Band Musical Chairs

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It’s December again and bands are playing musical chairs. In high profile changes, Joey Cox and Carl White have left Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, and Ron Block have returned to Alison Kraus, decimating The Dan Tyminski Band (what’ll happen to Justin Moses?). Harold Nixon and Keith Garrett have deserted Blue Moon Rising to create Boxcars with Adam Steffey. Dale Perry has left Grasstowne to return to Doyle Lawson at bass…and on it goes. As nearly as I can tell, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage are standing pat this year.

Let’s imagine some possible past headlines from The Bluegrass Blog through the years – “Flatt & Scruggs Leave The Blue Grass Boys to Form Own Band.” 1973 “John Duffey Quits Country Gentlemen; Joins Seldom Scene,” 1965 “Jerry Garcia Shuns Acoustic Music.” oops! I must admit to not having broad enough knowledge of other genre’s, but I suspect bluegrass bands are not the only ones where change is more the rule than the exception. Nevertheless, bluegrass fans are conservative and look forward to seeing their favorites together, promoters want to know who’s going to show up, and people may want to purchase CD’s featuring the same people they have just seen perform. Musicians want to get a chance to test their chops in new environments.

The number of musicians identified as having played with Bill Monroe as Blue Grass Boys is estimated at somewhere between 150 and 300. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, although Stewart Evans has assembled a very comprehensive list ( ) divided into categories such as regular, fill in, and unconfirmed. Important innovators in bluegrass who did at least some time with Monroe include: Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Bill Keith, Bobby Hicks, Kenny Baker, Brian Berline, Vassar Clements and too many more to mention them all. Richard D. Smith, in “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” his biography of Monroe, says, “Through the decades, a stint in the Blue Grass Boys became the equivalent of an advanced degree program (or a boot camp) for aspiring entertainers.” (p. xi) A couple of years ago, Joey Cox, then early in his period as a member of Doyle Lawson’s band, said much the same thing about serving with Doyle.

Blue Highway has established a record of musical accomplishment over its fifteen years that can be touched by very few bands. It has originated wonderful songs and has a unique and easily distinguishable sound, at least partly because one never has to guess who’s in the band. With one brief in and out and back in again change, Blue Highway’s personnel has remained the same over its entire history. Nevertheless, it has kept its music fresh and growing. Perhaps this is a testament to the quality of musicianship and creativity within the band. During the same period, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have been through dozens of changes. Doyle has exacting standards of performance and the band has shown little change through the years. Monroe, on the other hand, took advantage of the skills coming into his band to develop and alter the sound of his music as time passed, although still keeping it within the basic framework he had created. For many bands, change can be a motivating factor to drive it to increased creativity and strength, while maintaining the same lineup can suggest a commitment to the same successful, or maybe less so, formula.

Last summer, we were talking with Junior Sisk about band changes. He told us that Alan Mills had once given him some very useful advice. Mills had said that it might be less important that a musician in a band be a great performer than that he be someone who “rides good.” That suggests that life on the road is challenging and demanding. Band mates are placed in close proximity in, usually, a large van, since buses are the domain of only a few. Surviving the many grueling hours on the road, sleeping with heads on each others’ shoulders, sitting in cramped spaces, and getting along during the times when they’re not performing can test the very best dispositions. Also blending with the band musically to create a harmonious and consistent sound requires close and careful hard work.

Some of the concerns that emerge when talk turns to band changes suggest mixed reactions from fans and from the musicians themselves. I had a long conversation with one picker a year or so ago about his having been, in effect, fired. He was hurt and bewildered by the change, not able to see any bigger picture. From the perspective of a person who’s been fired, too, I could easily sympathize with his position. On the other hand, band leaders have an idea of the sound and appearance they want from their band. In trying to achieve the precise blend they want, they may find it necessary to make changes. Furthermore, musicians themselves may be desirous of changes to be able to play music more to their liking, to establish themselves as band leaders in their own right, or to place themselves with more congenial band mates. Another motivation to change grows from the rigors of the road. It’s a long and dusty trail, and some people want to increase or decrease their exposure to it. All such motivations are genuine and understandable. And then…some just have itchy feet.

Band changes, then, can be a great motivator for change and development within a band and in the growth of what’s known as bluegrass. The great bluegrass bands have never been satisfied with establishing a sound and then setting into maintaining that sound throughout their existence. Rather, they have sought to define, refine, re-imagine, and re-create themselves throughout their histories. This growth and development has, for the most part, been good for the music. It’s devastating to think where we might be if the sound of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass boys of the classic 1946 – 1948 band were the only sound admitted to bluegrass. What seems exciting to me is that bluegrass insists on staying in touch with its roots while being able to admit a range of choices still called bluegrass. The annual game of bluegrass musical chairs allows for such growth and, indeed, nurtures and encourages it.

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