It’s Not All about the Music
The stage is often small – an open front shed with room on the stage for five microphones, monitors, and a few lights, almost enough to allow members of the audience to recognize who’s onstage. Members of the band form a line across the stage, each claiming an instrument mic and, if they sing, a vocal mic, too. The lead singer usually takes the center. The bass player, with a mic tucked in behind the strings of the bass near the bridge, stands behind the leader, close enough to set a solid beat for the singer to follow. Once planted there, members of the band hardly move. They may step backwards for a moment or two when they’re not featured, or sometimes, when there’s a solo or duet, a few members leave the stage. The scene doesn’t change much for 45 or 50 minutes of the set, usually enough time for 12 songs with little or no talking between them. This is bluegrass music, and many bluegrass musicians believe “it’s all about the music.”
On many stages, especially at small festivals and in school auditoriums, this scene hasn’t changed much in the two-generation life of the bluegrass genre. However, both the expectations of audiences paying to attend events and the available technology are worlds away from Fincastle Farm in 1965 (the site of the first multi-day bluegrass festival) or even the Grand Ol’ Opry. Music can now be streamed to your high definition large screen television with sound so immediate and precise you can almost feel you’re there. A good sound engineer can command an array of speakers and sound delay technology to assure that everyone at a live concert hears the same thing, and that it’s pretty much a precise reproduction of the sound that would be heard from five acoustic instruments in your living room.
Well, not quite as intimate, but amazingly close. Bands can attach microphones and pickups to their instruments that allow mostly free movement around the stage, thus enlivening the sense that something is happening.
Bluegrass has always been distinguished by the virtuosity of its practitioners. The six core instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, and bass) can be configured in an amazing variety of ways. The musicians wielding these instruments are noted for the beauty, speed, precision, and close interaction of the music they produce. Many play prized, vintage instruments with distinguished provenances reaching back over 100 years, with Loar mandolins as well as pre-war Gibson banjos and Martin guitars leading the way. Originally, many such musicians were developed and nurtured in their rural homes, on porches, and at get-togethers by the cracker barrels in local general stores. Nowadays, they receive expert instruction from world-renowned musicians at specialized college and university programs from Berklee College of Music in Boston to East Tennessee State University in Tennessee and South Plains College in Texas, as well as many other programs. But even in these programs, it’s not “all about the music.”
Recently I’ve been dividing the people who make music professionally into three categories in my mind: musician, performer, and entertainer. This forms a triangle, with the base being musicians. There are a lot of them. These men and women – young and old – still represent the central core of bluegrass. They jam together at festivals, in homes, at monthly meetings of bluegrass associations, or at bars and restaurants where the scene of musicians playing together is an asset. Sometimes these jams coalesce into a band. They may play a retirement center, hospital, or elementary school to get experience and spread the news about bluegrass. At some point these quite important opportunities to practice and improve turn into paying gigs, which turns musicians into performers.
New bands cut their teeth on local gigs. They play for tips at bars and barbecues. J.D. Crowe had a regular gig at a local motel as he developed a great band that became The New South, featuring Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and many others.
Bands develop, grow, create a distinctive sound, and reach outward and upward to greater visibility. The vast majority of such bands remain local or regional. They perform in the opening slots at bluegrass festivals and ahead of headlining acts. Some national bands, ones that travel across the country, never progress beyond being what I’m calling performers. Many of them are able, workmanlike, competent bands and it’s possible to fill three or four days at a festival with these groups for a weekend of affordable, listenable music. They develop loyal fan bases in their home territories, the kind of fans who say, “You should hear X, they’re better than Y who are headliners here this year.” They’re not usually better than the headliners, of course, but some of their members will be recruited to tour with a national band, gaining additional experience on the musical journey. Some will become entertainers, eventually fronting their own bands.
Entertainers represent the cream of the crop. They perform regularly at the head of the bill of major festivals. They are characterized by the standout quality of their music and the thoughtful development of what goes on between the songs. Whether their program is the carefully written, produced, and packaged shows of Dailey & Vincent, the strong production values and glamour of Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the brotherly bickering of the Gibson Brothers, the reunion tour of Hot Rize with Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers – the band that rides in the back of their bus – or the Earls of Leicester, the shows offer a full entertainment experience that grows when an individual or group project personality, humor, likability, and authenticity over a sustained period of time. For these artists, it’s not all about the music.
Lead photo: Earls of Leicester at Merlefest 2015, by Amos Perrine.