The Big Tent of Bluegrass

Dick Bowden’s reference in a recent comment on the HVBA website to the “big tent, anything goes” nature of bluegrass music these days got me thinking…I started to outline some thoughts in a comment but the comment grew too long so I wrote this blog post instead.

One sure way to begin an impassioned argument among bluegrass fans is to ask whether some song or band is or isn’t “bluegrass.” I suspect this has been the case as long as bluegrass has been recognized as a separate musical genre. The arguments arise because people naturally harbor an ideal of what bluegrass is, or at least believe that there are some boundaries beyond which the music becomes something else. In my case, and probably in the case of lots of fans of the old stuff, these views are often based on heartfelt opinions about what the music should be, rather than descriptions of what it is.

Scholars of the music such as Neil Rosenberg have offered descriptive definitions of what bluegrass is (or at least, was, in 1985, when Rosenberg published his monumental bluegrass history). In sum, Rosenberg calls bluegrass a type of “hillbilly” music originally popular among working class rural people in the mountain south, professional and commercial from its inception in the mid-1940s, performed in concert-like settings, dependent upon the microphone, played on acoustic instruments, including the banjo, guitar, fiddle, string bass, mandolin, and dobro. He notes that the music is played in bands at brisk tempos, and often features intricate vocal harmony, sung at a high pitch (“the high lonesome sound’). Rosenberg also cites common themes of the repertoire, classic and modern (again, as of 1985), including sacred tunes. And he says that bluegrass is “notable for its attention to execution and form.” Form (instrumentation, performance style, etc.) is key to many fans, according to Rosenberg, and even “progressive” repertoire is considered bluegrass by fans so long as it has the proper formal characteristics.

Although dated, Rosenberg’s summary, or one like it, still probably describes what many people mean when they talk about bluegrass. In fact, form probably counts for more than anything else. All kinds of music are considered bluegrass if they satisfy at least a few of the formal characteristics Rosenberg cites, most importantly that the music is played on bluegrass instruments.

Whatever one might think of it, today this “big tent” definition of bluegrass is a fact of life. I recently learned how big the tent has grown. Last fall I bought a new car, which came with a four-month trial of satellite radio. There is a bluegrass channel, and so for the first time in many years I listened to a lot of contemporary bluegrass. I didn’t like most of it. This was my personal reaction, based in part on the fact that I have always liked more traditional bluegrass and in part on my personal critical judgment that some of the songs weren’t very good.

I am not criticizing the musicianship or the production values. The musical technique has never been higher than it is now. The modern pickers and singers all are incredibly accomplished technicians, and good technique is necessary to play good bluegrass. Moreover, the recordings themselves are very well produced and sound very lifelike through the speakers. It was the substance of a lot of the material that I didn’t care for.

The tunes I didn’t like much tended to be of two types. First, I heard a lot of acoustic alternative sounding music played on bluegrass instruments. These artists tended to be younger and sounded less rooted in the older styles of music, and this perceived lack of that old time vibe was primarily what I didn’t care for. I didn’t really have a quibble with the songwriting, and I understand that musicians of each generation must play music that has meaning for them. And even I will admit to liking some of the music of some of these pickers and singers.

Second were songs that sounded very like modern country music played on bluegrass instruments. These songs sounded more like bluegrass to me. But I thought a lot of them were poorly written. Many seemed to me to be mechanical invocations of every bluegrass stereotype, schlocky, hackneyed, and cliché-ridden, devoid of emotional resonance, and completely forgettable. Granted, there aren’t many songs, old or new, that pack the wallop of “White Dove,” but so much of what I heard was unimaginative, without a single arresting image or feeling. In Orwell’s memorable phrase, the lyrics of these songs often sounded as if they were tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

This kind of thing seems to be very popular, and what I think of it doesn’t really matter since most bluegrass music consumers think otherwise. People like what they like. And the “big tent” approach makes sense from the viewpoint of a trade association like the International Bluegrass Music Association. The primary goal of a trade association is to further the economic well being of its members. Stated another way, the goal is to make music that appeals to a wide variety of listeners in order to sell as much of it as possible. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that approach. Music professionals need to make a living and this past year especially has been very difficult for them. Narrowly defining what music “qualifies” as bluegrass is counterproductive. The stuff one hears on bluegrass radio is popular with listeners or the stations wouldn’t play it. My goal here is to explain why a lot of it doesn’t move me like the old stuff does.

Fans of the modern style say, with some justification, that bluegrass can’t be mired in the past and must evolve in order to survive. Younger fans want music that speaks to them the way the older tunes speak to people my age. Today’s pickers and singers shouldn’t simply recycle what Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, etc., were doing 60 years ago. At some level this is obviously true, of bluegrass and other genre musics like jazz and blues.

Perhaps it is possible to sort of have it both ways. There are modern songwriters who write bluegrass songs that are solidly rooted in the past but are nonetheless contemporary. As an example, the Gibson Brothers’ perform their songs in stunning brother duet harmony. And the songs they record, many written by the Gibsons themselves, often explore classic country and bluegrass themes in a thoughtful and original way. Recent Gibson Brothers songs like “Remember Who You Are,” “Friend Of Mine,” and “In the Ground” are good examples of modern works that, in my view, hold their own with the classics. Another example of a (sort of) modern song that I think is elegantly written, “Where Corn Don’t Grow,” was a country hit for Waylon Jennings around 1990 that the Grascals covered in bluegrass. It treats vividly and sensitively a common theme, the boy who, ignoring dad’s warning, leaves the farm for a better life in the city only to find urban life just as hard. I have included links to all four of these songs below.

Ultimately the music one likes or doesn’t like is a matter of taste and it generally pays to be reasonably open minded so as not to deny oneself the pleasure of new music that one might enjoy. Whether a song fits one’s definition of bluegrass should ultimately matter less than whether one thinks the song is any good. And as someone whose taste leans decidedly toward the older styles, I am encouraged by the fact that, along with the boundary pushers, there are still many young bluegrass musicians who are writing and performing good material in the styles of the early bluegrass masters. I hope there will always be room in the big tent for bands like the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, the latest in a long and great line of “new traditionalist” outfits going back at least to the Johnson Mountain Boys 40 years ago.

One Response

  • Bluegrass. What is it? I was introduced to bluegrass back in the late 60’s when Beverly Hillbillies was a hit TV show. It was Ralph, a co-worker, a bluegrass fan and a budding bluegrass musician who got me interested in playing the banjo, Scruggs style of course. Shortly thereafter I changed jobs, moved away and lost contact with Ralph. The banjo wound up in the closet along with a guitar that I was going to learn to play. Fast forward 50 years; I discovered the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association. My latent interest was revived and my opinion of what bluegrass was and still is to some extent that if Flat and Scruggs isn’t behind the mike, then it mustn’t be bluegrass. Then I went to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. What an eye opener! I discovered a whole array of “bluegrass” music on one of the secondary stages: is this piece bluegrass or is it country? How about this, sounds more like rock ‘n roll to me, or why is this here? Shouldn’t these dudes be wearing black ties and tails? Is Bill Monroe rolling over or applauding? Either way, I am enjoying all of it.

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