The Debate Goes On

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(Editor’s Note: Although Ted is a regular columnist here at and generally writes a column of his own choosing each third Friday of the month, we prevailed upon him this month to allow us to use a post he recently did on the Bluegrass L. The thread was called ‘Country Music’, it once again dealt with the seemingly endless question of how we music lovers keep the old and make room for the new, and Ted’s post stood out from all the others on the thread so strikingly that we felt our site visitors just had to see it.)

I understand that the concern of whether a piece of music or even the body of a band’s work is or isn’t bluegrass will continue to be at issue no matter how many cogent and thoughtful arguments are made from either side of the border. Nevertheless, I think there are some issues that affect the way individuals look at the music they love, and there are also brain chemistry factors that affect what we first like and frequently cling to for the rest of our lives.

Bill Monroe, influenced by the music in and on the air as he developed the band and sound he wanted, took elements from old time music, church hymns, jazz, swing, the country music of his time, and blues (both black and white) and synthesized them into a fast paced music played with acoustic instruments that came to be called “bluegrass” after the name of his band. His music was not, however, fixed in time. As rockabilly and early rhythm and blues came into vogue, Monroe appears to have incorporated parts of those genres into his music. There’s a good reason he’s a member of both the country music and rock & roll halls of fame. He tenaciously guarded “his” music, while adjusting it to fit the times as well. It makes sense to me that as contemporary forms of youth oriented music have changed (I decided not to use the “progressed”) young musicians growing up with that music surrounding them will be influenced by it and bring it to their version of bluegrass, if that’s the direction they choose to go. A good analogy might be found in “classical” music. Compositions from the classical period by Bach and Mozart were not either eliminated or supplanted when Beethoven, then Brahms, then Stravinsky, or even Steve Reich came along. While much new music was not to everyone’s taste (and still isn’t) the genre of symphonic music has expanded to include all these and many more. Similarly, while the music produced by Mountain Heart, Cadillac Sky, or The Infamous Stringdusters (to name only a few) may push the previously supposed limits of bluegrass and not appeal to everyone, it still fits pretty comfortably into the framework that Monroe developed and well within the directions he might have developed himself.

Daniel Levitin (author of the wonderful book “This is Your Brain on Music,” a neuro-scientist who studies the brain chemistry of music) has pointed out that people tend to prefer the music they loved when they were going through puberty. People now in their sixties and seventies heard Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, and the other first generation of bluegrass masters, loved the music, learned to play and sing it, and have carried it with them since then as “their” music. Unfortunately, they continue to age and, as we sadly see in the numbers of those passing on, will not always be with us. The risk is that we will so restrict the idea of what constitutes “bluegrass” that it will die with the passing of these folks or become so extremely restricted as to become a tiny, indistinguishable side road on the music network of roads. We have only to look at Dixieland Jazz, a vestigial musical form practiced primarily by a group of men in their seventies and eighties in a place ironically called Preservation Hall. We don’t want to have to go to the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro to be able to hear music rightly classified at bluegrass played by aging legends and a few young followers. Rather, a vibrant and evolving musical form with bands that some people love and others prefer not to hear is essential to the continued health of the genre.

In our travels we attend lots of festivals, most of which characterize themselves as bluegrass festivals, but some of which expand their names and call themselves music festivals. The bluegrass festivals we attend range from quite traditional to much more eclectic. The ones attracting a greater number of attendees and a broader age range seem clearly to be the ones offering a broader range of sounds under the rubric “bluegrass.” Few individuals attending a three or four day festival choose to sit through every set of every band. Smart promoters assure that the “rockier” bands (for want of a better word) play their edgier sets later in the evening, when many of the older folks have already retired. Smart bands, and they’re not all smart, make sure to show their traditional chops before introducing more innovative sounds. By doing so, they tend to hold their audience. I can imagine nothing more boring than to sit through an entire weekend of regional cover bands playing familiar parking lot music in a manner indistinguishable from the early versions except not played as well. We, as members of audiences or as performers, can make choices based on our own preferences, but the long term health of acoustic music played with traditional bluegrass instruments will depend on bringing younger people into the music while teaching them to respect the founders, learn to reproduce and interpret their sounds, while introducing new themes and sounds to the music that incorporate more contemporary musical ideas. Through this route, we can assure the preservation of a great tradition while continuing to encourage innovation. We can only trust that the market for good musical ideas will select that which is passed on to succeeding generations. <

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