Big Tent – Small Tent

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The discussion rages on. Should what we call “bluegrass” music fit into a small and narrowly restricted definition created in 1946 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs stepped on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry as members of Bill Monroe’s band? Or should we accept and embrace a much wider definition which reflects changes in the larger world of music and American life allowing the conception of bluegrass music to grow and change with the times. The argument looks very much like the constant pushmi-pullyu that defines the differences between Constitutional strict construction and the conception of a living document that changes slowly but inevitably with the times. I’d like to examine some of the factors involved in this passionately argued and ongoing debate as it affects bluegrass music.

There have been fissures in the bluegrass community almost since the beginning. Bill Monroe was a musical revolutionary. Perhaps the only individual ever to invent a musical genre. Through the late thirties and into the forties he struggled to define and refine his style, drawing from old time string band music, jazz, swing, country, and other stylings of the time. What emerged was named after his band “The Bluegrass Boys,” referring to his home state of Kentucky and developed as part of the southern diaspora to the ring of industrial cities around the Great Lakes. Monroe himself was slow to embrace the name “bluegrass,” seeing his music as part of the larger world of country music and prizing his membership in the Opry. It was only after some time that he learned to become fiercely protective of “his” music and the brand it represented. His beloved and derided comment, “That ain’t no part o’ nothin’” became a mantra for his increasing resistance to change as others tried to put their own stamp on what Monroe had wrought. One way he accomplished his goal was to wage a sharp political war against Flatt & Scruggs and others being granted membership in the Grand Ol’ Opry. Monroe himself became the strongest advocate of the small tent approach to defining bluegrass.

With the development of bluegrass festivals, most notably represented by the late Carlton Haney’s first bluegrass festival at Fincastle on Labor Day Weekend in 1965, a new audience began to find its way into bluegrass music. This audience mixed the rural, blue collar, working people who had become Monroe’s main fans and target audience with the emerging folk music craze, rockabilly, and, eventually rock and roll. These festivals attracted and merged, perhaps uneasily, a college educated group of music fans with the culturally, economically, and educationally more rural and, perhaps, less sophisticated group who already knew bluegrass through performances, recordings, and small radio stations as well as the huge outreach of the Opry on WSM radio. In a sense, hippies and preppies met and interacted with rural America.

The new fan base now included people nurtured on other kinds of music and enriched by their broader view growing from folk music and the emerging rock scene. Many of these people were urban and Jewish, coming from New York City and other suspect places. With their interest in indigenous folk traditions, they embraced Monroe (and Doc Watson too, another story) who was discovered by the folk festivals as well as the emerging bluegrass festivals, salvaging a career that had been languishing with the emergence of rock. Many of those early festival goers formed the fan base for bluegrass which now stands as the guardians of traditional bluegrass. Nevertheless, slow, but inevitable change has continued in what’s considered bluegrass. As new bands expressed themselves, the definition expanded. The Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and, most notable in terms of change, The New Grass Revival, moved from the fringe to mainstream as taste and acceptance changed. However, as continued musical change in both rock and country music evolved, the people who earlier had embraced the musical revolution became wedded to their initial passion for Monroe and those he influenced and began resisting the emerging larger world of bluegrass influenced acoustic music.

While I was somewhat aware of Flatt & Scruggs, I first heard a tape of their Carnegie Hall concert in the sixties when a friend gave my mother a reel-to-reel tape of their music, and I’d seen Monroe on television, I wasn’t a real fan of bluegrass music. My own musical experiences were informed by folk music, especially Pete Seeger’s Almanack Singers and later The Weavers, and the now rehabilitated Paul Robson as well as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald’s wonderful Gershwin albums, and classical orchestral music. Irene grew up on classic country and big band music. We attended our first music festival in 2003 – Merlefest. And, as I looked around, I naively said, “So this is bluegrass!” Little did I realize I was stepping into a world as politically riven as our current larger politics unhappily is.

The world I’ve entered, and embraced, is one where people leave the audience if they see even a minimal drum kit on the stage at a bluegrass festival, even though they’ve heard drums in the background of their favorite recordings almost since the beginning. It’s a world where a major festival instructs a band it cannot appear with the keyboard that’s become a signature for a few of their songs. It’s a world where an electric instrument, with the sometime exclusion of electric basses, represents apostasy. In other words, a word separated by true believers imposing their values on those who prefer a more inclusive and accepting approach. What’s the effect of drawing this bright line between bluegrass music and a more general world of acoustic music and the emerging genre now called Americana?

The bright line eliminates a potential large audience for the intriguing and entertaining world of bluegrass music. It keeps them from discovering the excitement generated by the founders and understanding the birth, growth, and development of an important part of American music. More about my own story may be useful here. Hearing Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, and, more important, Doc Watson opened a new world to me. As we listened, bought CD’s, attended increasing numbers of festivals, and began photographing and writing about them, I became increasingly aware and appreciative of the history and background of the world I’d entered. We bought bluegrass instruments, I took some banjo lessons, we attended Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp, and our CD collection broadened to include a full range of early, middle, and contemporary bluegrass music. We consumed and learned and tried to support bluegrass. We came to know some performers on a personal basis and were embraced by members of this wonderful community. We began attending IBMA. We grew into the music, developing a broader and more comprehensive understanding and, consequently, a deeper appreciation for the entire length and breadth of its genesis. We probably would never have come to appreciate the genius of Bill Monroe were it not for the genius of Sam Bush. Along the way, my own journey included increasing amounts of rock as well as older forms. That’s what the effect of the big tent has had on me.

While the small tent approach to bluegrass music may be deeply satisfying for some people wishing to attend pure, traditional bluegrass festivals, whatever that means, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the needs of musicians hoping to make a living as full-time producers of music. Clearly, bluegrass does not supply the economic support for many bands to make a full-time living playing the traditional music. Furthermore, narrowly defining the genre inhibits the musical growth of many practitioners. To limit the acceptable performance world to the skills and abilities of jammers in the parking lot is exactly backwards. Jammers may prefer to play traditional bluegrass, although my observation is that many actually play classic country, probably because it lies more fully within their capability, and even to hear it, but it’s clear that eclectic music festivals will draw a broader and more inclusive group of fans, generate more income for even traditional performers, and serve as a vibrant community for spreading traditional music and new music. Look at the way the Del McCoury Band has been embraced at Americana festivals, as well as attendance figures at Merlefest, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and the weather challenged DelFest.

So I’m a big tent guy. Not only because I find a three or four day weekend of mostly or entirely traditional or traditional-sounding music to be stultifying, but because I believe the mixed era and mixed genre festivals to be more attractive to an increasingly younger and more diverse audience, some of which, given the chance, will also embrace the work and music of the founders. Such an outcome is to be applauded, not decried. Our solution, when a band hits the stage and proves itself to be beyond our bounds of taste, is to take a stroll, shop, grab something to eat, or even return to our trailer for a nap. Over three or four days, we don’t have to like or admire every band. But, often to our surprise, we hear music we love, stay to listen, sometimes purchase their product, and broaden our taste and experience. Can that be a bad outcome?

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