Bluegrass Politics

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Today’s column from Ted Lehmann
Friday, June 26, 2009

There’s been a discussion going on recently about the time it takes a band to work out recordings in a studio setting. Some people hold that the ideal recording is made by a touring band which comes into the studio and records its music in one or two takes and, after minimal engineering, prepares it for release. Others maintain that a studio production, with guest artists, multiple takes, careful engineering, and high tech equipment leads to finer music. The argument mirrors the conflict between bluegrass conservatives who seek to maintain the sound and feel of the earliest bands and the adherents of more progressive sounds who suggest that music is alive and changes with the times without losing its essential character. In some ways, such arguments sound very much like the ongoing political argument about appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States. Should judges interpret the Constitution in the same fashion and with the same understanding of language as the Founding Fathers wrote, or should the Constitution be interpreted as an organic and changing document reflecting the times in which it is interpreted? As the struggle between traditional and progressive wings of bluegrass music continues, so the argument between those favoring “original intent” and a more organic, evolving and nuanced view of the Constitution will never end.

While arguing by analogy has its flaws and no analogy is perfect, this one seems to work pretty well, so bear with me and see what you think. The spectrum of traditional to progressive has to do with attitudes towards change and the urge to embrace or resist it regardless of circumstances. Many bluegrass fans describe themselves as loving traditional bluegrass. By this, I take it to mean they have embraced continuing in the tradition of their understanding of Bill Monroe. Others, calling themselves “Progressive” are in a camp that encourages bluegrass music to embrace the musical changes that have affected the broader society. Extreme traditionalists resist change regardless of the consequences for future of bluegrass music. Extreme progressives insist on change regardless of the tradition from which their music has emerged. Of course, there are people in the middle who like music.

Each proponent in this ideological battle has a conception of the limits they are willing to apply. Some insist on the purity and structure of the 1945-1947 Bill Monroe bands with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Others admit the possibility of adding a Dobro to the mix. Some insist that all instruments must be acoustic, while others permit an electric bass into the mix. All people on the traditional side of divide agree that there is no place for drums on the stage. Keyboards, too, are prohibited. Certainly they do not consider the accordion or harmonica appropriate instruments, disregarding the fact the Monroe himself, as well as the McReynolds Brothers and the Osborne’s as well as Monroe himself experimented with these instruments in developing their sound. When some of these instruments appear on stage, these folks are likely to leave their seats muttering “That ain’t bluegrass,” and return to their campers to sit in circles singing “Blue Ridge Mountain Home” in the fashion of Bill Monroe.

The rubric “Progressive” has been applied to bluegrass music adherents who trace their origins to the increasing influence of rock & roll and folk music into this music. Perhaps it began to be most evident with the appearance of Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen or The Seldom Scene who melded these musical influences into their musical styles. It found its greatest early flowering in the music of The New Grass Revival, a group of young men who, in look and attitude, represented a cultural as well as musical change. Their long hair and informal dress represented a significant change from the standards set by Bill Monroe as well as Flatt & Scruggs. Their music, too, while remaining acoustic, represented a distinct change from its predecessors. While never denying or turning their backs on the work of the first generation pioneers, the music that became known as “New Grass” represented a distinct change in sound and sensibility. It’s interesting that in the past few years, in reaction to the success of the Conservative movement in politics, people who have traditionally referred to their stance as Liberal have come to call themselves “Progressives,” that is, devoted to forward movement in the development of society, representing a change from what might be called “original intent” of the founders.

This discussion has traced the evolution of a musical form, perhaps in rather gross and stereotyped fashion, but nevertheless represents an outline of what has been happening. Neil Rosenberg, writing in his fine book Bluegrass Music: A History (1985,2005, University of Illinois Press) comments that bluegrass musicians have always been more open to change than has their essentially conservative audience. As the range of musical training and general improvement of musicianship has improved, musicians whose base grows from traditional bluegrass music or who play traditional instruments have expressed in their music influences not even on the horizon sixty years ago. As they explore their creative horizons, they approach the music through varying lenses and experiences. It is hardly surprising that young musicians nurtured in punk and heavy metal might express their conception of bluegrass music in ways significantly different from the founders. A member of The Farewell Drifters told me they had had to learn bluegrass while in college in Kentucky. This development differs significantly from learning music at the feet of elders in a humble cabin far from the city and without the electronic aides now available. Furthermore, the influence of music schools, particularly under the leadership of Berklee College of Music in Boston, on the development of young virtuosos can’t be overestimated. Today, the ground nurturing the development of bluegrass musicians is the college music program at a number of institutions rather than earlier means of transmitting folk traditions that once prevailed.

So we are a people of the center. Perhaps it’s center-left or center-right, but most of us are most comfortable somewhere near the center. Recently, in a discussion of some of the brilliant young banjo pickers emerging in today’s soup, Phil Zimmerman, author of the beautiful book Bluegrass Time, commented, “But they all stand on the shoulders of Giants.” And Phil is entirely correct. Whatever direction bluegrass music takes, the founders stand there watching. Some are approving of the changes taking place. Others would prefer a stronger and more consistent urge to maintain the status quo. In the end, the intellectual market is not too different from the financial markets. Some forms will prosper and grow. Others will see the light of day, briefly flower, only to shrivel and die as they fail to satisfy consumers. Some bluegrass musicians and bands will move so far away from their origins they can no longer be recognized as belonging to the genre. Others will find a groove, a vibe, that will attract and hold an audience within the community. In the end, only time will tell. In the meantime, it’s all music, there for the enjoyment, and sometimes inspiration, of all of us.

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