Blue Yodel #4 – Sissy Bounce Bluegrass

While publicly I’m all for big tents that allow more people to be part of (or at least buy a ticket for) this thing we call bluegrass, personally I have a very narrow definition:

Bluegrass is whatever Bill Monroe whistled in the shower between 1929 and 1996.

This satisfies my two requirements for any definition of a musical genre: 1) it’s specific, and 2) it’s ridiculous. But that’s just me. You may require a banjo in the shower.

Some people love to get worked up over things like Doyle Lawson’s use of a snare drum and electric bass. I’ve tried to get worked up over it, but besides there being more important things to think about—such as how the heck did that snail make it all the way up the back stairs?—I keep coming back to the fact that I trust Doyle to know what sound he likes and what will help his band make a living. And that’s just two of the 12,559 reasons why nobody should be judging Doyle Lawson. He’s forgotten more about bluegrass than most of us will ever know.

But I think I have the antidote to this What Is Bluegrass, Anyway (WIBA) bug that’s been going around. While the bluegrass community has been struggling to define itself under one name, the rest of the music industry has gone on happily subgenre-ing itself into the pocketbooks of a grateful nation.

We don’t need to narrow or broaden our definition of bluegrass. We need new subgenres to describe all the different sounds that make up bluegrass in 2011. (Some of you just thought, “Okay, I can think of two—there’s the Lonesome River Band sound and the Leftover Salmon sound.” Stay with me here.)

Just as there used to be only a few TV channels, there were once only a few musical genres: rock-n-roll, country & western, jazz, classical and Spike Jones. Today, genres include (among others): ambient techno, bitpop, metalcore, clownstep, liquid funk, sissy bounce, melodic death metal, Ninetendocore, oldschool jungle, trancestep, crunk, crunkcore, crunkadelia (okay, I made that up), shoegaze (I didn’t make that up), chillwave, glitch, laptronica, bubblegum dance, electroclash, grind, hip house, stoner metal, fidget house, Japanoise, psybient, triphop, and my favorite: Yorkshire bleeps and bass. I imagine there are people out there arguing about what is and isn’t Yorkshire bleeps and bass. WIYBBA.

What I’m proposing is not a big tent, but a lot of little tents where we can all get a good night’s sleep and then meet at the campfire where we can have a civil time together, but it’s getting late and I have a nice, comfortable tent of my own, thank you. I mean, it’s been a lovely evening, but I can’t even get along with the mandolin player and you’re asking me to move in with that band with the didgeridoo? Yeah, yeah, bluegrass is a mansion of many rooms, but how come they get the room with a view?

So far, the only subgenre of bluegrass we’ve had is newgrass. That’s how traditional this music is; until now, the one subgenre has had to rhyme with bluegrass.

If bands could come up with new subgenres then we’d avoid rambling responses like this to the question What kind of music do you play? “Well, it’s kind of bluegrass but with a techno beat and Jamie here writes most of our stuff and he’s into Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of stuff about dwarfs and dragons, but it all relates back to the secret messages that Bill Monroe put in all his songs.” Instead of that, he could have just said, “Geekgrass.”

There are a couple of ways to go with this. We could borrow already-existing genres from the pop world and just add the word bluegrass or grass after it. Hence, gangstagrass or perhaps sissy bounce bluegrass (if you are on heart medication, don’t Google this).

Here are a few other suggestions:

Boom Chick: a particularly danceable version of bluegrass where the downbeat and upbeat are emphasized to the point where everybody wants to dance, but they know they’re not supposed to, so they don’t.

Ship Hop: The kind of bluegrass you get on cruise ships when someone in the band has visited the bar too often and is now launching into bluegrass versions of Jimmy Buffet songs without notifying the other band members.

Funnel Cake Bounce: This requires all band members to weigh over 300 pounds and jump up and down on the first downbeat of each measure.

Reno Boom: This is where the banjo player gets going so fast playing his/her Don Reno single-string licks that he/she crosses the sound barrier and sets off a sonic boom. Not to be confused with Reno Bop, which has nothing to do with Don Reno, but rather it’s when the banjo player has lost all his (women are too smart for this) money in the slots at a cheap casino in Reno and doesn’t care what he sounds like anymore.

