New Feature: Let’s Talk

I’ll Give You a Topic and then – Let’s Talk

The title comes from a gag in an old Saturday Nite Live skit called “Coffee Talk”. Two Queens ladies and a guest would prattle about everyday life: “dogs, coffee, daughters, we’ll talk!” After a while the lead lady would say something like “I’ll give you a topic – Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island – Discuss!” (Of course one of the ladies was played by Mike Myers in drag…

So instead of a Trivia Question, I’ll give you a topic – you discuss! Using the Comments section at the bottom of the column, please write in with your thoughts. Just keep it civil. It’s OK to say you don’t like something, just avoid personal attacks.

So, let’s try this out and see what happens, OK? If you’d like to remain anonymous for the follow-up column we’ll take care of that. I hope we can have some fun, and learn more about the bluegrass thoughts of our on-line followers.

I’ll Give You a Topic – Do you enjoy/tolerate/or actively dislike seeing bluegrass bands who “plug in” for their concerts, and why? Let’s Talk!

I’ll tell you, I got positively downhearted at the last IBMA Week I attended in Raleigh NC in 2014. At the outdoor “street fair” free concerts (there were around 10 separate street stages) nearly every band was plugged in, very loud, and the band members were swanning around on the stage like rock ‘n’ rollers. Even some of the bands at the “indoor” concerts were plugged in. Singers of course stuck to the mics, but instruments went “free range”. I fully expect soon to see singers wearing those head mics like they now use on Broadway and at seminars/conferences. Yuck! To me, this is just too far from the spirit and practice of bluegrass as it existed from the beginning through the end of the 20th century. I’m a firm believer that “bluegrass sounds the same when the power goes off”. It disheartens me to see a few modern bands that I really would like to love, but their habits of plugging in just make my spirits drop. What are your thoughts?

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

10 Responses

  • For a couple reasons, I too am not a fan of plugged in bluegrass. Perhaps my view is based in part on lack of exposure to bands that do it well, or perhaps it results from my not liking the bands that I have heard who plug in. For whatever reason, I have never heard a pickup that I thought captured the true sound of a bluegrass instrument as well as a decent mic. Further, I do not care for the sound of an electric bass in bluegrass. Although it can be tweaked by a good sound engineer to sound close to an upright bass fiddle, most electric basses I have heard on festival stages are intrusive when played with bluegrass instruments. Starting in the 90s, a lot of the “shirttail bands” turned the bass up loud to (over)emphasize the rhythm section. The whole groove of the music they played changed, toward more of a rock feel. It is popular, I guess, and ultimately with commercial music what really matters is its ability to win acceptance in the marketplace.

    Perhaps bands playing on the street need extra volume to be heard over traffic and other noises particular to that setting. But those reasons don’t apply to festivals or indoor shows, and plugged in bluegrass can be found there too. In the 1960s the Osborne Brothers were criticized by festival audiences for putting pickups on their instruments and turning the amps up loud. Banjoist Sonny Osborne explained that they needed the extra volume to compete with the electric guitars, electric basses, and drums of the country bands they often toured with. The Osbornes were Grand Old Opry members and a lot of their music leaned toward Nashville. Maybe it was too much trouble for them to reconfigure their shows for bluegrass festival audiences. In any case, they later abandoned the pickups.

    As Groucho Marx never said, “These are my opinions. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

  • If you are playing outdoors you must plug in the upright bass, or else you can’t hear it if you are more than twenty feet away. Believe me, as a long time roadie for a bass player, I hate schlepping the big amp, loading and unloading into the SUV, but it’s necessary. And being of the school of “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” I always throw in an electric bass in case the sound post collapses. In all the times I have packed it, we only needed it once, but better safe than sorry. Note to Editor: See, I do read the HVBA Newsletter.

  • As my wife often says to me, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
    But she’s not around right now, so….
    I tolerate it because I don’t wanna get all worked up about it – bad for the blood pressure — but I’m generally not a fan.
    In most bluegrass settings, if the right equipment is in place, and if the sound engineers/crew are experienced pros – I’m not convinced that there’s a need to “plug in”. Except for perhaps the upright acoustic bass. (No solid body or EUB bass guitars in bluegrass por favor.)
    Having said that, there are settings and circumstances where “plugging in” is clearly the path of least resistance — and where the overall sound is not critically compromised by using pickups (and yikes, sometimes even pedalboards) instead of mics.
    For me, at the end of the day, the musical performance itself rules the day – and not the “plugged in or not” variable.

