What is Bluegrass Soul?
In recent months, I’ve heard from a number of folks who want to tell me how they think contemporary bluegrass music lacks the soul that was present in the work of the early bluegrass pioneers. I find myself baffled by this assertion. It seems to me that people say they find “soul” in someone’s music when the song or singer – or the combination of the two – communicates deep emotion effectively. These people say that the first generation of bluegrass players were able to reach out through their performances, writing, recordings, and live radio programs to directly touch the emotions of people in ways that today’s musicians – who are mechanically proficient, but lacking in real feeling – either can’t or won’t manage.
Several people have written to me that 80 percent or more of the CDs spilling off their desks onto the floor are junk, unworthy of further listening – unworthy of even being called bluegrass. Even wildly popular music, music people claim they love, has “lost its soul.”
So let’s start with the 80 percent. I’d guess that there’s never been a time in music when even 20 percent of the music (or painting, writing, film, sculpture, photography, architecture, or any other kind of art) was seen as worthy of the ages. Bill Monroe is often credited with having written 800 or so songs. Many of them were of the kind he called “true stories.” They were written to commemorate some moment in his life that he was thinking about, working into a song, and singing in performance. Songs like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Body and Soul,” “You’ll Find Her Name Written There,” “A Good Woman’s Love,” and hundreds of others seemed to roll out of his fertile imagination to become hits for him and songs for the ages. They remain as his legacy and part of the standard repertoire of bluegrass musicians, from the jam circle to major arenas.
But is it possible that all of Monroe’s work is of equal and surpassing quality? Or is some of his work best forgotten, left for the dustbin of history?
Similarly, people find in the work of the Stanley Brothers this same “soulful” quality. The too-early death of Carter Stanley enshrines his work, imbuing it with a luster that only time and Ralph’s long career could create. For many, the Stanley Brothers – and later Ralph’s high, quavering voice – captured an emotional height they believe will never be matched. Imagine a group of hungry young men, hoping to escape the impoverished environs of Dickenson County in Southwest Virginia. Could they have managed a great deal of soul as they arrived, road weary, at yet another low-power radio station in the region where Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina come together? Imagine the 15-minute live radio show they then presented at noon, hoping to gather enough people at the school auditorium or in a barn somewhere, hoping to make enough money so they could buy gas to get to the next show. Given all that, could they have really consistently communicated soul rather than weariness? Yet at least some of their music lives on, frequently revived by newer bands and individuals who cull the best of their material and breathe new life into it.
(Our thanks go out to the Johnson Mountain Boys and Junior Sisk, among others, for keeping it alive and re-invigorating it from time to time. Much the same process has been the role of The Bluegrass Album Band and, today, The Earls of Leicester.)
Before going any further, I want to assert, once again, that excellence is difficult to achieve. A creative act brings together inspiration, hard work, and the combined experiences of years of practice to help produce an artifact that will touch people. Much of Picasso’s work, for example, is made of little more than a line and a scribble, yet people find endless sources of … something. It touches them enough that they’ll spend perhaps millions of dollars to possess it as their own. Is this urge merely a social statement of a person’s ability to pay that much money, rather than the excellence of a particular Picasso piece? Truly, the majority of Picasso’s work ended up on the studio floor until he achieved the status that made each piece valuable. And here we’re talking about a figure whose work dominated the 20th century, which is reflected in every other aspect of art.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell frequently asserts what he calls the 10,000 hour rule. This rule states, more or less, that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of focused practice for an individual to achieve exceptional expertise, to develop a skill to the level of professionalism. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, in his 2006 best-seller This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession asserts the same number for practicing musicians. Don Dilling, father of banjo player Steve Dilling, has often told me of going upstairs in their home in North Carolina to make sure his son had studied and headed to bed, to find him asleep in his chair, his beloved banjo clutched in his arms. Watch any young musician headed for outstanding achievement, and you’ll find the same passion, the same obsession. For most of us, the practice, the repetition, the intense concentration, the sore fingers become limiting factors. We’re, perhaps, able to undertake enough effort to achieve competence, perhaps even enough competence to become professional, but is that enough to achieve greatness? Look at Tony Rice on the guitar or Jens Kruger on the banjo, each of whose performance level has helped redefine the instrument, and ask whether their outstanding contributions aren’t the result of time and effort added to talent. Some commentators would claim there is no such thing as talent. I suppose they’re wrong, but talent certainly is not everything.
Thus, the majority of performances and compositions are derivative, a weak imitation of the brilliance achieved by someone else. How many musicians’ work can you immediately identify by their sound? How many songs have a unique sound that cries out as being from a particular songwriter? How many recordings capture the spirit and strength of a performance? Is it possible, truly, to mail an MP3 to a producer and have that snippet stitched into a series of other snippets to produce a truly inspiring performance? Could that create the sort of performance that Handel once produced in Messiah, which led King George II of England to stand up for the “Halleluiah” chorus, forcing the rest of the audience to stand, too – recognition of greatness that became a still-followed tradition?
It seems likely that what we call “soul” requires both a great performance and a person who is triggered by something they found in the music. Soul resides in the meeting of these two elements – the connection of two souls.
Literary critics call this idea “reader response.” They say that every book creates a unique dialogue, through words, between the reader and the author. That for every piece of work, there are, literally, a number of responses that matches the number of readers. I have a deep and soulful experience when I hear the Gibson Brothers sing Eric’s song “Farm of Yesterday” or Leigh’s “Iron and Diamonds,” both of which may leave someone else cold. The fact that their recordings and performances are receiving such recognition suggests they reach out to many more than me, but who knows what others’ actual experiences are?
Similarly, Darrell Scott, in his often covered song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” reaches out to me, and moves me. Some songs are for the ages. Most are for the trash can. So it has always been and will always be. In the end, only time and listeners will tell.
Photo by Ted Lehmann