Melodic Death Dobro: This is where the banjo player thinks he can play the dobro just because it’s tuned in G. Usually played to a ballad, the resulting caucaphony sounds like an F-16 just crashed into a Yo-Yo Ma Concert.

Ambient Trad: Each member of the band plays a different traditional bluegrass song at the same time in different keys. This creates a kind of Phil Spector wall of sound, which has been known to make some audience members so angry they will stand at the band’s record table for an hour after the show and not buy a CD.

Gene Pool: A subgenre describing family bands who decide to have another child because they “need a dobro player.” It’s not so much a sound as a haunted look in the eyes of the younger children.

Yorkshire Bleeps and Bass Bluegrass: I have no idea; I just like saying it.

This idea has three merits: 1) we can finally stop trying to define bluegrass and worry about our logos, 2) we can all win Grammys in our respective subgenres, and 3) it’ll look cool on t-shirts.

You may be asking, “What do we do with the word bluegrass then?” A better question would be, “What’s that snail doing on my couch and is it dangerous?” In fact, there are a lot of better questions, because the word bluegrass will survive as it always has. It’s too cool to ever go away. It has the word blue in it, which brings up images of Miles Davis, and the word grass, which brings up images of Jerry Garcia. Put them together and you get a guy named Jerry Davis who was my seventh grade Chemistry teacher. He was definitely not cool, so I see I’ve ended this paragraph by demolishing my own point.

Let me try again. Put them together and you get Miles Garcia, which happens to be the secret name for the Dos Equis guy, the most interesting man in the world.

There. Instead of arguing about what is or isn’t bluegrass, I just came up with a marketing plan. Bluegrass: The Most Interesting Music in the World. Now With 52 Subgenres!

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at www.chrisstuart.com. On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.

  • Ned Luberecki

    I think Scruggscore has a nice ring to it. Rock on Chris!

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  • Jon Weisberger

    “Crabgrass” – playing in the style of, uh, someone (and no, I’m not thinking of Barry Crabtree) – is just too obvious, isn’t it?

  • I have some good friends who performed as Crabgrass back in the 1980s. Great band name.

  • Mike Bub

    Well said Chris! You know, these mini tents are actually all over the country….there is one in Boston, there are several in North Carolina and there a a few in California, there’s a few in Colorado and we even have one right here in old East Nashville, TN. And there are more world wide. The World of Bluegrass (both philosophically and IBMA’s) should be for and about all these mini tents. There is much to learn, share and do to enlarge your mini tent and IBMA is merely a conduit to do this. Bill Monroe had his own mini tent (a big top actually!) and look at the mini tents that grew from it. I’ve pitched one myself with our band 18 South. While we don’t claim to be a bluegrass band by any means, we have deep bluegrass roots that make our little tent fit in some strange way with what bluegrass people like to hear: Great singing, well chosen songs, harmony, tasteful instrumental work, good timing and on and on. We are not in the business of changing bluegrass or even reinventing it..we’re merely using our individual bluegrass influences and experience to create something new and different that any bluegrass fan would appreciate.

    • Lynwood Lunsford

      “We are not in the business of changing bluegrass or even reinventing it..we’re merely using our individual bluegrass influences and experience to create something new and different that any bluegrass fan would appreciate.”

      But if your music is still being marketed as “Bluegrass”, eventhough you’ve admitted to creating something new a different, then you are reinventing “Bluegrass”. I encourage anyone to create and play the music that comes from your heart! But if that music doesn’t have what makes bluegrass, “Bluegrass”, then don’t call it that. Find a new, appropriate name for it and market the heck out of it! My problem is the practice of riding the name “Bluegrass”, because it is more established and more marketable, while playing something that is clearly different.

      • Dennis Jones

        Amen.

