Spreading the Seeds of Bluegrass
Last weekend we attended our first Florida bluegrass festival of the season. The YeeHaw Music Fest, approaching its 25th anniversary as a festival next year, has a noble history. Like many festivals, it owes more to fandom than professional polish. People with a love for bluegrass and a penchant for spreading it have come together since the 1960s to present this music, once clearly seen as a part of what back then called hillbilly, country, or mountain music. It’s worth remembering that much of the spread of this and other genres of music grew from the need of corporate entities, primarily the RCA Corporation, to find ways to sell the machine it had invented: the record player.
By the 1920s, no respectable parlor in America was without a player of some sort, but the inevitable tentacles of consumerism and capitalism were always seeking new products to sell to people who listened to music in their homes and to broaden the audience that would purchase the machines themselves. To this end, Ralph Peer, who had entered the recording industry because his father owned a sewing machine store that also sold record players in Independence, Missouri, began finding music to record. It was almost inevitable, according to Barry Mazor in his wonderful biography of Peer published last year, that Peer would become interested in both the machines and the round, black discs that carried the sounds they produced. Peer was destined to become one of the most important figures in the history of the recording industry, gathering, recording and popularizing a broad range of newly “discovered” music around the world through what became an organization that still exists. But in the summer and fall of 1927, he was looking for rural content.
Peer traveled to Bristol, VA/TN (the border between the two states runs down the middle of main street, just as the Geico ad shows), placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, and recorded the first hillbilly records, consisting of songs from the Carter Family, the Stonemans, and Jimmie Rodgers. This effort was part of RCA’s campaign to extend the sales of record players to poor and rural people through recording hillbilly and “race” records. Although the Great Depression would come along soon, seriously damaging the sale of records, these recordings and those that followed opened new worlds to emerging genres that would, a generation or so later, begin to spread their magic worldwide, all in the name of selling a new entertainment technology that freed people from having to go to a theater to hear music. Soon, the record player would be followed by radio, television, the Walkman, YouTube, and smartphones, all further contributing to the circulation and re-circulation of music.
Bluegrass emerged as commercial music. Bill Monroe, finding little work in his hometown of Rosine, Kentucky, had learned to play the mandolin and sing at local square dances and family get-togethers. But during the Depression, he moved to Indiana, going to work for an oil company along with hundreds of thousands of other rural people seeking work. Together with his brothers Charlie and Birch, he started a band that performed at local dances and house parties, soon developing enough of a following to enable him to become a full-time musician. By 1939 he had developed his own sound sufficiently to earn a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, broadcasting hillbilly and country music from Nashville to a huge audience. Then, in 1945, with the addition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, what has come to be known as bluegrass emerged — and spread, largely through cheap recordings and live performances at low-power radio stations throughout the South.
By the 1950s, the genre was fully enough established to have spread to Europe and Asia, especially Japan, attracting people with its liveliness, its expression of American exuberance, its sense of being attached to simpler (and more romantic) times, and its portability. Not only farmers and rural people attended the early festivals, following the model established at a small horse farm near Roanoke, VA, but urban folkies, hippies, college students, and young adults found an environment, a vibe, that pleased and entertained while permitting high levels of participation through jamming. I asked around, while writing this, to try to determine whether jamming was widely practiced elsewhere. Pete Wernick, Dr. Banjo, wrote that while he’s attended a multiplicity of festivals featuring other genres and musical styles, he’s not aware of widespread jamming outside bluegrass. But Kim Ruehl, editor of the print edition of No Depression commented, “Folk festivals are full of jamming, and for some (Kerrville, Falcon Ridge, Pickathon), it’s half the allure.” Bluegrass has remained, in many ways, a cottage industry distinct from the larger professional world of music performance, whether it’s country, rock and roll, jazz, hip-hop, or pop.
Audiences attending bluegrass events, whether they’re festivals or concerts, expect to be able to interact with the performers. Bluegrass artists put their merchandise out on tables, where they are expected to appear to greet their fans, sign recordings, and hang out to visit. Until the festival economy changed, requiring a band to journey to two or three venues to perform over the four day weekend from Thursday to Sunday, band members also went out into the fields often surrounding the stage area to jam and imbibe with their fans late into the night. There remain plenty of people who purchase tickets to a festival, set up camp, and spend the majority of their time jamming with friends and strangers in a amoeba-like circulation from campsite to campsite, rarely going to the stage to hear a band.
Bluegrass has, increasingly, found itself included in the schedule of performances in local and regional arts centers. It is welcome, in small doses, at large, complex Americana festivals. Merlefest, one of the oldest of the large festivals, is seen by many as being a bluegrass festival, but it programs country, blues, and a large variety of bluegrass-derived and -related music, calling its lineup “Traditional +”. Many of these kinds of events are dismissively referred to by bluegrass purists as “hippie festivals,” even as they provide new audiences for bluegrass. Meanwhile, attendees at most events still calling themselves “bluegrass” festivals happily welcome some change-of-pace bands that are not traditional. As music delivery systems continue to change, and the world becomes increasingly small, bluegrass finds new audiences while continuing to reach out to its base. And bluegrass will happily find its way into many places, consciousnesses, and hearts.