldwide, as communication continues to grow.
I’m amazed at the beauty of the music revealed in the early recordings and the huge chasm that has developed between country and bluegrass music. The gulf that divides the music we listen to, appreciate, and enjoy weakens our ability to see relationships, find similarities and appreciate interpretations. We lose our sense of nuance to the power of labels.
Of course much of the material is derivative, clichéd, trivial, unformed, juvenile, and worse. Yet there is something there. Something that will emerge, or continue to change form and begin to attract our attention. And we’ll fail to recognize it, merely because we don’t listen. But, as Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”