Some years ago at a bluegrass festival held in a cow pasture in Florida, the band Nothin’ Fancy seemed tired and listless after their first set. We were pretty new to bluegrass, but Irene, my wife of now 52 years, walked up to their merchandise table and said, “You seem pretty tired. I’ll be happy to watch your CDs and T-shirts while you take a rest.” Much to her surprise, Mike Andes, who certainly didn’t know her much if at all, handed her the cash box, told her how much the items sold for, and disappeared for several hours of rest. That little gesture has evolved, for us, into a growing friendship with the band that’s paid dividends beyond what we could ever have imagined. Irene’s surprise at Mike’s willingness to hand over a small metal box with, probably, a hundred or so dollars in it, taught us a lesson about bluegrass that has never changed. Bluegrass performers are real people and really accessible to their audiences.
Bluegrass comes from the rural experience of many Americans. Its roots grew in the mountains of Appalachia, but came to full maturity when tens of thousands of people left their homes to move to industrial areas in the Midwest, the South, and New England to find industrial jobs. There they were able, for the first time, to buy inexpensive factory-made instruments, hear music on the radio, attend Vaudeville performances, and experience music produced by other cultures. Among this group was Bill Monroe, who’d learned to play guitar from Arnold Schultz, a black musician and acquaintance in Kentucky. He drew all these musical influences together into a new sound that was born in 1946 on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. He called his band the Blue Grass Boys.
In the 1960s, bluegrass festivals began to spring up, first in Virginia and then across the nation. At these three- or four-day affairs, bands came to play, camping out in the same pastures as their fans. After the day’s music, people from all parts of the region — and often further away — would gather to jam. Significant portions of the fan base were amateur and semi-professional musicians themselves. The stars of bluegrass — Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, and others — would drift around the campsites, stopping in for a drink or something to eat as well as to join the jam. Many of the friends we’ve made during our sojourn have seminal memories of jamming with the first and second generation greats. Much of the bluegrass audience remains a blue collar community of music lovers and makers who take joy in mixing with the pros.
Changes in the the economics of music have somewhat altered this relationship, but it still persists. There are many festivals each weekend with estimates of the total number of events probably reaching past 1,000 these days, although most are little-known, local events. Even quite small bluegrass festivals can manage to hire one or two well-known bands. In order to make a living, bands must often travel several thousand miles to two or three events during Thursday to Sunday period now considered to be the bluegrass weekend. For instance, the Jenny Brook Festival in Vermont is held on the same weekend as Rudy Fest in Grayson, Kentucky. Each year, at least a couple of bands perform at both festivals, making the 869 mile trip between the two, to achieve this. Nevertheless, at both ends, the bands set up their merch tables to spend time “meeting and greeting” their friends, making new friends, and selling their CD’s. In bluegrass, attendees are turned into fans and fans into friends, one at a time. Bluegrass music is a retail business.
At festivals a large proportion of the audience is camped within a brief walk of the stage. While technology has somewhat changed to dynamic of “the scene,” fans return to their campsites to jam, visit, eat and drink together. Where once their were clusters of tents, now there are large, elaborate motor homes, perhaps eroding the sense of camaraderie once pervading all events. However, many people make sure they have plenty of food and perhaps some extra liquid libations to offer band members who often are invited to visit their friends, rest, relax, and maybe pick a little. Some people generously set up full field kitchens to host bands who regularly stop at their site for a meal and some relaxation. At night, when the main stage shuts down, it’s not unusual to walk into a jam circle to find a couple of the day’s performers jamming, too.
The tour bus has, sadly, helped to change some of this dynamic, just as it has made the lives of touring musicians easier. They trade a more intimate relationship with their fans and friends for the comfort of an air-conditioned respite from a summer day’s heat as they get a rest. There has always been some crossover between Country music and Bluegrass. One of the distinctions is that country stars appearing at bluegrass festivals seem uncomfortable with the mixing that characterizes bluegrass. We well remember a faded country star who spent the entire day between his two sets at a small festival in south Georgia sitting in his idling bus sipping liquid refreshment. By the time he arrived for his second set, he was not only pretty well lubricated, but whatever opportunity he had to build his fan base was lost through his own reluctance to engage his audience on a more intimate level than merely from the stage. One artist’s attempt to reach out to bluegrass was pretty well lost forever.
Nevertheless, the bluegrass ethic of remaining accessible to the audience lives on. Even the most popular and active bands make sure to spend significant time at their merch tables. This year’s bluegrass Grammy winning band, The SteelDrivers, despite now flying from their base in Nashville to most festivals where they perform, are still building their fan base at festivals. Last week they sold out the Ryman Auditorium (The Mother Church of Country Music) in Nashville on Thursday before coming to Ohio to perform on Friday evening. Despite their road weariness, they were at their merch table after their show, staying until the fans stopped coming.
Because even the most successful bluegrass musicians are not touring in multi-vehicle entourages of buses and trucks carrying the band, roadies, light shows, fog machines, and their own stage, there remains an intimacy to bluegrass not found in other forms of popular music. Sadly, when some performers achieve wider popular success, they may be seen by their fans as having “left us” for broader pastures. Perhaps bluegrass would be better served by celebrating its relationships to those artists who have grown in other directions, but I sometimes think our feelings are a little hurt when performers “get above their raisin’” as some folks say. Nevertheless, the relationships we’ve made among fans, the myriad of volunteers who make bluegrass festivals work, and the artists themselves has been crucial to us as we experience the music and its culture. Next week – on to the next festival. It’s summer, and it’s festival season!