Why We Love the Music We Love
The essay below is a lightly edited version of my column which appears monthly on the California Bluegrass Association’s Welcome Page. If you’d like to read more of my work or see the photos I usually include in my posts, please visit my blog “Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms.”
In a recent commentary in the New Yorker, Adam Gropnik wrote about what he called the “Forty Year Itch.” Reflecting on the popular TV series “Mad Men,” he enunciates the Golden Forty-Year Rule: “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.” (The New Yorker, April 23, 2012, pp. 19-20) He gives several different examples to support his point, all from popular culture. For instance, Gropnik says that the great Judy Garland film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a huge hit in 1944 re-imagines the St. Louis world’s fair of 1904. In the seventies we glorified World War II – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Biloxi Blues. In the first decade of the present century, The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys have toured incessantly with their greatest hits. However, this is The New Yorker, so, of course, Gropnik makes the general idea more complicated by suggesting cycles within cycles and placing a corporate matrix around the entire idea by arguing that while the performers were young, the suits making the corporate decisions were forty somethings whose taste was formed in utero. I’ll just forgo those arguments.
I’ve written before about the ideas and research of musician and neuro-scientist Daniel Levitin, whose book “This is Your Brain on Music” describes how the music we love for most of our lives is the music we first heard while we were at our most vulnerable to emotional turmoil – adolescence. That is, we fell in love with a particular music at the same time we fell in love with Janey Sue as she flounced down the hall while we were in eight or ninth grade. Don Dilling, father of IIIrd Tyme Out’s banjo player Steve Dilling tells me he used to go up to Steve’s room at night to make sure he was getting to bed, only to find him asleep in a study chair, his banjo clutched in his arms. Alan Bibey made the same point, describing how, when he was a teenager, Sammy Shelor (old enough to drive) would pick him up to take him to gigs or to see other bluegrass musicians. In his new book “Guitar Zero,” Gary Marcus writes about the intensity of practice teenagers are capable of maintaining, thus learning quickly that which takes their elders much longer to achieve. And along the way, their passion becomes an essential part of who they are.
A few weeks ago, a well-known radio DJ and studio engineer passionately wished Doc Watson, The Country Gentlemen, and the Seldom Scene happy birthday. Now, it just happens that The Scene has just celebrated its fortieth year as a band. Doc Watson came to prominence during “the folk scare” of the nineteen sixties and seventies, and The Gents, although they began to emerge in the 1950’s put together their classic lineup in the 1960 – 1964 period. Doc Watson, now nearing ninety and quite frail, was, at his peak, a multi-genre player at least partially groomed by Ralph Rinzler for the particular audience emerging in the late sixties. He toured as a folk musician and also played rockabilly with real gusto. His bluegrass output was relatively small, but his emphasis on bluegrass guitar was, and still is, enormous. My understanding, not my memory because, as you all know, I’m a relative newbie to this marvelous music, is that both The Gents and The Scene were met with huge resistance when they emerged in the musically boiling Washington D.C. region with their rock and folk infused bluegrass. They were seen as being revolutionaries because they adapted music from other genres to bluegrass. Now both bands and the legendary Doc Watson are beyond being icons to our music. Similarly, I have argued that many contemporary fans of Bill Monroe as well as Flatt & Scruggs came to know them through the Bluegrass Album Band and the Johnson Mountain Boys in the same way that any number of pickers in their twenties and thirties today look to IIIrd Tyme Out, the Lonesome River Band and the New Grass Revival for their inspiration. It isn’t surprising that Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stone, The Allman Brothers, The Beatles, and many more bands from rock and folk are being covered in interesting new ways by bluegrass bands.
Many bluegrass musicians I talk to bemoan the propensity some people have for labeling. They listen to all kinds of music and like to play a wide variety of genres. They’re influenced by what they hear, and they don’t all sit on channel sixty-seven of their XM radios waiting for Kyle, Joey, Chris, and Ned to tell them what bluegrass is. They continue to create and recreate bluegrass while trying to make a living doing the thing they love most of all….Making Music. My friend Barry Crabtree has a theory that makes pretty good sense to me. When he hears that bluegrass music is dying because the audience is old and won’t be around for long, he says, “Don’t worry! For every codger that passes to the great bluegrass band in the sky, there are half a dozen baby boomers retiring and looking for a way to keep enjoying music and many are finding bluegrass.” The new audience is a never-ending stream. But the music these new entrants heard when they were nothing more than a case of raging hormones was probably a good deal different than what I listened to in my teens (Pete Seeger, Josh White, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Broadway shows) or what our sons wanted me to listen to when they were trapped in the car with us. As these younger fans and musicians discover the joys of string band acoustic music, they’ll bring new and interesting elements to it. Some of it we’ll like and other elements we’ll find offensive to our sensitivities or our ears. But the change is inevitable.
Something else is going to happen to a lot of them, the inquisitive ones. They’re going to say, “Where did this stuff come from?” “How did it develop.” And they’re going to hear Mr. Monroe, Earl & Lester, the Stanley Brothers, the Osbornes, Jim & Jesse, and all the others. When I first starting listening to country music, especially the award shows, I was impressed by the honor being paid to the pioneers. Somewhere those pioneers are being forgotten, but the classic country people and sounds are being heard at bluegrass festivals, at least in some form, as are the original bluegrass songs, too. “How many of you like George Jones?” or Merle Haggard. The early bluegrassers didn’t see a bright line between their music and other country music, even when it began to be called bluegrass. So keep your ears, minds, and hearts open. Resist labeling. There are more good young pickers out there than any of us know about yet, but the great ones will emerge, they’ll change the music and they’ll preserve the best of the old, too. If we let them play….