What is the future of bluegrass? What do we want it to be?
For some, bluegrass should progress in a thick, straight line, embracing, celebrating and emulating the sounds and songs of the beloved pioneers of the music. Banjo playing must sound like Earl Scruggs, or JD Crowe. Mandolins must sound like Bill Monroe, John Duffy or Jesse McReynolds. Guitars must sound like Jimmy Martin, or Lester Flatt. The path to the bluegrass future shall follow the creed of pure, simple arrangements, and fervent solo, duet and trio harmonies.
The future of bluegrass will certainly contain a large component of the above – it is the trunk of the Bluegrass Family Tree.
But, bluegrass is an art form, and art always probes the boundaries. While some musicians can make a life’s work out of trying to exactly nail that classic sound, others will seek to impart their own sensibilities onto the standard bluegrass template, and often with astonishing success.
The power and simplicity of classic bluegrass makes it an ideal jumping-off point for a number of different directions. Some of these directions will inspire others to join in and contribute, and the Bluegrass FamilyTree grows branches in many directions.
I saw a band this weekend – familiar to many of you: Front Country. Extremely capable young musicians, playing with great energy and respect for bluegrass, but their muse definitely takes them out to the branches. As I watched them again (they’re local musicians for me), I thought “Wow! This is the future of bluegrass!”
As I thought about it more, though, I realized the future of bluegrass isn’t any one band or any one sound. It’ll just be incremental additions to most of the branches on that Bluegrass Tree.
For those who despair that not enough attention is paid to the core sound of bluegrass, I say “Feh!”. We’re all doing that, and it matters. Walk around any festival, and many, if not most of the jams are playing the classics, and everyone’s trying to step into the shoes of the masters, if only for a few glorious minutes.
And then there are other jams with a swingier tone, or a gypsy-jazz flavor, or a country state of mind. And quite often, musicians will move freely among these jams and stretch their musical muscles and enjoy the joy of just playing.
Every one of these jams contribute to the future of bluegrass music, and none threatens any part of that future, in this writer’s opinion.
The weather’s gettin’ cold folks, let’s hunker down and play some music to get us through the winter!