The world of bluegrass festivals we live in is often riddled with nostalgia for a past that may never have existed. Its adherents, with no irony at all, continue to believe that Andy Taylor and his son Opie represent the world of their idyllic childhood. The Andy Griffith Show, running on CBS from 1960 – 1968 always rated in the top ten shows. It’s devoid of the complications of modern life that both engage and frighten people today, a world where children needn’t be constantly watched, lest they be molested. Where nice women stayed home and baked pies. Where the local sheriff had only bumbling criminals and mildly humorous problems to solve. Where people were “country poor and country proud.” It was a world in which many people remembered their Depression-era childhoods and World War II greatness with nostalgia. Where people had simpler, happier days. Those times took on a rosy glow, about which people said, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” It was a time when bluegrass music reached a majestic height from which it has receded. Or has it?
Stephen Jay Gould — the late paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian — wrote a marvelous essay about baseball in which he looked at nostalgia. At the time, people were looking back on great baseball players like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ted Williams, saying that modern players could never produce the quality represented by these all-time greats. Cobb batted over .400 a number of times and still holds the record for highest career batting average and most batting titles won. Ruth was, for many years, the greatest home-run hitter of all time, before being surpassed by Henry Aaron. Johnson still holds the record for shutouts pitched and is second in total wins and fourth in complete games. Williams was the last player to bat over .400, having accomplished that feat in the war-depleted American league of 1941. Such performances no longer seem to exist, argues Gould, because the general improvement of training, the demands of Major League Baseball, the organized development of high-level skills, and the level of the competition have risen higher than anything imagined in the years when these athletes were practicing their art. Although many of their records have been surpassed, their legends live on.
James Gleick, in his biography of Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard Feynman, writes that nostalgia conceals improvement, while magnifying the past:
In Bach’s era, mastery of the keyboard still meant combining composer, performer, and improviser in one person. Even a century later, performers felt free to experiment with improvising cadenzas mid-concerto, and Franz Liszt, toward the end of the nineteenth century, gave concertgoers a taste of the athletic thrill of hearing music made up on the spot as fast as the pianist could play, hearing impromptu variations and embellishments along with the false steps and blind alleys from which the performer-composer would have to extricate himself like Houdini. Improvisation meant audible risk and wrong notes. In modern practice an orchestra or string quartet that plays a half-dozen wrong notes in an hour is judged incompetent.
We mistake the contributions of the founders of bluegrass music for the genius that cannot be matched. We actually see that vast improvement in technique, delivery, and technology, along with hugely increased diversity, has created a universe unknown when Bill Monroe was mucking around in the primal depths of musical creationism. He was surrounded by other music, much of which he never could have heard or considered. Nevertheless, he managed to synthesize a style which has become a genre. He was clearly a musical genius. He wrote over 800 published songs, many of which continue to be played at festivals and in jams, as well as being recorded both because of their intrinsic worth and as an homage to Monroe’s influence.
Geniuses change history, says Gleick. As such, we — in our small world of roots music, and the even smaller bluegrass world — must stand in awe of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Earl Scruggs. We must also admit that the standard of greatness increases in a world of excellence, surrounded by a universe of mediocrity. As such, the winners of the Steve Martin prize — Noam Pikelny, Sammy Shelor, Jens Kruger, Mark Johnson, Eddie Adcock, and Danny Barnes — may have risen technically above the others, but it’s always important to remember and be grateful for those on whose shoulders they stand. It’s important to recognize the source while appreciating the journey others have taken. Consider the courage it takes to vary from the genius of those who went before, as we create new musical (and literary, scientific, athletic, artistic) worlds and understandings. Most performers are not geniuses and don’t change the world as it’s perceived by all in the way a Newton, Einstein, Socrates, Monroe, or Scruggs did. Yet their excellence is incontrovertible. Thus, when a new band emerges within the context of acoustic music, who are we to denigrate it by exclaiming, “That’s not bluegrass!”? Instead, we can recognize that those undertaking the exercise to reinterpret the genre seek to explore and entertain.
It’s fine if you find it not to your own taste, but it’s also worthwhile at least to explore the possibility that your taste doesn’t establish or maintain the standard.
It has become a test of bluegrass proficiency to be able to re-create, with exact fidelity, the mandolin and banjo of a Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs, the vocal tone of Bobby Osborne, the rhythm of Jimmy Martin, or the guitar licks of Tony Rice. But these artists established a level of excellence that created a floor, not a ceiling.
That kind of excellence is now celebrated for banjoists through the Steve Martin Prize. Rice created new standards, but there are plenty of fine guitarists forging new music now. They are finding different ways to express what Rice — also standing on broad shoulders — brought to contemporary bluegrass and other styles.
Listen, applaud, adopt, and encourage. Those are the stances that will keep this music developing, while opening it to new and younger audiences.