Two Worlds of Bluegrass Music
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2016/Bluegrass Beyond issue of No Depression in print. When we’re not running a subscription drive, everything in the ND journal is exclusive to print. Subscribe today for just $6 a month and never miss another issue.
My history with bluegrass began in 1998, as I was getting serious about banjo. Four years later, in 2002, I made the long pilgrimage to Kentucky for the first time, to witness firsthand the IBMA scene when it was at its most vibrant. It made a huge impact on me, immeasurably deepening my connection with bluegrass. I have only missed the event a few times since, and a big part of me feels forever indebted to the association for introducing me to my bandmates in the Infamous Stringdusters. I’ve had a lot of involvement with the organization and, beneath all of the analysis you’ll read here, I am an undying advocate of bluegrass music and the many positive things the International Bluegrass Music Association does to support it.
But it’s also clear to me that nobody knows exactly what bluegrass music is anymore. Everyone knows what it was, and there’s no shortage of “traditional” bands out there to remind us of its roots. But current perceptions about the music vary widely based on who you ask.
To some, it’s a diverse, growing style that’s attracting younger crowds; to others it’s an endangered species whose more progressive descendants are not worthy of the name. This is a divide that’s common in practically every artistic realm: old-school traditionalists shun evolution, even when that evolution is the main thing keeping the art relevant.
This has been a fact of life for bluegrass since its inception, nearly 80 years ago, due largely to the unique, participatory nature of the music. But big recent changes in and around acoustic music have cemented this division as a long-term reality. Bluegrass has grown into two distinct musical worlds that seem to intersect less and less as they continue to travel on in two very different directions.
The Big Bang
For a brief moment at the beginning, there was unity in bluegrass.
Most aficionados agree that 1945 marked the true advent of the music, when Earl Scruggs’ remarkable three-finger banjo style joined forces with Bill Monroe’s unique blend of blues, gospel, stringband, and country sounds. Though clear predecessors of the style’s different elements can be traced back through a number of different musical traditions, this early version of the Blue Grass Boys had a fully realized sound. Their appearance on the Grand Ole Opry that December kicked off a legendary two-year run that set a standard for the music to which many still aspire today.
That event was like a musical “big bang,” where an array of different sounds coalesced into one perfect new art form in an instant.
Then, as soon as the music took root, other acts began following in Monroe’s footsteps. First generation luminaries like the Stanley Brothers, who emerged less than a year later, in 1946, galvanized the style. They also exposed bluegrass to new people everywhere they played, and by the 1950s there were a number of prominent new bands on the scene. The music was off and running.
But just as soon as bluegrass started to gain critical mass, it also started evolving, and that’s where things start to get complicated.
The Stanley Brothers were deeply influenced by the Blue Grass Boys, but they were also innovators, adding an old-time mountain sound to the mix. That creative spirit was found in almost every other prominent early bluegrass act, and at the very top of the innovation scale is Monroe himself. Bill Monroe was no different than Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles. He was totally authentic, totally original, and his work influenced practically everything that came after.
This is how music evolves: Artists like Monroe develop their voice, they craft something powerful that people connect with, new acts emerge in the wake of that influence, and the music reaches a larger audience. Artists such as these create that rare moment of musical inspiration, crossbred with amazement and joy, that music fans live for. The process repeats on a larger scale, and that evolution/growth process is the very thing that keeps the genre relevant. Without it, the music becomes the art of imitation, and growth is stunted.
The bluegrass world has certainly seen its share of this phenomenon. Herein lies one of the longstanding ironies of bluegrass: those who strive to protect the music in some so-called traditional form fail to recognize the intensely original spirit of the music’s founders.
Artists want to express themselves. They strive to create. To separate bluegrass from its deep sense of originality misses the point, but from early in the music’s history a certain set of traditionalists have done just that. Their vision of bluegrass in an unrealistic one, frozen in time against its own will.
Evolution, Division, and Gray Areas
It took less than 10 years after its inception for bluegrass to start veering off in all different directions, as more and more unique artists made it their craft. The music was as technical as it was soulful, and there was plenty of room for originality. Artists like the Country Gentlemen started emerging in the late ’50s, infusing the acoustic sound with new influences, playing styles, and songs.
