Open Up a Can of Bluegrass……but don’t be fooled by the label (A Telluride Contest Post)
The official label reads Telluride Bluegrass & Country Music Festival. I have come to dislike most of the labels we mere humans try to attach to music. I know they’re necessary, but they almost always seem inadequate. We need labels to communicate, to advertise, to succinctly describe all sorts of things that we see and use everyday, to keep the tomato sauce and cream corn separate, but when it comes to many forms of music, labels are exceedingly useless.
Maybe that’s just my lazy-man’s rationalization for the situation I often find myself in after answering the “what are you listening to lately” question and being met with the uncomprehending doe-eyed “I’ve never heard of them before” response. Like a fool, I inevitably reach for the genre and sub-genre labels or, even worse, the conceptual multi-artist blender. At some point, I know my description fails. My dislike for music labels stems both from their inadequacy and my own inability to apply them well.
I’m preaching to the choir here, but just like lines often blur between country, progressive country, and alternative country (whatever that is), spawning labels like americana, roots rock, y’allternative and alternative country-rock (whatever that is, dude), innovative artists have likewise conspired to confound label-makers on the bluegrass section of the spectrum. Point being, if your idea of bluegrass music came from hearing Flatt and Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies (who was/is/were damn good, btw) or from seeing bluegrass bands play the Grand Old Opry on your grandparents’ TV, there have been some notable developments. Many examples of the continuing evolution of bluegrass will be on display this June in Telluride. These innovations and variations have, of course, given rise to……more labels.
If you go to Telluride expecting to hear nothing but traditional bluegrass, à la Bill Monroe, you’re likely to be disappointed. Traditional bands do play occasionally, but you’re much more likely to hear one of the sub-genres of bluegrass and several acts with no bluegrass at all. Influences blend and sounds evolve. Sometimes purists (whatever they are), have a problem with that. The old joke illustrates the tensions between tradition and innovation- Q: How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Five, one to change the bulb, two to complain that it’s electric and two to ask where they can get one.
Artists as diverse as Peter Rowan, The Lovell Sisters, The Steeldrivers, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Bela Fleck & Toumani Diabate to Conor Oberst, Todd Snider, Elvis Costello and David Byrne are included in this year’s line-up. An innovative blend all in one band, Works Progress Administration’s members gather for their side-project on Sunday during the day. Providing the exclaimation mark late that same evening, one of the more intriguing titles of the festival’s nightgrass shows performs under the name Punch Brothers Play & Sing Radiohead.
Personally, I tend to feel about music the same way I feel about dogs- a good dog is a good dog whether it’s a purebred or a mutt, I’m not particular. The folks at Planet Bluegrass (the ones that put on this shindig) seem to have decided that of all the words on the label for their solstice celebration in Telluride, music and festival are the ones to emphasize, at least if I’m reading their label right. Is that why those two words are so much bigger on their sign over the stage? (look at the picture above again)
Otherwise, the label might read Telluride Bluegrass & Newgrass, Jamgrass & Jazzgrass, Funkgrass & Punkgrass, Gospelgrass & Neo-Traditional plus several other varieties yet to be named and Folk to Country to Alternative Music Festival. Hell, I just might have to print up some T-shirts.
What’s important to note on this can of bluegrass isn’t the label, it’s the ingredients: