Bluegrass Goes to College, But Should It?
Bluegrass is a musical genre that grew out of white working-class America. It embodies the values and concerns of the people who formed many of the strengths of work, family, and faith that have been features of the American experiment. The music has promoted itself as representing these key values. Themes of home and family, rural living, the mill and the factory, love, loss, and revenge have dominated the music since it emerged just after World War II, as people from Appalachia moved from the hills, hollers, and mines to the industrial heartland. But America has changed, and music lovers decry this change as they mourn the loss of real country and authentic bluegrass. The story of this migration is marvelously told by J.D. Vance in his best selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy as his own story moves from eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, to Yale Law School. It is both an inspiring and a cautionary tale that should not be missed. Meanwhile, bluegrass music is going to college, too.
The professionalization and institutionalization of any emerging content area in higher education should be examined against a number of criteria, including advantages to students and the institution in terms of education, scholarship, and marketing. This isn’t the appropriate venue for an in-depth analysis of these issues; such analysis is taking place within the institutions themselves as they struggle to maintain viability in the face of changing needs of society and the effects of emerging technologies. The question I want to address, or at least introduce, here is whether going to college benefits students entering bluegrass programs and how it might affect the music itself. Currently, a number of emerging bluegrass bands featuring or composed of graduates of major institutions are gaining national attention. I’ll highlight some college performances as well as some fully fledged college graduate bands.
Colleges essentially have two basic functions: to inform the past and to prepare workers for the future. On the one hand, they serve to preserve, archive, and curate the knowledge and experience of the past. Through degree programs they prepare interpreters and teachers to pass on knowledge. On the other hand, they prepare practitioners to perform, create, and operate the business, cultural, and educational enterprises of the future.
Here is a sampling of college bluegrass programs, some leaning in the direction of practical application and employment, with others tending more toward developing scholars and researchers. I’ve also provided links to these programs, which will provide further and much more detailed information.
East Tennessee State University (Johnson City, TN) has an extensive program in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music in its Department of Appalachian Studies. A number of active performers (Becky Buller, Josh Goforth, Troy Boone, Aaron Foster) have graduated from this program into the ranks of professional musicians, with more coming.
Berklee College of Music, in Boston, prepares students in all the elements of the musical professions, including its American Roots Music Program. Current graduates making a significant splash include The Lonely Heartstring Band, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle.
Morehead State University in Kentucky offers music studies in liberal arts, education, and commercial contextss across a wide variety of vocational and recreational paths. Its Kentucky Center for Traditional Music focuses on bluegrass and old-time music. The teaching faculty includes a number of noted performers, including Clay Hess.
Bethel University in McKenzie, TN, has chosen quite a different path with its Renaissance Program. Treating vocal, instrumental, theater, and production as a range of experiences crucial to the developing opportunities to “empower our students to uplift, inspire and entertain through ministry and performance opportunities,” the program is integral to the larger goals and aspirations of Bethel. Its bluegrass band helps prepare interested instrumentalists to perform bluegrass in a number of settings. While the Bethel program offers scholarships, it does not, apparently, have degree programs.
Will there be employment opportunities in performance for those studying bluegrass and traditional music in college, or will it be assigned as study used to inform the present and influence the future?
Do the available opportunities represent real choices for students, or are they more effective marketing as colleges seek to recruit adolescents burning with a fever to succeed in music? Does a college degree function to offer more choices or narrow opportunities? Are young people interested in becoming touring musicians better served by going on the road after high school rather than investing huge amounts of capital and/or assuming massive debt for a highly competitive profession with relatively few high earners? Should those wishing to attend college see these music programs as minors or electives more suited for future avocation and semi-professional performance while they pursue majors in other departments more likely to provide skills that open more, and possibly more lucrative, career options? Are the students being fooled into thinking that a degree in bluegrass or traditional music can provide a satisfactory living for most, or even many, of its graduates? These are a few of the questions student musicians planning to major in music performance and production should be asking themselves.