Bluegrass: A Unique Synthesis of Musical and Extra-musical Concerns Conclusion

Aug 10, 2020 | Welcome Column

Hi everyone! For this month I thought I would reveal how my project ends. If anybody would desire specific information found in any of the body chapters or would want to check out the thesis as a whole, please feel free to contact me on facebook or email me at

Differing assessments of the purpose and history of bluegrass have caused tensions and economic hardships for contemporary bluegrass performers. Musicians attached to the fixity of the tradition are bound to a stricter canon, appreciated by a small, but committed fan base. Performers who have treated the bluegrass synthesis as a building block that can be changed for audience preferences end up having larger fan bases, but are excluded from the traditionalists. Although they play the same instruments and know the same canon as the traditionalists, the traditionalists believe that these performers never understood the spirit or purpose of the music to begin with. This results in the musicians abandoning the bluegrass label completely.
 Ironically, the spirit that the traditionalists praise and attempt to implement was one constructed by commercial means and cemented by commercial performers. Additionally, this philosophy that traditionalists believe has always been at the heart of bluegrass and Bill Monroe’s vision is based on extra-musical factors and not musical ones. On top of that, the extra musical factors had not originated in 1939 or 1946, but had been part of the commercial record and radio enterprises as well as the American folk movement dating back to the 1920s and the early nineteenth century respectively. While these three separate industries and organizations seem to be disparate in their goals and methodologies, they all have in common the fact that they were impacted, and did impact, the father of bluegrass music Bill Monroe.
 Despite Monroe’s implementation of these previously successful strategies, bluegrass never raised itself into the realm of popular culture to the extent that country music has. In fact, even during the 1950s, many groups such as the Osborne Brothers and even Flatt & Scruggs electrified their music in order to reach into the more lucrative country market. Bands that did not use electronic instruments such as the Seldom Scene in the 1960s appease to a wider range of listeners by covering music outside the bluegrass canon, including rock and pop-folk music. Yet, the desire to replicate, and the popularity of, Monroe’s synthesis never fully disappeared. In fact, by the 1980s, a neo-traditional movement exemplified by the Johnson Mountain Boys and Hot Rize, named after the product Flatt & Scruggs sold on their radio show, had taken center stage. The original bluegrass synthesis’s ability to survive, and then increase in popularity, in the 1980s can be attributed to the timelessness of its sound, but also exemplifies the notion that there was, and always will be, an immense pressure for bluegrass to return to its origins.
 This continuous desire can be explained by romantic notions. Perhaps electronic instruments, unsavory song themes, or simply a lack of a guiding figure, diminished the sound of the music. Perhaps, similar to the sentiments of the folk movement, bluegrass is supposed to be played in a certain way because it has a served a function designed for the good of communities. Its stasis is not due to a lack of artistic ability of its performers, but due to a recognition of its function. For many, bluegrass is a special kind of music because they have memories hearing it on the radio and playing it with family members. The case can even be made that bluegrass festivals are a community connected by a strict canon limited to the music’s early years. With that perspective, the music is simply a tool for building a community out of people with similar aesthetic and social lineages.
 Bluegrass’s urge to return to its roots can also be explained by theories that connect the traditional to the commercial. This can be exemplified by the 1980s seeing a return to the music of the 1940s because the performers themselves grew up listening to it and wanting to replicate it. I find this theory to be much more beneficial and truthful to bluegrass because it requires a combination of both popular and folk music philosophies. Pertaining to the folk, the music still emphasizes fidelity and tradition. Similar to how Monroe’s mandolin style was inspired by past fiddle styles, bluegrass musicians today hope to recreate bluegrass they heard from their childhoods. As generations change, the musicians most commonly imitated will change. Today, most bluegrass musicians grew up listening to the extended canon post-1946, and not the original stricter one. Not only resulting in a more diverse repertoire, this has stimulated current bluegrass artists today to stay faithful to musicians of the past in different ways. One of these ways, similar to Monroe in the 1940s, is to synthesize aspects of ones musical past that they enjoyed. Groups like the Infamous Stringdusters have not changed their sound due to a lack of knowledge of what has come before, but because they knew what come before was a reaction to what had come before that. In addition to recognizing artistic intentions, changing technologies and demographics must be recognized in traditional art forms similar to how they are bound into popular ones. If leaders of the radio industry, record industry, and the folk movement have attempted to separate these notions of folk and commercial music either for popular gain or academic prestige, it is the duty of bluegrass audiences, enthusiasts, performers, and academics to attempt to combine these notions into a truly alive, yet historically-weighted, musical genre.
 Throughout this project, I hoped to explain that bluegrass is unique specifically because of these missteps of industry and academia. Without a commercial background, a folk-based authenticity to wrestle with, and a man who could confidently represent these contradictions with pride like Bill Monroe, the music would not have the unique heritage and reputation it has today. Nonetheless, for the music to continue to evolve, and be a viable profession for performers in the future, it must be an art form that continues to enter and transform within the global market place. Although this must be the case, lets hope that, similar to the folk movement of the 1960s, this market-place can appreciate bluegrass’s anti-commercial and historical roots.

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