The following Essay is a lightly edited version of my monthly column appearing on the California Bluegrass Association’s website on the second Tuesday of each month. I also featured it on my blog, which I urge you to visit if you’d like to see more of my writing or my photos.
How do we respond to “newness” in our lives? Are you one of those people who jumps at a new idea, adopting the product, trend, or idea right away because you find it intriguing or exciting? Or are you one of those people whose reflexive response to a new idea or a change is to resist and reject? Or are you, like the vast majority of us, a person who waits a while, weighs the pros and cons of a new idea and then tries to make a reasoned decision trending towards some sort of change? Winifred Gallagher, whose latest book New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change I reviewed on my blog on January 2, calls these postures toward what is seen as being new Neophilia and Neophobia. She argues that as a species our lives have always relied on seeking out new solutions to problems and opportunities that confront us. While not focused on music in any way, New still contains important implications for the current uproar in bluegrass music about the role of innovation in our music as we struggle with the forces of innovation and reaction.
According to Gallagher, the search for novelty, for something new, is built deep into our DNA. About half of our desire to embrace or resist change, to seek out something new, is genetic while the other half combines environmental and cultural elements affecting our decisions. The degree to which we seek out or resist the new in our lives may also be a reflection of age, as we tend to become less adventuresome as we age, clinging to what we know and love. Early humans, Gallagher says, when faced with danger or starvation might have to decide whether to cross the river or not. Neophiles would unhesitatingly cross, while neophobes would exercise caution, often to their own detriment. One controlling factor is governed by the release of a neurotransmitter in our brains called dopamine which generates a sense of excitement or willingness to venture out.
Bill Monroe, as a young man, may well have been a true neophile, filled with a vision, a sense, of the ways he could combine much of the popular and traditional music in his environment into a new form that combined speed, virtuoso instrumentation, and lovingly created or adopted lyrics. He gave new forms to old songs and wrote around eight hundred of his own during his lifetime. On hearing Earl Scruggs playing the banjo, he recognized an exciting, creative way of playing that he knew instinctively would fit into the concept he had and would help realize it for him. The result became known as bluegrass music, a variation on the country music of his day. It received immediate, and positive responses from the audience at the Grand Old Opry when it was introduced in 1945. As he aged, Monroe became increasingly protective of his creation, and his music was saved as a popular form only by the advent of the folk revolution of the nineteen sixties. Today, a horde of young, creative neophilic musicians, also influenced by the music surrounding them in their world, are introducing both evolutionary and revolutionary changes into Monroe’s music and becoming a part of what emerges as a great division within the bluegrass community. Meanwhile, a relatively small but loud neophobic portion of that community declares themselves to be the arbiters of tradition, clinging desperately to the music they claim honors Bill Monroe’s vision.
The vast majority of bluegrass fans are still people in the middle, slowly but surely embracing changes that fit into their comfort zones and reflecting the changes in sensibility and awareness of the surrounding world. Of course, gradual change has always been a feature of bluegrass music. In their day, bands whose music is accepted as part of the bluegrass canon were seen as being revolutionary. The Osborne Brothers, Ralph and Carter Stanley, The Country Gentlemen, The Seldom Scene, Hot Rize, and many other groups brought new, evolutionary sounds, rhythms, and subject matter to bluegrass. Often, perhaps always, the music reflected traditional values of home, family, faith, and the simple life. It often created an image of life that existed more in wishing than in reality, since bluegrass emerged from a longing for home among people finding themselves working in the industrial centers ringing the Great Lakes.
Today, fueled by the extraordinary increase in the pace of change made possible in an age of instant communication and nearly universal access to bodies of knowledge never before so easily accessible, music, like much else in our world, is changing and evolving faster than many more cautious people can abide. Our once obscure niche within country music has become available to more people than its practitioners every imagined. YouTube makes bluegrass videos of hugely varying quality and differing sensibility available worldwide. Steve Martin, touring with the neo-traditional bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers, has won a Grammy and is nominated for another in bluegrass. He has brought bluegrass music to the large late night audiences of Jay Leno and David Letterman. Alison Krauss, winner of more Grammys than any other female artist, was recently interviewed by Tavis Smiley on PBS, and by the New York Times. The finest classical cellist in the world, YoYo Ma, has released a bluegrass-influenced recording called “Goat Ranch” with bluegrass greats Stuart Duncan, Edgar Myer, and Chris Thile. Del McCoury, recently and appropriately installed as a member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, released a CD last year in collaboration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, while the members of his band have recorded and toured with the Lee Boys, a black gospel steel band. Meanwhile, less famous bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, Mumford and Sons, as well as Bill Nershi and Drew Emmit experiment around the edges of bluegrass to the joy of thousands of their fans. But instead of welcoming these efforts, neophobic traditionalists resort to rejection, ridicule, and mockery.
The International Bluegrass Music Association, the only trade organization representing all elements of bluegrass music- musicians, music publishers, recording companies, instrument manufacturers and all the many other groups of professionals, semi-professionals, and fans – is currently seeking a new Executive Director much of whose job will involve finding ways to try to reconcile the various interests and tastes of constituencies vastly different in background, education, experience, and, increasingly, language and race. At the same time, bluegrass music has the potential to reach out to perhaps millions of new fans. These fans will be attracted for a variety of reasons, but will, almost inevitably, be exposed to the most traditional bluegrass music as well as all the possible variations which it will foster. No one can know today which of these many, often experimental, strands will last and which will fall by the wayside. Only history will sort that out, and young people discovering the music now will be party to the excitement that the next few generations will create. Sadly, our culture is also riven with a decline in the quality of discourse we engage in. I can only wish that, as the conversation continues, and it will continue, we can listen to each other, respond in thoughtful ways, and continue to grow in and with the music we love. Taste will always vary, and not everyone will like, or even willingly tolerate, all that emerges, but it is all music, and comes from the influence of bluegrass music. All we can do is listen, appreciate, and seek to understand while we look forward with interest and continue to honor and perform the traditional sources.