  • Good points Andy. Thank you. Let’s hear others’ thoughts! Additionally, throw out some future topics for “Let’s Talk”.

  • Todd, “pedalboard”???? Lordy, it’s worse than I thought.

    Appreciate all the comments. Interesting angles on the issue.

    Steve, last night I watched an approx. 30 year old tv program (The Wilburn Brothers show on RFD tv) where Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mt. Boys were the guests. They sang the old quartet “When the Savior Reached Down For Me” all pressed around one mic. The blend of their voices was so terrific, and especially their final long note, that I cheered out loud. There’s something special about a bluegrass band crowding in and self-managing their mix at a single mic. Then Del McCoury appeared on the Marty Stuart Show, and the FIVE of them leaning in and out of the single mic on “Nashville Cats” was a visual treat. A well done single mic act sounds better and even LOOKS better!

  • Hi Dick,

    I think the best sounding show I’ve ever seen (heard?) was Dave Peterson and 1946 at the then newly opened Basement in Nashville playing through one mic. When I got back home, my band immediately switch to one mic and it made setting up for shows much easier.

  • When I was playing with The Case Brothers – Martin & Gibson, out of Ossining, we experimented with a number of mic set ups. We sort of settled on an old “Elvis” style Shure mic for vocals, and two Shure 57s — one for each instrument. The problem was there was no overlap between these mics, so you could “hear” us move toward or away from the vocal mic. Basically, too much “proximity” effect, I guess. We watched a lot of other acts to see what they used and noticed a few bands starting to use the big black cylindrical Audio Technica mics that hung vertically in elastic suspension rigs. Although they were a little bit expensive, they seemed to have wider pick up but less proximity effect. So we invested in a pair of them; one set high for vocals and the other at waist height for mandolin breaks. There was good overlap between them and we were very satisfied. We had tried using just one, but Gibson Case didn’t like to have to hold his mandolin up at shoulder height to play it into the mic. So two it was.

    We played a little festival up in Maine with these mics. The somewhat newly renamed Del McCoury Band was on the bill too, and they were quite impressed with our mics and asked if they could try them out and of course we said Shure! (Ha ha) They struggled a little to let go of the habits they had developed playing on traditional Shure 57s and 58s, except for Del, he had worked good mics before! After the first set we advised Rob and Ronnie that they didn’t have to push their bellies out to get their instruments as close as possible to the mics. Just stand there and pick and the mics will pick you up fine. Second set they were convinced! Next time we saw them they were working with two Audio Technicas plus a bass fiddle mic, and the never looked back. It added the whole “choreography” thing to their show that they are known for now.

    I remember the first bluegrass festivals I enjoyed in 1970-74 used wonderful stage mics, big ElectroVoice mics that hung horizontally in elastic suspensions. (This is the type of mic you see Howard Stern using on radio.) NO FESTIVAL ever had more than two of these on stage, plus perhaps a bass fiddle mic. EVERY band had good choreography then. But these mics were expensive, and delicate, and shortly gave way to cheap Shure mics for each voice and each instrument. And then bluegrass bands stopped moving, and released control of the “mix” of their sound, to the sound man. The much maligned sound man…

    The closest other band was Hot Rize, with one big German AKG mic to sing on, and one instrument mic at waist height on either side. They always gathered in tight to that AKG mic to sing.

    A lot of us have experienced seeing Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys on stage live or on video. We usually think of them as standing in a line, each with his own mic, with one vocal mic somewhat near the middle. “Choreography” only for singing. If you can find some OLD tv video from the 1960s you can see them work a single mic expertly. Kenny Baker knew his single mic choreography! As did the singers, and the banjo men. Monroe was BIG and impressive in his moves in and out of the mic. And he didn’t mind holding the mandolin high!

    So I’m not only a grump about “plugged in” bands. I’m a grump about 5 piece bands using 10 mics! And then yelling at the sound man all through their set to “turn it up!” or “turn this down” or “turn me up in the monitor!”

    Bluegrass Hall of Famer the late Pete Kuykendall of Bluegrass Unlimited had a term for us troglodytes. He would bless you by saying “You’re a moldy fig, like me!” I think he dubbed me a Moldy Fig with Poison Oak Leaf Cluster.

  • Great history there, Dick. Martin and Gibson Case had a lot of fans in this corner of the world back in the day. Those were some very enjoyable shows.

  • Thanks everybody for the nice discussion. Let’s do this again in a couple of weeks. Anyone care to throw out a topic?

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