Bluegrass: The Missing Years
In theory, musical tradition would seem to be a pretty straightforward proposition: A style is handed down from one generation to the next as young musicians serve apprenticeships, learn the history and characteristics of a style, and then go on to make their own contributions within the framework they’ve mastered. That process — again, in theory — is what lies behind the inevitable “yes” answer to the question, “Will the circle be unbroken?”
It turns out, though, that more complicated forces are at work, even in the world of bluegrass, where tradition occupies a role reserved in the larger culture for apple pie, motherhood and the flag. Despite the best of intentions and a widespread (and often belligerent) commitment to the idea that tradition is the music’s lifeblood, a confluence of factors has nourished a distorted, ahistorical view of bluegrass tradition that threatens to upset the delicate but indispensable balance of old and new that has kept the genre vital.
The most easily seen threat comes from the conservatism seemingly embedded in the music’s bones. Writing of “bluegrass believers” in his seminal Bluegrass: A History, Neil V. Rosenberg noted that “their loyalty is not to the musicians but to a musical concept, an ideal against which they measure every bluegrass performance.” This ideal is, of course, embodied by a set of recordings which number in the low hundreds — a canon so small that it makes the classical repertoire look vast by comparison.
Yet if bluegrass inherently teeters on the edge of fatal self-limitation by virtue of the condition Rosenberg describes, what may push it over the edge is something less obvious (and, one hopes, more easily fixed). Simply put, it is this: Those charged with the responsibility for presenting the music to the public and educating new fans in its history have largely ignored the music made between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s.
Though its disappearance seems largely unintentional, the effect has nonetheless been pernicious. By breaking the circle — by obscuring the transformative effect on the tradition of key recordings and performances by artists such as the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Marshall Family, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, J. D. Crowe & the New South, the Sally Mountain Show, the Bluegrass Album Band, the Lost & Found, Hot Rize, Larry Sparks, the Osborne Brothers, Boone Creek, Keith Whitley and many more — it has made the necessarily troubled relationship between past and present in bluegrass even more difficult.
Talk to the musicians, and the connection quickly becomes clearer. Many of these groups employed younger musicians in the apprenticeships that are among bluegrass’ most distinctive traditional characteristics, leaving an enduring mark on attitudes, if not necessarily on the style, of individual artists. Yet even among those who can knowledgeably trace the stylistic development of first-generation sidemen, the ability to do the same with today’s musicians is a rare thing.
Instead, when the music of that era is recalled, the focus is more likely to be on what ultimately turned out to be essentially a sidetrack — that is, New Grass Revival and the approach to which it lent a name. That’s not surprising, given its popularity in the marketplace; nor does it mean that newgrass was a dead end in any larger musical sense, for it had (and, in its much reduced contemporary state, continues to have) considerable value on its own terms.
But in the end, the bluegrass mainstream largely rejected the newgrass approach — and yet it did so without abandoning innovation and enhancement of tradition altogether. Rather, the reigning acts of the late 1970s and 1980s took a more subdued, yet no less productive approach, rearranging classics to reflect new influences and creating fresh material that nudged the boundaries of the style into a new shape rather than breaking through them. The result was a body of work that took the metaphorical circle through a new turn, and it is precisely that process which has been obscured.
It’s easy to see where the problem lies, at least in some respects. Bluegrass radio, for instance, regularly shorts airtime for the era’s recordings, because many DJs clearly see their priorities as airing new or recent material from artists trying to make a go of it, while also educating new converts in the earliest canonical works and (sometimes the same thing) pleasing longtime listeners with old favorites. That’s hard to argue with, and the same is true when translated to other outlets of the industry, such as publications and record labels. There are plenty of reasons for this overlooked era’s music not to get much of a hearing.
Still, there’s a price to be paid, and it can be found in a growing disjuncture between artists and core audiences. The new generation of Rosenberg’s “bluegrass believers” isn’t hearing what shaped the new generation of musicians’ concepts and musical ideals — at least, not a critical piece of it — and so the latter’s work is matched not against the tradition as they received it, but against an incomplete, obsolete version of it. Because even if a musical tradition isn’t subtractive, sloughing off its oldest history as the new comes along, a tradition born in the age of recordings is necessarily additive.
Or so it should be in theory; as the bluegrass instance suggests, it ain’t necessarily so. To the extent that the prospective faithful need to be catechized, the preachers of this kind of roots music — and perhaps, it may not be too much suggest, other kinds as well — will be doing their best job when they keep in mind the need to lead converts through each and every step of The Way.