Coming Soon from IBMA: Bluegrass Nation
This essay is reposted from my blog String Theory Media. The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect official views of the IBMA.
Oh, bluegrass. Shaking head and sighing gently. The music that analyzes itself within an inch of its life. So beautiful. So fraught. So full of paradoxes. I really do love the music and its place in America’s story, in part because of its cultural complexities. And I sincerely adore so many of the people whom I’ve met from the bluegrass world who have made it their life and maybe even their living. Obviously I work a good deal with bluegrass artists and labels, so I’m a stakeholder as much as a journalist on this topic. But I’ve got the whole bluegrass conundrum on my mind more than usual, for a couple of reasons.
First, I spent two and a half very interesting days last week in a board meeting for the International Bluegrass Music Association, the trade association for bluegrass music. I’ve been a director of IBMA for three years, and I’m ostensibly in charge of issues concerning media and marketing. Which leads to the other reason I’m writing this, which is that while I’ve not been a very big help on the media front, I have spent a fair amount of time helping to develop an ambitious marketing idea with and on behalf of IBMA. It’s called Bluegrass Nation, and it is being readied to roll out this summer. It’s time to explain this thing and start a dialog over its shape and scope. It’s quite wide open, and my excitement about it is wrapped up intimately with my optimism about the future of bluegrass music.
This new on-line community represents a new direction for the IBMA at several levels. For one thing, it’s taking on a new role in developing a larger, deeper audience for bluegrass music, whereas before the association has focused on the development of bluegrass professionals almost exclusively. At a time when the music business is reconfiguring itself around affinity groups, communities and tribes, we are attempting to draw bluegrass fans closer to one another and closer to the IBMA. We hope to give them new kinds of content, context, entertainment, news and access to the music and its artists. We will be inviting everyone out there, in American and the world, to “join the Bluegrass Nation” and then to contribute to it however they like. Membership is free, and there will be premiums and incentives for becoming part of the BN community. Candidly, we will be asking BN members to opt in for e-mail blasts and marketing scenarios from our members, with hopes of building the world’s biggest database of bluegrass fans. Fans do not have to opt in to take advantage of Bluegrass Nation’s resources, but we will make it as attractive as we can so that IBMA’s members can reach, in a targeted way, old and new fans around the country.
I like to think of Bluegrass Nation as an on-line, year-round analog of IBMA’s signature event, the annual World Of Bluegrass. There is no substitute for that regular in-person gathering, but we hope Bluegrass Nation will feel a bit like a convention, a trade show, a talent showcase — and an all-around inspiration. It will be a news platform for regional and local associations. It will feature an amalgamation of the best bluegrass music listservs and forums. It will host wiki-based concert calendars and special event bulletin boards. We have envisioned an instrument marketplace, a jobs board, a picking party directory, etc. We’d love to foster mentoring and tutoring sessions, online or offline. We’ll be able to amplify the reach of IBMA’s ongoing webinars. In general, we are trying to build a robust platform on which a wide variety of things, many yet to be invented, will be possible.
But I hope most of all that BluegrassNation.org will be a place that celebrates and supports and unites all of the roots and branches of bluegrass music. Because you see bluegrass, as wonderful as it is, is afflicted with a never-ending anxiety. The conundrum I mentioned before. Every discussion about the music’s present and future (including last week’s meeting) circles back to the same debate: What is bluegrass anyway? And how far out of its stylistic and sonic and historical boundaries should the IBMA reach as it seeks to make common cause with bluegrass-influenced artists and potential bluegrass audiences around the world? Or to put it in the terms we discussed: how big should IBMA’s tent be? With camping such a popular mode of accommodation at bluegrass festivals, one might think everyone would agree that bigger tents are better. And the IBMA board is rather unified in a big-tent posture. But we can also be a bit paralyzed by fears of backlash from hard-core traditionalists who will argue that inclusion of some things will defile the legacy of Bill Monroe etc. At a time when we, like all non-profits in the arts, are watching every last penny, even a smallish group walking away from IBMA and its convention over these esthetic disputes could be quite harmful.
At last week’s meeting, which included not only the regular business of the board but a two day retreat-style conversation with industry leaders and artists, there was much discussion about Mumford & Sons, the improbably popular British folk group, the Avett Brothers, a punk-grass band turned crowd-wowing acoustic rockers, and Yonder Mountain String Band, the wildly popular Colorado jam-grass band. The existential questions hovered: does the success of such bands – bands inspired by bluegrass that don’t exactly play bluegrass – reflect well on or help the state of bluegrass itself? Do they help grow the base of fandom for bluegrass? Well if you’ve ever heard me prattle on about the subject you’ll know that I’m a strong YES to both, and I reject entirely the notion that embracing bluegrass-related music and celebrating its ties to bluegrass harms in any way the core sound and core values of bluegrass music. Indeed it seems obvious to me that the mere fact that bluegrass can and has inspired so many off-shoots is testimony to the deep integrity and power of the original invention. I am happy to say that among the bluegrass leaders assembled to talk big-picture evolution of the IBMA, there was near consensus on behalf of “inclusion” and a big tent vision.
However, if we invited Mumford & Sons to play a song on the Ryman Auditorium stage during the IBMA Awards, there WOULD be a riot worthy of Stravinsky. That’s why we really need to think about creative, non-threatening ways to build bridges and stretch that tent and generally put our money where our metaphors are. Would it not be a good idea to have the Avett Brothers (a band drawing THOUSANDS of young fans) sit for a keynote interview at World of Bluegrass? How about a case study on the career arc of Yonder Mountain with some kind of Skype session with their fans in Colorado. What tactics could work for more traditional bands, and what could we do to feed Yonder’s fans with more background on the roots of bluegrass?
I think the best thing we can do is build Bluegrass Nation and let it be a giant forum for all views and sounds. And maybe we’ll build a goofy alarm button onto a lower corner of the site “PRESS IF BLUEGRASS RULES ARE VIOLATED!”. I’m kidding, but I think BN will be a steam valve for bluegrass music’s internal heat and pressure that currently gets directed at IBMA. The fans and bands themselves will decide who and what is part of Bluegrass Nation. I want to see a thousand flowers bloom. I expect to see news on BN about the Secret Sisters and Apache Relay, about the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Emmitt-Nershi Band, about Holy Ghost Tent Revival and the New Familiars. Even more, I expect to see love for and dispatches from Dailey & Vincent, IIIrd Tyme Out, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury and all the other tone-setting top-tier artists whom everyone knows represent bluegrass with a capital B. We are also talking behind the scenes about making sure that Bluegrass Nation regularly celebrates true-blue legacy artists, from the Stanley Brothers to John Hartford (oh wait, he was a heretic before he was in the Hall of Fame).
Bluegrass truly is remarkable and unique in American life. As a musical vocabulary, it’s so strong and integral that it can’t HELP but inspire variations and evolve along with the nation that birthed it. Its track record is equally strong in passing on its core values and its historic legacy. I see no shortage of solid traditional bluegrass bans out there. If anything, there are so many that we should not be scratching our heads over how hard it is for any one of them to make a full-time living. The newgrass/jamgrass/chambergrass/dancegrass/indiefolkgrass revolution will go on with or without the IBMA. I think it would be very much better for bluegrass music if it was with. Here’s hoping Bluegrass Nation can be the bandwagon.