In that 10-year time frame, a crack started forming beneath the foundation of bluegrass — separating traditional and progressive, different scenes, different fan mentalities, and, more than anything two different definitions of the style itself. Traditional fans wanted to protect that perfect, early version of bluegrass and favored bands that fit that description. Meanwhile, more progressive acts sought an audience that embraced innovation and connections with other types of music.
You could argue that the omnipresent “What is bluegrass?” debate has been around since the very beginning of it all. But as the evolution of the music has progressed, the debate has grown more heated and the division has grown more noticeable.
Evolution is a fact of life for all living art forms, so why was the bluegrass world’s reaction to it so extreme? The easy answer is that the fans are more than just fans.
The bluegrass fan base is involved on a much deeper level than your average concertgoer or CD buyer. Many of them actually play the music (a much larger percentage than fans of the vast majority of other genres), and even those who don’t play still know the details of the music on an unusually deep level. For example, your average music fan might be able to tell you their five favorite bands, but a bluegrass fan can usually reel off their ten favorite banjo players without thinking twice.
As bluegrass caught on in Monroe’s wake, recreational bands sprang up all over, simply because it was so convenient to jam on the acoustic instruments. The music soon expanded to cover a wide range of skill levels and styles, coming to life in living rooms, on national stages, and everywhere in between. Somewhere along the way it became harder to make out any clear line between fan, amateur, and professional.
Over time, bluegrass became a growing mix of people, all with vastly different aspirations for their music, but all with one big thing in common: they cared enough about the music to actually get involved. Bluegrassers are an opinionated bunch, and those opinions have been looming large over the great bluegrass divide from the earliest phase of the music’s history.
Thus, it’s a curse and a blessing that bluegrass is a participatory, living oral tradition. From an outsider’s perspective, it might look like an overzealous audience of people who dive too deeply into the particulars of the style. But come inside the tent and you start to see this vast gray area between amateurs and professionals and the significant impact it has had on the course of bluegrass history.
Bluegrass Gets Organized
Over the course of the 30 years following the Country Gentlemen’s entrée into the form, bluegrass would expand and contract in a series of short spurts, having brushes with — but remaining on the fringes of — the mainstream. The music was pure, with an artistry and cultural context that gave it undeniable staying power, but it was never that popular.
By the mid-1980s, the music was in decline. But in 1985, the community around bluegrass took a major step toward advancing its collective profile when it joined forces to form the IBMA. In the words of the great Del McCoury, bluegrass “got organized,” and the results were instantly noticeable.
Initial incentives for creating a trade organization included practical matters like financial/medical security for artists, but the bigger goals focused on generating more awareness and more success for all involved with bluegrass. The IBMA scored a huge, validating step in the right direction when it helped establish the bluegrass Grammy category in 1989. Another early goal was to create an awards show, which would be an obvious vehicle for publicity for the genre’s top talent.
Long plagued by a festering identity crisis, bluegrass was turning its attention away from the divide below to a window above, looking out on a potentially larger audience. The IBMA’s services were geared toward professional, performing bluegrassers and the business entities that surrounded them. Doyle Lawson, Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, and a handful of other second-generation luminaries led the charge. Their styles weren’t necessarily uniform, but their mission to help the greater good of the bluegrass community certainly was.
IBMA didn’t instantly open the door to mainstream exposure, but it did quickly become a fixture in the bluegrass music world. Early versions of the IBMA’s annual meeting in the late 1980s evolved into its current flagship event, World of Bluegrass, a trade show, concerts, and expansive jam sessions all rolled into one.
The annual IBMA awards show debuted at World of Bluegrass in 1990. Though World of Bluegrass currently is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in Raleigh, North Carolina, insiders agree that the event’s early years in Owensboro, Kentucky (1990-99), and then Louisville, Kentucky (1995-2004), were a golden era. The IBMA gathering became the undeniable must-attend event of the bluegrass calendar, attracting pickers, agents, DJs, fans, and just about anyone involved with the genre from all over the world.
