Bluegrass: The Land of Opportunity?

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While it’s probably old news to many of you by now, I hope you took the chance to read banjo player Chris Pandolfi’s April 2011 blog, titled “Bluegrass?” (if you haven’t read it yet, check it out by linking to Chris’ essay arrived at a time when there was already a great deal of discussion going on within professional bluegrass music circles and also within IBMA membership (which are definitely not concentric circles) regarding the current state of the bluegrass world: opportunities and threats, along with strengths and weaknesses.

I won’t summarize Chris’ essay in this space but there’s no question that he effectively gave voice to many of the same concerns that I’ve heard from other young professional musicians who love and perform bluegrass music. These are musicians who are concerned about the music’s future viability who are trying to define their own professional relationship to the bluegrass world.
All of us who read this welcome column already celebrate the fact that bluegrass music unites fans and musicians from different backgrounds. It’s one of our great strengths. We all love the music for different reasons. For every musician and fan who comes to bluegrass through country music, there is another fan who became aware of bluegrass through some connection to folk, rock, jazz or perhaps even classical music. This is especially true here on the West Coast and throughout northern California.
While I wear a lot of hats as a professional musician, I primarily see myself as an instrumentalist (even if I’m just a five-string banjo picker!). Over the last thirty years, I’ve watched with excitement as bluegrass-based musicians such as David Grisman, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Jerry Douglas and, now, Chris Thile, among many others use their bluegrass chops to open doors to an incredible variety of musical styles from all over the globe. There’s no question that as these musicians continue to reach beyond the boundaries of bluegrass-as-we-think-of-it, their efforts help those of us who fight our battles in the smaller, more mainstream traditional and contemporary bluegrass trenches.

When I was a member of the IBMA board several years ago, I expressed a concern that while the association had been successful in making connections with the country music world, it had not devoted much effort or attention into building bridges linking to other musical genres. As a community, we would easily celebrate for quite obvious reasons someone like Dolly Parton recording a bluegrass project (and issue invitations for her to host our awards show) but a Mark O’Connor symphony or a Bela Fleck & Chick Corea collaboration was something that somehow was not a part of our world, much less Bob Dylan singing on a Ralph Stanley CD, Jerry Douglas performing on a Paul Simon tour, or Elvis Costello recording and touring with an A-list of Nashville bluegrass stars.
This didn’t seem right to me. As a banjo player interested in everything that could be played on the banjo (and on the fiddle and the mandolin and the guitar and the dobro and the bass), it ALL seemed like bluegrass to me.

Now this is the point where many of you are probably going to disagree with me. You might define bluegrass as a primarily vocal style of music that’s meant to be sung in a particular way, with songs that have a certain kind of structure and form, honoring the legacy of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the other first and second generation masters. I agree with you wholeheartedly that this is a big part of bluegrass music.

I also believe that these master musicians passed on to us the responsibility to keep the music relevant to our own lives, nourishing it so that it can speak to new generations with authenticity and relevance. We owe it to musicians like Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Sonny and Bobby Osborne, Charlie Waller and John Duffey and so many others, as well as to ourselves and to our children to guarantee that bluegrass music doesn’t become a museum piece, like Dixieland music, or become something akin to a 1950’s rock-n-roll revival show, relegated to a piece of nostalgia celebrated in a PBS television fund drive.
I feel that it’s unfortunate that so many conversations about how we might be able to move forward as a community seem to quickly devolve into intractable disagreements over – you guessed it – “What is bluegrass?” Chris avoids the problem of “What is bluegrass?” in his blog piece by taking the rhetorical stance that each individual person’s definition of bluegrass is equally important. To me, this is same as saying that it’s essentially impossible to define bluegrass. That’s a point of view that perhaps only a full-time professional musician can relate to (and I fully appreciate it). I’ll take it one step further by saying that in order to keep our community strong and move it forward, we need to simply stop having arguments about what is bluegrass and what isn’t.
We might have trouble finding something to talk about at first, but once that space has opened up, I think we’ll be surprised at where we can take bluegrass music, especially here in California. There are some incredible opportunities right in front of us to open up our small part of the world to new audiences. Let’s figure out how to do it.

Bill Evans
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