Side Musicians: The Musical Glue Making Bluegrass Work
Some years ago, a leader of a national band hired a new lead singer, whose voice, energy, and personality soon helped to raise the band’s profile. After a while, the band was developing a larger audience while booking better and more dates. Soon the band leader fired the singer and was heard muttering, “I’m tired of being a sideman in my own band.” But this picture is unusual. Side musicians get a pretty good deal in bluegrass, at least partly because their contributions to the ensemble nature of bluegrass are recognized and highly valued by band leaders and fans.
Bluegrass fans are acutely aware of who’s playing in what band and often comment on the how the addition of a certain side musician has contributed to the band’s sound. Historians date classic bands by who, for instance, was the fiddler in Flatt & Scruggs on a given recording. They also follow the travels of certain side musicians they enjoy seeing and hearing. During the off season, traditionally November through February (although the season is reaching toward year round), bluegrass fans avidly follow the news about which side musicians have moved from one band to another. Barry Crabtree has had a successful career of over 20 years as a crucial sideman with a number of bands. He played banjo with Hall of Famer Larry Sparks for nine years. Here he is with Sparks in 1986, and with the Dave Adkins Band at Sertoma Youth Ranch in Florida just a few months ago.
Band leaders may have their name on the band without being the spokesperson or standing in the center. It takes more than singing and picking to be a leader. The number of people who have been star singers or pickers with major bands and major reputations who haven’t the leadership skills or management ability to lead a band is legion. These people sometimes try to go out on their own, but often return to the more comfortable and less risky role of side musician. On the other hand, Junior Sisk offers a good example of a musician who has moved from being a well-loved and recognized side musician in a number of bands to leadership in his own well-regarded band. Below are two clips, one from his days with Blueridge as featured vocalist, and another, more than a decade later, as both frontman and featured vocalist in his own band, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice. For Sisk, by his own account, the transition was difficult, but the result has been larger recognition and greater success.
Many leaders emerge from the role of side musician, often tracing their current leadership back to years spent toiling in the vineyards of support roles. Doyle Lawson, leader of the long popular and very fine band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, formed his band after years of working for Jimmy Martin, The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe & the New South, and others. His own tightly knit band has become known as the “Doyle Lawson School of Bluegrass” for the number of fine musicians who have left to form successful bands of their own. The formation of Dailey & Vincent represents an example, with Jamie Dailey having spent years with Lawson as lead singer, while Darrin Vincent was a side musician with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Meanwhile, much of Lawson’s strength lies in his canny ability to make effective use of the side musicians in his band. The entertaining video below shows his progression from sideman with many historic bands to his current position as leader of one of the premier bands and member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
The side musician travels with the band, contributes to the characteristic bluegrass sound, and completes its realization. I sent out a Facebook request for information about how well such an important role paid a working musician, promising not to mention the names of individuals or bands. The consensus suggested that a traveling musician earns a day rate of between $250 and $500, depending largely on the prominence of the band he or she works for. One bass player wrote me, “I get paid a day rate and always have. I don’t work for less than $250 a day, but my current day rate is more. People claim there isn’t any money to be made in bluegrass, but I don’t believe that. A sideman can make a decent living playing three- to four-day weekends.” A band leader wrote to say, “I pay my guys $250 a day. I also pay all motels and gas once they get to me.” I don’t think this is too far from the norm. Musicians spend hours on the bus or in motel rooms eating festival food and getting too little sleep in order to experience the joy of performing before an avid festival crowd or in a cultural center. Some supplement their incomes working as session musicians on recordings. Most have other jobs. Nevertheless, playing bluegrass music can lead to a modest level of financial success as well as real recognition within the community.
Jesse Brock provides an excellent example of a superb musician, twice IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, who has contributed hugely to the bands he plays for without ever fronting, or seeking to front, his own group. Brock has played the mandolin with his family’s band, C.W. Brock & Family, the Lynn Morris Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, and Audie Blaylock & Redline before joining the Gibson Brothers on mandolin. Here are two recent clips of Brock, first as a crucial side musician and then as a featured performer, both with The Gibson Brothers.
Bluegrass music emphasizes teamwork, interaction, listening, and responding. The genre, from the beginning, has showcased superb musicians playing in tight configurations on acoustic stringed instruments. Furthermore, while it also has great singers, the interaction between band players, lead singers, and close three-part harmony creates the joy that has made bluegrass last for three generations, while contributing fine musicians to other genres as well.