      • Mike Bub

        We’re not being marketed as Bluegrass nor are we calling it Bluegrass (because we know what that is)….Soulful Southern Roots Music is the handle we use. We do embrace our roots and where we come from and the music definitely comes from the heart. So, we look for gigs that fit the profile of events that appreciate all forms of roots music and most bluegrass fans like what we do. The problem with Bluegrass is the same problem that many genres have, you don’t have to go far to find mediocre interpretations of any of kind of music. It’s at that point that the individual has to decide if it’s any good or not and how to classify it. You have a solid, clear connection to an easily defined traditional bluegrass pedigree and one that I appreciate and respect a great deal. But not everyone has the history, the teachers or experiences that you (or I) have had and that is what makes us different than those who blur the lines that we may draw as to what is and isn’t Bluegrass. Louise Scruggs hardly, if ever, used the word Bluegrass to describe what Flatt & Scruggs did (especially during the Revue years…most definitely not bluegrass but it did contain one key ingredient that a lot of bluegrassers liked: EARL!) yet they played a clear and defining role in the genre’s development. In the big picture it may have helped them to go beyond the confines of being labeled so specifically to a genre…their huge success is a testament to that. Ask Mac Wiseman about it sometime…he got labeled Bluegrass because of his early career but later recorded all kinds of music from other genres but never gained any ground on the radio or other genre’s that he was quite capable of performing. Double edged sword. Now, there is Americana music which truly is undefinable…but Bluegrass and Bluegrassy sounds are a part of their “tent”. I think you and I agree way more than we disagree. We are very fortunate to have been around the true masters and originators of this music…an education that is rarely available to young players these days. We made it in before the end of the era…..yes, there are a few left, but in a few years they will be an even more precious and rare commodity. Your tent is pretty specific and defined and I can relate to it…it’s others that may call it closed minded or old fashioned. But thankfully, you and others, will always wave the traditional flag and show the folks what the real deal is. I have seen and experienced all sides of this…no greater was it portrayed than when Del McCoury teamed up with Steve Earle. Even Steve said, “a lot of people that are your fans, and mine, won’t get this, but we have to focus on the folks that do.” It grew Del’s fan base enormously even though he probably got more criticism from his fans than he ever had in his career. I’m sure the same happened when Earl Scruggs formed the Revue with his boys. That’s big tent and there are people out there who just love and live for all kinds of music and don’t really care to put any label on it other than good or not good….I relate to that too.

        • Lynwood Lunsford

          Very good points Mike! And you’re right, we agree much more than disagree! I do feel fortunate to have “studied” under one of the 1st generation greats. And I guess I feel an obligation to him to make sure “his” music doesn’t die. Or get diluted to the point that it becomes unrecognizable. I’m not strictly a “traditionlist”……..I love all types of “Bluegrass” (if it’s played well, of course) but it has to be “Bluegrass”. Not something billed as such but without it’s key elements. Good luck to you with your SSR music. As ol’ Jimmy would say; “I hope you sell another million!”

  • Dennis Jones

    Then there’s “Faux-Grass”…”Near-Grass”…”Bluegrass-ish”…”Digi-Grass”(ProTooled to death), and my favorite…”Edge of The Yard” 🙂

    Good article Chris.

  • Josh

    Googled Sissy Bounce Bluegrass against Chris Stuart’s specific advice not to do so. I’m on Paxil now.

    (You shouldn’t-a oughta advised against it, Chris. This is your fault.)

    • Dennis Jones

      I actually got a “Gangsta-Grass” CD in the mail. I didn’t sleep for a week.

  • arnie fleischer

    Didn’t Flatt & Scruggs “reinvent” bluegrass while being marketed (if that term applied in the 50’s) as bluegrass? And the Stanley Brothers, too? And the Osborne Brothers (unless it was Monroe who came up with pile-down harmony), and Jim & Jesse, and just about anyone else you can think of who departed from Monroe’s original (post-accordion, post-Stringbean) model?

    • Lynwood Lunsford

      No, because they all included the 5-string banjo, played in the 3-finger syncopated style popularized by Earl Scruggs when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Alot of the “big tent” bands being branded as “Bluegrass”, do not incorporate this element in their music.

