The Importance of Social Media in Bluegrass
Last week, Cara DiGiovanni and Dewey Brown became Facebook friends of mine. Why should I comment on this? I know Cara (and her sister Frannie) a little, but I’m not in the habit of chasing teenage girls around, so I observe them at a distance and cheer on their burgeoning careers as bluegrass musicians. I’ve never met Dewey Brown, but I know I’ve heard him play fiddle with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. But becoming “friends” with these two people, who share a world of music through their love of bluegrass and playing the fiddle, has led me to think about the role of social media as it effects the growth of musicians and dissemination of music today.
In an age of media — including film that has been deadened by special effects instead of emphasizing truly evocative emotion, games that garner the involvement of millions, “devices” that allow complete immersion in self, and freedom of expression that defies thoughtful discourse — social media allows people to connect from next door to the other side of the country, and even worldwide. It allows us to discover human connections around almost any imaginable activity, including making bluegrass music.
Let’s look at some examples and the implications of this.
Dewey Brown has played fiddle for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for a little over ten years. According to a 2014 article in North Carolina’s Burlington Times-News, Brown, now 34, grew up in Alamance County, NC, watching his father leave the house to play bass in jams. He picked up the fiddle at age nine and began learning in order to be included. Soon he was playing in local bands. Then he began touring as a fiddler with several national bands, including IIIrd Tyme Out, before auditioning for Stanley, who heard enough in his playing to ask him to become a Clinch Mountain Boy.
Brown has also toured with country/rock band Alabama and singer Josh Turner. As is the case of many fine bluegrass musicians, his base is a music store in his hometown. In his case, that’s in Graham, North Carolina, where he sells and repairs instruments and gives lessons at Dewey Brown’s Music and Lessons.
Brown and his wife also own and operate the Liberty Showcase Theater in Liberty, North Carolina, where they promote music events. Brown’s life and career, while still in its middle phases, represents the traditional way in which musicians from predominantly rural areas have moved from an interest to a career in music. They combine a path of performing at the regional or national level with supplementing their income with a range of endeavors within the music industry. Brown’s music is rooted in tradition, and he’s clearly committed to continuing that tradition.
Young musicians today have grown up in a very different learning and media environment than that, though.
My wife and I first saw Cara DiGiovanni, and her older sister Frannie, play as guests on a band’s set at the YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival, once set in a cattle pasture at an obscure crossroads in central Florida. They have since returned to their mother’s home region near Nashville, where Cara is being home-schooled and continuing her pursuit of music. We have seen her progress through her participation in the youth program at the Internatonal Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) gathering each year in Raleigh, North Carolina.
While bluegrass musicians used to pick up instruments that were left lying around the house for them to discover (wink, wink), today life in music is more organized and formal. A good analogy might be found in Little League baseball and the absence of sandlot play that many bemoan. Early baseball players played in the stony fields of rural America. We can identify the first Little League player to rise to Major League status, Joey Jay, who played in the major leagues for 13 seasons, beginning with the Milwaukee Braves in 1953 amassing a record of 99-91 with two teams in three locations. Since then, 11 former Little League players have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Today’s young musicians go to music camps, participate in school music programs (although many are home-schooled), participate in contests, and attend colleges that have formal programs in traditional and bluegrass music and other organized efforts. Such young people will be future IBMA award winners and members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
I emailed DiGiovanni about an organization called Tommorow’s Bluegrass Stars, of which she is a member. She wrote, “I think the organization does a great job at giving younger children a chance to play and meet other musicians, especially for those who are just now entering the bluegrass world.” Many such opportunities exist.
During our conversation, she emphasized her love for bluegrass. She also expressed her commitment to her education in a way that would allow her to continue her music. She wants to find a profession that will provide the kind of economic support so many of today’s young people seek. She expresses the desire to major in chemical engineering while continuing to function as a bluegrass musician. This did not seem a naïve ambition.
As our demographic profiles indicate, we have moved from being a primarily rural and blue collar nation to one where the majority of people are urban and suburban, playing white collar/professional roles in life. It only makes sense that our music would reflect those changes in many ways.
No longer do talented, ambitious young musicians need to attend fiddle conventions and then painstakingly sit at 78 RPM turntables lifting the stylus, dropping it back to listen to one of Earl’s licks or Mr. Monroe’s solos as they try to learn them note-for-note. Now they can slow down recordings and watch YouTube videos repeatedly until they “get” it. They can take Skype lessons from the likes of Alan Bibey and Wayne Benson. They can learn about opportunities to join with other young musicians in kids academies at bluegrass festivals around the country. And all of these opportunities are available through social networks that most of today’s youth can tap. All of them, even the most sheltered, are bombarded by a proliferation of musical styles and trends their parents could never have imagined.
Thus, as in so many other areas, social media has, inevitably, affected how we learn as well as how we communicate. It’s little wonder that there should be changes in the music, too.