The Bluegrass Band Wagon

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Wikipedia’s definition of “Band Wagon” = “In layman’s terms the bandwagon effect refers to people doing certain things because other people are doing them, regardless of their own beliefs, which they may ignore or override. The perceived popularity of an object or person may have an effect on how it is viewed on a whole. For instance, once a product becomes popular, more people tend to ‘get on the bandwagon’ and buy it too.”

In recent years we’ve seen luminaries who have great musical careers, outside of Planet Bluegrass, leave their own planet and land on Planet Blue.

Alan Jackson, the famous traditional country music star, was recently on the “Letterman TV Show” with eight famous bluegrass pickers, including two who sang backup harmony. Jackson had a notable career as a Country Music Star, but lately Nashville’s version of country music has put Jackson in the margins of the song sheets. What to do? Try to reinvent yourself. Go bluegrass.
Then we have Ricky Skaggs. Ricky went from bluegrass to country, and when Country abandoned him he went back to bluegrass. Course he “countrified” bluegrass to a certain extent when he crossed over from bluegrass, so he didn’t leave his bluegrass roots completely, even though those roots were disguised with the addition of electric guitars, drums, and Nashville producers. After Ricky’s songs weren’t hitting the music charts he went back to bluegrass. Ricky proved “You Can Go Home Again.”

And along came Elvis. Elvis Costello that is. Bluegrass with an English twist. If you sing songs not written for bluegrass and your band is Stewart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, and Jerry Douglas on dobro, is it bluegrass or are you just trying to get on the blue wagon?

Steve Martin. Now here’s a guy who started out playing bluegrass songs on the banjo before he got famous. Then he played the banjo while he got famous doing stand-up comedy. Then he got famous as a movie star who wasn’t playing banjo in the movies. Lately he got out his banjo(s) and is touring with a bluegrass band (Steep Canyon Rangers) playing his own songs (except for an occasional “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”). I’ve yet to hear Steve play Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow.” I think Steve built his own “Bluegrass” Band Wagon, and is having a good ride.

And there are others who have left their own vehicles and have hitched a ride on the blue painted wagon. Merle Haggard’s CD comes to mind.

But what about the guys and gals who have struggled all their lives trying to make a living playing bluegrass music, and don’t make enough money to put large sums of cash into the too-big-to-fail-banks?

Money talks? Yes it does, and we need the green stuff to survive. So it is understandable why some musicians outside of the bluegrass realm enter into it “feet-first” to jump-start a sagging career, or just try to reinvent themselves for a while. This is American, where anybody can be what they want, or do what they want (within reason), but is it fair to have a “biggie” in country or pop music cruise into the sea of bluegrass and have a hit CD/record, while there are real, organic bluegrass folks who have struggled years and years and never able to make the “big bucks?”

One school of thought is, “Where do these people get off?” They can’t make it big anymore in their music careers, so they cling to bluegrass music. Bluegrass has historically been viewed by the “Nashvillans” as the illegitimate cousin of country music. But now and then they want to become true brothers instead of cousins. Money talks again.

Another school of thought, “Country and pop icons who make bluegrass albums promote bluegrass nationally and internationally.” No doubt that as a result of that bluegrass music gains in popularity, but is the end result that authentic bluegrass gets watered-down? Who is next? Bruce Springsteen? Josh Groban? The Three Tenors? Miley Cyrus? And what is the overall effect on “pure” bluegrass? Big tent, little tent, pup tent, no tent?

Bottom line is, people like you and I cannot stop the evolutionary bluegrass wheel. So we have a choice to go with whatever we want; traditional, Newgrass, progressive, Dawg music, or any band with a banjo or fiddle playing any kind of music that is eventually produced here on planet earth.

Have you stuck with traditional bluegrass? Have you gone over to the other side, embracing the country singers and pop singers who sound just like they used to, but have a bluegrass behind them staring at the backside of a bluegrass wannabe? How about you? Are you on the Bluegrass Band Wagon? If so, where is it taking you?

Thinking about it more, the concept of things changing and not becoming what they once were is a naturally occurring phenomenon. You know, there is “bluegrass,” and then there is “bluegrass,” and the two are related, if only in a distant way, like non kissing second or third cousins, but still recognizing each other (even if they don’t admit it to others).

Maybe it’s the same reason the brain produces a consciousness that allows itself to think about itself. Because it can.

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