Entertainment & Musicianship
I’m tired of hearing people say, “It’s all about the music.” That phrase, meant to excuse bluegrass music for the often static, not to say boring, way in which many performances of bluegrass music present themselves just doesn’t hold water. In order to bring fans to their seats, great bands need to present great shows sparkling with high concept performance values which include great music and entertaining presentation. Without both, people might come to see, but they won’t stay to listen and appreciate or return to keep the seats filled. Musicianship by itself, isn’t even the most important requirement, although it helps, but high quality entertainment for audiences presented with more entertainment choices than they’ve ever had requires much more.
Entertainment means creating more than a highly scripted, carefully rehearsed and choreographed performance. Jokes and schtick aren’t sufficient. Neither is surpassing musical ability. We can all point to bands filled with fine musicians, people who distinguish themselves in sounding really good, yet which never establish their own sound or create a new and distinctive personna, a sound and personna which, after the first five or six notes, an informed listener can say, “That’s what I really like to hear.” Rarely do we hear a new band which kicks off a song that appeals from the first note, but that band, if it continues to choose its material wisely, will attract an audience. As the music business changes and develops in these days of cable television channels appealing to niche audiences and bluegrass bands playing to full houses in performing arts centers while everyone experiences a reduction in the sales of recorded music, the question of how to reach out to new, affluent audiences which can afford live entertainment is always before us.
The bluegrass festival wasn’t there at the beginning nor is it a requirement that it continue to be the most important means of delivering bluegrass to its fans, but festivals still seek to attract large audiences to three and four day multiple band outdoor events even when the weather is bound to be iffy and the main stage performances are subject to the vagaries of sunshine, rain, heat, cold, wind, and whatever else the outdoors will provide. Remember that the early bluegrass musicians performed in auditoriums to which they attracted fans by ceaseless travel and promotion through local performances on radio. There were no festivals before 1965, well into the era which Bill Monroe kicked off in 1945 with a live indoor performance at the Ryman Auditorium heard widely on the radio. We’re now forty-seven years beyond Fincastle and must ask ourselves whether the format created by Carleton Haney remains the best way to disseminate bluegrass music, if it ever was.
It’s not easy to characterize what makes a band entertaining, at least partly because its a matter of personal choice. One thing’s for sure, when multiple bands are involved, not all bands need to be to everyone’s taste. Within the rubric of bluegrass, there are a remarkable number of very good bands serving to entertain people with a variety of tastes and preferences. Perhaps now we can point to several bands which are quite different, musically strong, and deeply satisfying to their large fan bases. The most obvious and, to many, interesting is Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. With the gifted comic, actor, writer, and banjo player Steve Martin at the head, the Steep Canyon Rangers & Steve Martin serves to introduce bluegrass to audiences who’ve never encountered it before or who have preconceptions about the music far removed from what it proves to be when the best bands perform. It almost goes without saying that Steve Martin is a great entertainer who brings in fans and commands high ticket prices and large fees. What’s obvious to those who’ve known the Steeps for years as a stand-alone band is the impovement seen in their musicality from their association with Martin. Together or as a standalone, this is an entertaining show.
Another show catering to a quite different audience is presented by Dailey & Vincent with their combination of old bluegrass standards, country music, as well as bluegrass gospel and southern gospel music. Their core bluegrass sound is enhanced (altered) by the bass voice of Christian Davis, a voice once confined to a capella quartets, but now used widely throughout their performance. The band has upset the balance of traditional bluegrass festivals by insisting on presenting one ninety minute set rather than the traditional two sets, but audiences seem to like the long program, and it’s well suited to the concert halls and performing arts series where they perform more frequently these days. Other groups are also spreading their wings to other venues than just traditional bluegrass markets. Rhonda Vincent & the Rage and the Gibson Brothers are finding success and bringing bluegrass to new audiences. It’s also fairly easy to point to bands of negligible musical ability who can, through sheer showmanship, whether it’s tasteful or not, keep audiences laughing and in their seats.
As the festival season heats up, make no mistake that it is limited by season and geography, so we should welcome this transition to new environs, many in suburban and urban areas where bluegrass has previously been limited to small clubs and folk music outlets. The widening of the venues where bluegrass is available means that newer audiences with different backgrouds and experience will have the opportunity to hear the music. Whether they return to hear it again, to watch it, to purchase CD’s and support it in other ways depends on how well they are entertained. In the end, professional musicians will go in directions that assure they can make a living. It’s also clear that those new audiences are unlikely to share the farm background and rural life ethos of the original bluegrass fans. Most people today have either grown up in suburban or urban settings or moved their by choice.
Entertainment values are just as subjective as muscial ones. One person’s humor is another’s bad taste. Five white guys standing in a row playing their instruments well is sufficiently entertaining for some, while others are in search of more. The honoring of the first and second generations of bluegrass performers will continue as their songs and renditions continue to be played and sung around the campfire. The line between recreational singing along with semi-professional covers of the early work and the truly professional bands will continue to bother some. However, creativity can’t be stopped if something resembling bluegrass is to continue. We can only trust the market and believe that Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) doesn’t apply to music. If the success of the top entertaining bands is any indication, excellence in music combined with good entertainment values will always win out in the end. Look at who fills the seats!