In a recent article in the New Yorker Jonah Lehrer discusses a well-known problem-solving strategy known as brainstorming. As a graduate student and later as a teacher, I had bought into the idea and sought to teach my students how to generate ideas by throwing them out uncritically until a mass of thoughts were generated later to be assessed and combined into new ideas. The strategy was widely believed to be the most creative approach to problem solving. The only problem, according the Lehrer, is that the strategy doesn’t work. Rather, people working through problems with intense attention paid to analysis and presenting alternatives create more excellent ideas for development than do brainstormers. Often solitary individuals working alone and rubbing their ideas up against those of others around them lead to much better thinking and building.
Bill Monroe, working with his brother Charley in late depression years and through World War II sought to create a commercial music in order to make a living among fellow southern expatriates living in the industrial ring around the Great Lakes. He took the music he had grown up with, church music and old-time folk songs, and combined them with what he’d learned from Arnold Schwartz, a black guitarist who lived near Monroe’s home in Rosine, KY, mixed them together with the jazz and blues that had traveled up the Mississippi to Chicago and stirred it together into what he called “my music.” He and Charley split, so Monroe put together a new band he called The Blue Grass Boys which soon began to have an impact performing and recording. He was inducted into the Grand Old Opry and became a star. In late 1945 he added Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to the mixture and a super-charged band, still called The Blue Grass Boys emerged. For years Monroe resisted calling his music bluegrass.
Meanwhile, the folk revival and the rock and roll revolution came along, and Monroe incorporated more sounds into his music, which he had, I think grudgingly, begun to allow to be called bluegrass. Soon he became fiercely protective of the sound. We’ve all heard from people who came to play for Monroe that, when they sounded precisely like him, he would tell them to go discover what their own sound was and develop it. From that period until today, musicians have listened to the music created by Bill Monroe and added their own spin to it, sometimes adhering closely to Monroe’s model and sometimes veering far away. They all, however, have been deeply influenced by what Monroe wrought.
Somewhere along the way, people playing what they came to call “bluegrass music” decided they needed to codify it and seek to define it into a box. The research on creativity suggests that narrowing the scope and defining too clearly only serves to stifle thinkers and creators. Fine musicians, by their very nature, are a questing, creative bunch of people. Each performer wishes to be recognized for vocal or instrumental styles and sounds that serve to define them and make them distinctive. Vocal stylings and specific instrumental licks and techniques serve to achieve this goal. One can only wonder why people wishing to achieve distinction would wish to play just like Earl or Tony or sing like Rhonda or Alison. But distinguishing oneself is hard work which eludes most performers. That’s why the ones who stand out are often the most rewarded. They sound like themselves and create changes in the genres they perform in, sometimes in a revolutionary way and sometimes by degree, but they do create change. In bluegrass we always seek to find something different while striving to keep it within generally recognizable forms and sounds. Some bluegrass songs, as Ron Thomason humorously pointed out, differ only in the words. The questions that frequently arise have more to do with how close to the recognizable forms they must remain in order to continue to called “bluegrass.” This probably is not a fruitful question to ask in the face of wishing to stand out.
Barry Crabtree once commented that we shouldn’t worry so much about the future of bluegrass. He said there’s an endless stream of people becoming sixty-five and wishing to retire to music that doesn’t attack their ears, has a familiar ring to it, and provides a degree of comfort while allowing them to pursue a comfortable life-style of socializing, napping, jamming, and eating in their RV’s. They constitute an ever self-recreating audience for traditional music. But even these people come to bluegrass music influenced by the popular music of their day. So today we see young musicians who view themselves as traditional because they cover music and re-create the styles of bands like IIIrd Tyme Out, LRB, the Gibson Brothers, and Balsam Range, or even the Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band or Mumford & Sons. These are the contemporary bands that set the stage for today’s creators. While some study and include earlier influences, the last generation or two move into stronger positions as influences. It’s inevitable that our grand children’s bluegrass will show influences of punk and even hip-hop in their music. It’s also inevitable that evolving technology creates new opportunities for excellence. Plugging in permits, no…it demands, movement on the stage. And why do today’s bluegrass performers insist on singing into vocal microphones when such high quality head sets are available?
So change in the music we listen to and love will happen. Can we include the new developments in our universe of bluegrass (or bluegrass influenced) music, or will we shuffle off angrily declaring that they’re not making music like they used to and deprive ourselves of the excitement and creativity each new generation brings to the music?