Bowing to Tradition

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Bluegrass music has been around for quite a while. Some people would say that it was born on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville when Bill Monroe assembled his classic and seminal band including Earl Scruggs on banjo and Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals. Others would say it only became a genre when other bands like the Stanley Brothers began imitating its special features. Until then they had all simply been categorized as country music musicians like everybody else fighting for air time.

Eighty years or so after bluegrass music was born, what now qualifies as bluegrass music? How would YOU define it?

One thing’s quite likely. If you have read this far you probably love it, just as I do. But I can’t really define it either. Whatever it is is subjective and we all have to set our boundaries for the kinds of music we like to listen to.

Tastes change. I am also a big baseball fan but when I look across the TV channels I see few offerings on national outlets (I see even fewer for bluegrass). Why is football getting air time in the summer along with two golf tournaments and a soccer game when I can no longer find the major league game of the week? Why is there no modern version of Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek (announcers for weekly games long ago for all you younger folks out there)?

It’s because tastes change and if you want to attract an audience you need to keep giving people what they want. Major League Baseball is trying to do this for the modern audience by making rules changes that speed up the game and give it more action.  Hopefully, people will watch it more as a result. It’s such a great game. There’s a reason it was once called the national pastime.

Bluegrass music faces the same conundrum. Like baseball, part of its charm is the connection with a tradition rooted deeply in American culture. What do bluegrass musicians need to do in order to make their music more appealing to general audiences without sacrificing the hard fought efforts of others to make it an identifiable genre in its own right?

Pause for a breath all of you! We have plenty of great bluegrass bands to listen to and they can still push the envelope with new music that appeals to anybody open to it. And almost all of the good bands we call “bluegrass” these days could offer a credible version of most of the classics we might call out from the listening audience at a bluegrass festival.

But where do we draw the line? A reasonable person draws the line at “Hey I like that!” There are actually a few Bill Monroe songs I don’t like. That doesn’t make me less a bluegrass fan. I like Pete Wernick’s use of the phase shifter and Billy Strings’s too. Is that really bluegrass? Would it still be bluegrass if the singer used a pitch correction app?

These issues never crossed the minds of any of the founders of the bluegrass genre. They were simply trying to make great music that would appeal to their listeners. If a brand new style of music was christened by music historians, that was simply a byproduct.

We should all honor the creativity of folks who created music in the old time, gospel and bluegrass styles but I for one don’t want to be caged in to listening to oldies just because they sound authentic. Would Mozart have been composing beautiful sonatas in 1950 or would he have shaken the world of jazz?

There are reasonable questions to ask yourself if you are a fan of bluegrass, old time and gospel music: Is a band really bluegrass if they simply include the required instruments and play all kind of stuff that isn’t familiar to our ears? Is old time music really old timey if they include a stand up bass and allow solos? Should we call music that doesn’t include some of the standard motifs by a different name like “roots music” for example?

We each have to come to our own decision about what qualifies as bluegrass, old time and gospel music. As for me, I’ll just keep listening to what I like and most people would call what I like bluegrass, old time or gospel.

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