But just as things got complicated for bluegrass, so too did the situation at IBMA. By the mid-2000s, the organization was feeling the effects of the growing divide between traditionalists and progressives.
IBMA has been membership-driven since a few years after its inception, and over time the members became the voice of the organization, voting on awards and setting the tone for the World of Bluegrass programming. The majority of the members were older, more traditional fans, and their collective sentiment became very clear: bands that did not fit their narrow definition of what bluegrass was were not welcome. It was their decision to make, and perhaps they were only hoping to stand up for what they loved, but a number of negative side effects were starting to emerge.
The event lost its mystique after moving to Nashville in 2005, largely because the new venue didn’t really understand or embrace all the public jamming, which is the essence of the event. Serious financial issues would follow, along with a lack of strong leadership that was needed to tackle such pressing problems.
The awards were called into question, not for a lack of quality among winners but for a serious lack of turnover (a total of three Dobro players and five fiddlers won every award in those two categories for 26 years).
Levels of membership became cloudy, too. The organization stopped vetting folks seeking the “professional”-level membership that entitles them to a vote on the awards as well as an increased voice in the direction of the organization. Somewhere deep in the IBMA’s bylaws, it stipulates that only qualified professionals deserve that level of input (as opposed to the “grassroots” membership the organization has designated for fans, which was all but abandoned in the late ’90s). But the IBMA needed the money, so they made the more expensive “professional” membership widely available to fans, and thus opened a Pandora’s box of opinions about what constitutes bluegrass.
Ultimately, the relevance of the organization came into question for anyone outside the traditional camp, and the draw of the trade show began to wane for anyone creating music on the fringes of bluegrass.
Meanwhile, those fringe players found much more meaningful opportunities right outside the walls of strict bluegrass tradition.
Bluegrass Gets Popular
By the early ’80s, a wave of influential second- and third-generation players were taking acoustic music in compelling new directions and finding success doing it. David Grisman, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, and their contemporaries blew away all preconceived notions of what the bluegrass instruments were capable of. They were writing adventurous new music that was the definition of innovation. Suddenly, anything was fair game, and new influences were flooding in just as quickly as acoustic music was stretching to intersect with other worlds. Those artists were creating that magical moment of discovery with their fans and introducing new people to their bluegrass roots in the process. Inspiration and discovery were in the air, and the evolution of the music was on full display. Over time, they came to represent the progressive side of the divide.
As their influence extended outward, new and different bands emerged. Success fed evolution, and by the early 2000s, bands like the String Cheese Incident were blending bluegrass with drums and electric/electronic elements in front of 10,000 people per night at high profile venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. What they were doing was a far cry from Flatt and Scruggs, but String Cheese was playing songs like “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” so it’s impossible to argue that their music was not at least related to bluegrass. To the uninitiated, in fact, this was bluegrass, and the audience loved what they were hearing.
In the late 2000s, as a new wave in the progressive movement continued to pick up, another round of mainstream acoustic popularity was taking hold. Bands like Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and the Avett Brothers didn’t originate in the bluegrass world, but they were certainly incorporating bluegrass elements. The end result speaks for itself, as these bands continue to increase in popularity, appearing now in arenas and major pop music outlets everywhere.
Many point to the mainstream success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000 as a major factor in the recent bluegrass resurgence. Though it was significant, the seeds of this progressive bluegrass movement were planted long before, thanks to bellwether groups like Hot Rize, the Seldom Scene, and New Grass Revival, all early innovators who stretched bluegrass from within. You can debate the specific stylistic characteristics all day long, but there’s no denying these groups’ collective originality and innovation. They made their own music and set a strong example for aspiring acoustic musicians.
From those seeds came bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Punch Brothers, and Railroad Earth, now all prominent members of the thriving progressive music world. These groups have origins in bluegrass, but our metric for success has little to do with how authentically “bluegrass” we are. We are more concerned with expressing originality and selling tickets. If an emerging artist in any field can accomplish their version of these two things, great opportunities will emerge, opening the door to a potentially long, meaningful career.
