Bluegrass: Tweets, Tradition, and Tangents
Earlier this week, I joined an online conversation about how to grow and sustain an audience for bluegrass music. Specifically, the conversation was about the use (or lack thereof) of social media in the bluegrass community. Through the twitter feed of Jon Goldmann I was directed to a post on his blog, The Session Spot, lamenting the dearth of digital outreach in the bluegrass community with respect to facebook, twitter, blogging, and the like. Goldmann’s piece was in response to another blogger, Ted Lehmann, who wrote a long essay advocating more social networking by bands, fans, and others within the bluegrass world. The two posts sparked a healthy discussion about the growth of the genre, and all seemed to agree that bluegrass musicians needed to take greater advantage of digital marketing and advocacy. I agree for the most part, but I think there’s a much larger issue at hand. Too often I feel there is a “purity code” regarding what can or cannot be defined as bluegrass music. I sometimes feel like many in the bluegrass community have a preservationist’s attitude toward the music, which I think is a much larger hurdle towards growing their fan base than any digital deficiencies.
Don’t get me wrong… I get it. In many ways it’s the very fact that bluegrass is a traditional art form which honors its history that appeals to many fans. However, there is a difference between having reverence for tradition and casting those traditions in amber, preserved in unyielding, static form for the ages. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy dose of musicians playing a traditional form of any music. When that traditional form becomes the sole defining characteristic, however, I think a music stops growing almost by definition. Imagine if rock and roll never progressed past Chuck Berry, jazz never moved forward from Jelly Roll Morton, or hip-hop never altered from the Sugar Hill Gang. Does anyone argue that the Rolling Stones aren’t a “real” rock and roll band or that Miles Davis wasn’t a “true” jazz musician? Of course not; these are/were quintessential practitioners of their genres even though their defining sounds were a dramatic departure from the music’s origins. The same does not apply to bluegrass. If an artist strays too far from the original Bill Monroe template in style, instrumentation, vocal delivery, etc., they are not considered bluegrass artists by many in the community. One might describe them as influenced by the genre, but many are quick to draw a box around the music with only staunch traditionalists deserving the title of “bluegrass musician.” Such a narrow definition of an entire genre of music is a recipe for eventual cultural irrelevance if you ask me. At the bare minimum, such stringent codes of “purity” present a huge stumbling block towards a music’s growth.
Even in the 70’s and 80’s as artists like Sam Bush, John Hartford, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas began to take the music in new directions, the term “newgrass” was employed. I don’t think this was necessarily just a term to distinguish their music from that of their elders. I think it was also a way of saying “these guys might be playing bluegrass instruments, but this isn’t the real thing.”
Of course, the creativity and ingenuity of artists will always prevail, and there are a wealth of musicians fusing bluegrass traditions with other genres in sublime ways today just like the aforementioned “newgrass” musicians did decades ago (and continue to do today.) Bands that spring to mind are Crooked Still, the Punch Brothers, Trampled By Turtles, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Sarah Jarosz, Andy Statman, Danny Barnes, and Matt Flinner to name but a few. I doubt these artists care how one wants to classify their music (and likely find labels annoying more than anything), but it is bluegrass organizations and advocates who lose out if they don’t welcome innovative, creative artists into the fold with open arms. Good musicians will always find an audience, but rigid cultural gatekeepers will not always find new members for their organizations, subscribers to their magazines, devotees to their record labels, or attendees for their festivals. That said, festival organizers seem to do a decent job of having an inclusive spirit, but I wonder if organizations devoted to promoting the genre are as enthusiastic about those artists pushing boundaries and incorporating other influences. I know from spending time on online forums and websites that many fans and musicians persist with that “purity test” in deciding who is or isn’t worthy of the label. This is a shame, because everybody loses if bluegrass doesn’t adopt a big tent philosophy.
Traditional bluegrass acts might have a hard time being exposed to new audiences if they’re not willing to tour and cross-promote with less traditional acts. Perhaps the best example of a traditional artist who understands that taking chances is a wise move from both a creative and market standpoint is Del McCoury. I personally have a number of friends who probably never owned a bluegrass album before McCoury’s 1999 collaboration with Steve Earle, The Mountain. I am certain this was a gateway album for many fans who went on to learn more about the genre and become fans of other bands. Continuing in that spirit, McCoury is currently working on a collaboration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (probably the album I’m currently most anticipating.) Now, no one would say Del isn’t a “real” bluegrass artist; he’s even got a Bluegrass Boy pedigree from Mr. Monroe himself. However, I wonder why more traditional artists aren’t looking for collaborative opportunities with unexpected artists or, at least, creative touring partnerships with diverse artists. The Del/Preservation Hall collaboration also points to another awkward issue. There are few American musical genres so racially segregated as bluegrass. That’s just a simple fact, but it doesn’t have to be so.
With the exception of some Taj Mahal collaborations with Doc Watson there hasn’t been much cross-pollination between traditional bluegrass musicians and musicians of color, at least with respect to collaborative recordings and concerts. Sure, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have gained much deserved popularity for their string band music, but, 1) they are a lonely anomaly of sorts, and 2) they aren’t bluegrass musicians even by my own wishes for an expansive definition of the genre (although they have gotten a great deal of press and praise from the bluegrass community, which is heartening.) Another interesting collaboration is Gangstagrass, a fusion of Brooklyn-based rappers rhyming atop beautifully produced samples and loops of bluegrass and roots music. I hope these guys are getting some festival invitations if for no other reason than to shake things up a little bit. There are other methods to enliven the community as well. If I were the head of any bluegrass association, my first order of business would be developing strategies for cultural diversity within both the bluegrass audience and the playing community. I would have a symposium at every conference figuring out how to welcome minorities and others into the fold. I think a great place to start would be outreach programs within minority schools. Perhaps these conversations are happening at conferences or similar programs exist. If so, I’d love to hear about them from any readers out there.
Let me return to my larger point about the narrow definition of bluegrass in closing. I mentioned above that this whole conversation began with posts exchanged between bloggers Jon Goldmann (The Session Spot) and Ted Lehmann (Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms.) Within that conversation, I think Ted Lehmann hit the nail on the head regarding ideas of exclusivity about what is or isn’t bluegrass. He put it like this:
“The specter of Bill Monroe both spreads and closes the borders of the bluegrass world. Since a specific date in 1946 can be shown as the beginning of bluegrass music and Monroe has only been dead a few years, his shadow is large and powerful. Many players still active remember him and revere his contributions, wishing to keep the music true to his vision and often forgetting he was a true revolutionary who took the music of his time and melded it with his background to create a new genre. Many are happy to continue to sing and play the standards and eager to avoid change of any kind.”
Given Monroe’s strong, prickly personality and the highly possessive attitude he had towards “his” music, I’d say Lehmann’s observation was pretty astute. Monroe often said that his creation of the genre stemmed as much from what he kept out of the music as it did from what he kept in. Well, that may be so, but bluegrass has to move forward and have a life of its own, just as a son or daughter can’t live a healthy life if their only goal is to succumb to their parents’ wishes. Monroe is gone, and I think the best way to respect his legacy is to emulate the ethos of his restless musical spirit rather than adhere to any rigid dogma.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.
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