Like it or not, this year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass and Wide Open Bluegrass — the annual convention and super festival of the International Bluegrass Music Association — was dominated by what appears to be the largest generational cohort in bluegrass history. Their presence was pervasive and, for those who covet bluegrass traditionalism, constantly challenging, frightening, encouraging, promising, and mystifying. The music we heard from representatives of the Millennials, the largest population group in our history, demonstrated bluegrass or bluegrass-related performances that ranged from familiar traditional tunes to a bewildering range of sounds and instruments not heretofore prominent on the bluegrass stage or at bluegrass festivals.
From Becky Buller to Sierra Hull, the presence of women on the forefront of bluegrass has gone from a trickle to a torrent.
Buller plays clawhammer banjo in her song “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers,” playing in that old-time way, celebrating moonshine whiskey, which is still a thriving cottage industry in Appalachia. Moonshine is also, meanwhile, glorified and fully legal these days at breweries and tourist attractions like Gatlinburg’s Old Smoky Distillery, where house bands play bluegrass music and customers drink and purchase legal corn liquor. The new moonshine industry is a good analogy for the mind-bending changes taking place in bluegrass: moonshine has become a taxed delicacy. Buller, not new to the bluegrass scene after years on the road with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, is a seasoned trooper who has rapidly come into her own in the past two years. Buller walked away with IBMA awards as Fiddle Player of the Year (the first time a woman has won that honor) and Female Vocalist of the Year.
Meanwhile, 26 year-old Hull, who released her first album at the age of ten and debuted at the Grand Old Opry when she was 16, originally established herself as a virtuoso traditional mandolin player, whose style at first sounded much like that of her mentor Adam Steffey. Now, she creates hauntingly beautiful music more reminiscent of jazz than bluegrass. Hull has been creating a personal legacy of innovation and creativity unmatched by other young musicians in this very traditional form. In addition to co-hosting the Awards show with veteran Dan Tyminski, she became the first woman Mandolin player of the Year, joining the ranks of greats like Steffey and Ronnie McCoury.
Molly Tuttle began in a family band created by her father — a well-known West Coast musician and music teacher, which included her brothers and A.J. Lee, a non-family member. She recently graduated from Berklee College of Music and has emerged as a growing force in bluegrass music, having won this year’s IBMA Momentum Award as one of three instrumentalists recognized. Last week she demonstrated that she’s not only a monster flat-picker, but a fine song stylist and writer. She is also a band leader to be reckoned with. Her fine singing and first-rate band impressed all who heard it. As with many of her contemporaries, Tuttle has emerged quickly and spectacularly. There’s little doubt concerning her staying power.
It’s hard to escape the effect of Berklee College of Music and East Tennessee State University on the presence of Millennials at IBMA. The shift from musicians learning on the front porch and in family bands in rural America to musicians seeking formal musical training in colleges and universities around the country has deeply influenced the progress of bluegrass music. This trend was put onstage widely as programs from Morehead State University, Dennison University, and others were highlighted on a number of venues during the week. The four colleges and universities mentioned here are merely the start of what will soon be a proliferation of efforts, as incoming students demand such opportunities. ETSU, for instance, currently has 37 bands in its program.
Mile Twelve is another promising Boston-based band composed of two Berklee graduates: a classical bass player and a banjo player from New Zealand. Each brings instrumental and vocal skills, as well as a finely tuned sense of where they’ve come from and where they might be headed. The duo is filled with quiet determination and ambition.
Flatt Lonesome, composed of three sibling children of a Baptist preacher from tiny Callahan, Florida — twins Buddy and Charli with their older sister Kelsi — have risen from rural obscurity to bluegrass heights, winning IBMA awards for Vocal Group of the Year, Album of the Year (Runaway Train), and Song of the Year (“You’re the One“). Many bands toil for decades to achieve that status in a genre, while Flatt Lonesome has achieved this in a mere six years. Now their staying power must be tested.
It’s been said that the word “bluegrass” in the band Greensky Bluegrass is deeply ironic, as the band doesn’t sound like bluegrass, despite their bluegrass instruments instruments. Here’s a comment from Greensky Bluegrass’s guitarist Dave Bruzza: “For example, the typical bluegrass thing is the bass is on the one, and then the mandolin is on the offbeat. But, sometimes, we’ll change that up, and have everyone playing on the downbeat. This sounds really basic, but all of a sudden it’s like ‘anti-bluegrass.’ It’s simple things like that that often make us sound unique. And I think it’s worth mentioning that our live shows are much more like a big rock and roll concert than a bluegrass show. We don’t all huddle around a single mic and weave in and out. Our goal is to take these instruments and take them a step further — new frontiers, bigger sounds, wider textures, different grooves.” Thus Greensky — a band that’s well-versed in bluegrass history and musicality — turns tradition on its end, while both honoring and changing its antecedents.
When I was much younger, I seem to remember a generation being defined as approximately a 30-year period. Now, we seem to discus them in terms of ten, 15, or 20-year periods, defining a cohort of American youth coming to maturity and rising into domination of our media, political, and social culture. Millennials (often also referred to as the Echo Generation, as they are the offspring of the Baby Boomer, generation which followed the end of World War II) have been described in the media these days as being approximately 18 to thirty-five years in age, although their age may be extended on either end by a year or two. They are characterized as independent, media savvy, more inclusive and less label-oriented than their parents. Millennials are also civic minded, smart, and tech savvy.
Whatever their definition, Millennials dominated the music and spirit of IBMA 2016. And it’s way too early to predict with any accuracy what effect or influence their take on bluegrass will eventually have. Suffice it to say, they will have an effect and, in many of the ways that the Boomers changed bluegrass from that of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanleys, the Millennials, too, will redefine it. Such is the nature of generational change in general, and the Millennials in particular. Us old folks will just have to watch…and wonder.