In 2016, progressive bands are hitting that stride and changing people’s idea of what’s possible. Right behind us is a long line of quality young acts, all with their own original acoustic sound, eager to be a part of a growing bluegrass-rooted scene. From this side of the divide, bluegrass has never looked healthier.
The Recent Bluegrass Past
The bluegrass revolution continues to grow stronger today. The recent past has seen more mainstream coverage thanks to celebrity champions Ed Helms and Steve Martin. Helms channeled his love of bluegrass to create the Bluegrass Situation, a savvy new media outlet that has a noticeably loose definition of the word. From their perspective, bluegrass is cool, and the “situation” is the wide-ranging acoustic activity that’s all around it. The Bluegrass Situation co-opted the term “bluegrass” and is now flashing it in front of many new eyes, ruffling a lot of old feathers along the way.
A similar mentality can be found at festivals like Telluride Bluegrass and Electric Forest (informally hosted by the String Cheese Incident). These events introduce countless young fans to the cutting edge of acoustic music and feature all of its connections with other styles, from electronic to classical and everything in between. And then there’s that thing called the internet, which has probably sped up about just about every artistic evolutionary arc out there. The world has never been a smaller place, and a wide array of acoustic music is making the rounds faster than ever before.
You would think traditionalists would see all this success as an opportunity, especially given the issues facing the IBMA and the old-school bluegrass scene in general. But it seems they’ve done just the opposite. To some, this new interpretation of bluegrass is too different; to others it’s simply not up to the high standard to which they are accustomed. It would seem that the old argument of traditional vs. progressive has evolved into traditional vs. popular.
The good news is, even if the IBMA can’t usher in new philosophies year over year, at least they are doing something. Much has changed with the organization in the past couple years, including moving World of Bluegrass to Raleigh in 2013 and the addition of a forward-thinking executive director in Paul Schiminger, who made Bluegrass SItuation the official media partner for the World of Bluegrass in 2016.
The Road Ahead
Of course, the IBMA is only one piece of the puzzle, and the challenges facing traditional bluegrass are bigger than just what that relatively small group of about 2,700 people is doing.
Bluegrass on the whole is still grappling with its identity, and you have to wonder if anything will ever really change with the existing fan base, or if it even matters at all, given that so many exciting developments are taking place outside the gates.
Many might wonder: What does it matter if traditional bluegrass fans want to isolate themselves from mainstream movements? It’s hardly the first time music fans have pushed back against the proverbial sell-out phenomenon.
But it does matter.
For one thing, these close-minded fans are not doing a great service to the artists they claim to support. Often times the path for a young bluegrass band is lined with the challenges of conforming properly, when all an artist really wants to do is create. There is major young talent on the more traditional side of the bluegrass scene — let’s hope those players are all empowered to find their own voice and do what they do best. But as long as the traditional world hangs on to its judgmental, isolationist mentality, it will continue to create challenges for artists trying to emerge from that world.
Old-school bluegrass will always live on for one simple reason: it’s amazing. Bluegrass is so authentic in its sound and its origins. The myriad artists who have contributed to its legacy along the way are as real and talented as they come. It will live on its classic form because it’s good, not because somebody tried to save it from itself.
As of only a few short years ago, many of the music’s first-generation founders were still among us, some still performing. With the recent passing of Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, the music has moved into a new phase where the roots are not as tangible but the museum has been erected. They were giants who transcended the finite walls of bluegrass, in a cultural sense as much as in a musical sense. Their music reached a lot of people, and the widespread attention they garnered upon their passing speaks volumes about the power of their work.
What remains to be seen is whether the traditional world can make a meaningful connection with the ever-growing bluegrass revolution. Certain signs point to yes, and the first to celebrate that connection would be the more progressive bands themselves. But people are slow to change and the origins of this bluegrass divide run deep into the music’s history. Now bluegrass music has split into two distinct worlds. One is growing at an unprecedented rate and shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s hope the other gets the attention it deserves.