Bluegrass music is a pretty serious business, taking itself seriously and committing itself to presenting a particular kind of string band music hearkening back to its first generation roots and the multiple musical traditions from which it has been drawn. Often the attention to its roots overcomes what I’ll call the entertainment value necessary to make bluegrass performances a significant commercial draw. Recently, I sat for a few minutes with Mike Armistead of Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, a band which recreates the sound and humor of old time music with zeal and a very positive effect, to discuss this issue. Mike easily listed a range of humorists, comedians, and baggy-pants comics who were integral to early bluegrass performances, adding significantly to their entertainment value. Among the historical comics Mike listed were David “Stringbean” Akeman, Cousin Goober, Uncle Dave Macon, Grandpa Jones, Kentucky Slim, and Snuffy Jenkins. These men, and others, brought fine musicianship along with many of the conventions of vaudeville to early bluegrass performances and the Grand Old Opry.
David “Stringbean” Akeman was an important transitional figure in the development of bluegrass music, playing with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys during the late thirties and into the 1940’s, when his work was replaced by the virtuoso inventions of Earl Scruggs. Later he performed at the Grand Old Opry until his murder in 1973, recently memorialized in Sam Bush’s song “Stringbean & Estelle.” Grandpa Jones (Louis Marshall Jones 1913 – 1998) became best known as a member of the Grand Old Opry and the cast of Hee Haw for his combination of singing, old-time banjo playing, and comedy, sometimes in conjunction with Stringbean. According to Wikipedia, Uncle Dave Macon (David Harrison Macon 1870 – 1952) represents an important link between the vaudeville of the nineteenth century and twentieth century recording and radio-based musical delivery. While elements of this comedy remain in bluegrass today, there’s a seriousness to the music which seems not to invite humor and wit in. I’ve heard bluegrass represented as “five white guys standing in a line playing and singing.”
Few links remain to the early days connecting bluegrass and old-time music to the vaudeville parts of their heritage. Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band bring the sounds and style of Uncle Dave Macon to bluegrass festivals as well as to RFD-TV where fans hear the music and get to see him twirl his banjo while playing songs like “Grandfather’s Clock.” Phillip Steinmetz, a nephew of Grandpa Jones, entertains audiences with authentic reproductions of the music of his uncle, as well as Uncle Dave Macon, while banjo player Robert Montgomery has incorporated a couple of Uncle Dave’s songs into the show presented by David Davis & the Warrior River Boys. Little Roy Lewis represents probably the strongest link to the baggy-pants clown still to be found in bluegrass music. During a long and storied career, he sacrificed recognition as the fine musician he is to play the clown for many years with the Lewis Family and now with the Little Roy and Lizzie Show. Little Roy’s “interruptions” of other bands at bluegrass festivals in drag or other costumes form a lustrous font of memories many bluegrass performers love to recount.
Comedy, whether it’s slapstick, wit, or humor, is an art in itself. As our son pointed out to me, many musicians, in their single-minded pursuit of excellence on their instruments, have neither the time nor the inclination to hone another difficult and time-consuming art. Nevertheless, a large portion of bluegrass artists’ income is derived from live performances where entertainment, in a broader sense, is the coin of the realm. Several touring bands combining solid to excellent musical performance along with wit and humor provide strong examples of the appeal comedy can have. Nothin’ Fancy brings together five very good musicians under the leadership of singer/songwriter Mike Andes. They do excellent covers of a number of Country Gentlemen songs as Chris Sexton on fiddle and Mitchell Davis on banjo manage to do serious work while bringing musical wit and a bit of often deadpan clowning to their performances. Audiences respond extremely well to Nothin’ Fancy, adding people into the audience wherever they appear.
Ron Thomason, who has fronted Dry Branch Fire Squad for over thirty years, brings humor through story-telling, to his band’s work. In many ways, his dry, mostly deadpan humor is reminiscent of the kind of topical humor Will Rogers practiced during the 1920’s and 1930’s. While Rogers dressed as a cowboy and twirled a trick rope during his act, Thomason has an entire band to work with. Their music, featuring a kind of raw quartet sound going back to Bill Monroe’s day, stands in marked contrast to Thomason’s often pointed and politically tinged wit. The Gibson Brothers, who would not consider themselves to be a humorous band, nevertheless leaven their quite serious music with the kind of loving banter shared by brothers. Their light sibling rivalry never reaches the point where an audience becomes uncomfortable, while revealing the depth of their love and respect for each other as well as providing breaks between many of their songs.
Steve Martin, who made his mark as a slapstick comedian (remember the arrow through his head?) before elevating his art as an actor and writer, has only recently emerged as a serious bluegrass banjo player and song writer, although the banjo was a prop in many of his earliest comedy bits. Martin has now released two bluegrass albums backed by The Steep Canyon Rangers and numerous other bluegrass luminaries and is currently engaged on a fifty city tour which is bringing a great deal of attention to bluegrass music in places it has only been viewed through negative stereotypes. Martin has even been announced as a candidate for nomination as IBMA Banjo Player of the Year. As an entertainer, he’s bringing new audiences to bluegrass and bringing down the house at bluegrass festivals able to afford him.
Being amusing and entertaining within the context of music is very hard work. Like bluegrass itself, comedy requires timing, taste, and, yes, tone to make it effective. Some bands inject elements of humor into their shows. IIIrd Tyme Out, for instance, uses their band introductions to add notes of humor as does Adam Steffey of The Boxcars. An important element of using comedy effectively requires constant updating to keep the humor fresh to audiences. Fans will sit still for multiple musical performances, but shouldn’t be able to mouth the words of a comedy routine along with the speaker. Shakespeare, in his darkest tragedies, uses humorous clown-like characters and verbal wit to create a foil for the tragedy of his characters. Many bluegrass songs deal with sad topics even while often presenting them with lilting, uplifting tunes. Nevertheless, the music and the performances can benefit from the judicious use of humor to enliven a show. Bluegrass music, especially at festivals and live shows, is as much in the entertainment business as it is in the music business. Keeping it light and funny as well as musically enthralling can only help broaden its appeal.