      • Mike Bub

        Well, in my opinion, yes and no. I don’t think the term Bluegrass actually identified “the music” until the late fifties or early sixties…maybe along the time or just prior to the incarnation of the Bluegrass Festival. In the fifties, all those bands were grouped together with a variety of country acts and packaged together with them. The festival was both a saving grace for bluegrass acts that no longer could get on the radio and also a dumping ground for bands that no longer could garner much airplay or compete aurally with the contemporary country acts of the period with the advent of drums and amps. All this might be attributed to the sounds of the 5-string banjo! All the other instruments remain in Country to this day. To my knowledge, Flatt and Scruggs never played any Bluegrass festivals, ever..Folk Festivals, yes. They resisted, by design, aligning themselves or grouping themselves with other “Bluegrass” acts…they created their own broad audience through television and radio exposure. The Osborne Bros. did the very same thing, amplifying their instruments and adding drums to the stage….they got to where they could compete aurally with the country scene. They also used innovative playing on the banjo to borrow sounds from piano and steel in addition to using them on the records. It wasn’t always a constant roll. Low and behold, it got them on the radio. Listen to 9 Lb. Hammer from around ’67…I refer to it as the very first ‘newgrass’ track. Jimmy Martin had great success with tasteful drums and catchy tunes that not only gained access to radio but made him a juke box favorite. Jim & Jesse….the same, making records to compete with the sounds of the day and it got them some radio play….they also benefited from a lot of TV exposure. Bill Monroe never had any of that going on. He was crowned the Father of Bluegrass Music and that gave him access to colleges and PAC’s and the Folk and Bluegrass Festival circuit. I say all that to say that the fringe acts today, some with banjo and without, are doing some of the very same things to distance themselves from the core of what is the Bluegrass template and make music that is broad based and can be related to by many, many people. Some bands rely on pure energy to whip 5-10,000 people into a frenzy. Some bands rely on volume to get their message across and follow louder acts from other types of music. I love the song, ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes’ that George Jones recorded…it says so much about not just Country but Bluegrass as well….you can adapt it to Rock too. Unfortunately, music that hits us at that time in our life that changes us forever never remains the same. It is merely a moment in time and the creative process takes it to a new place (just like the Osbornes, J & J, Jimmy Martin did) Now, Monroe never changed much…the template stayed the same but as a matter of survival, other bands had to find new and compelling ways to compete with the big leaguers. This is why I said in an earlier post that it really is up to the listener to decide whether something falls within their idea of Bluegrass or not. Everybody’s “moment in time” of Bluegrass discovery is different and there will always be preservationists, there will always be fresh ideas brought to the original template (Del McCoury, Town Mountain, Steep Canyon, Etc) but there will also be completely new visions for the music (Grisman, Punch Bros., Avett Bros.) and that may or may not include the banjo played in the Scruggs style. I know, it’s a tough pill to swallow but that is the reality of today. But the good news is, we as individuals are able to choose the music(s) that please us based on what we like and what we think is good. I often say, “just because you wrote an original song doesn’t mean it’s any good.” Well, when thousands of people stand up and clap for it and go buy it, I guess my opinion really only applies to me….not all those others. It’s not my intent to be all tolerant and not take a stand on this issue, but I am able to let it be and let the folks decide whether or not it’s worthy of their idea of a “Bluegrass” label. I know what I like and I don’t like it all…that’s really the best we can do. Bluegrass Music is an art form that is open to interpretation. And, it seems now, more than ever, there are more interpretations…that keeps it healthy, vibrant, relevant, current and popular. It’s is my hope that where this music comes from and how it got here, today, is not overlooked or forgotten.

        • Dennis Jones

          Mike, didn’t The Osbornes, Jimmy, Lester, Jim&Jesse etc. go back to the template? Bobby still occasionally returns to that “Country” period, but the others came back inside the lines.

          Why did they return?

          I’m with you, I love the quote…”It’s not my intent to be all tolerant and not take a stand on this issue, but I am able to let it be and let the folks decide whether or not it’s worthy of their idea of a “Bluegrass” label. I know what I like and I don’t like it all…that’s really the best we can do.” It’s a great way to put it. Bluegrass, and I mean the Traditionl will continue to be a true American art form with it’s own culture. The other Bluegrass-ish will come and go. I’ve seen it for 18 years, it’s a fickle audience and goes with trends, a completely different culture. The biggest problem is getting the promotion for Bluegrass and getting it to a wider audience. I see the success of Traditional Bluegrass, I know for a fact it can be huge.

          And BTW….your band 18 South is awesome, you are Roots Music.

  • Chris Quinn

    Hi Chris,

    Fun article.

    I always tell folks that rock and bluegrass run parallel in a few ways. In the same way that rock includes; hard rock, soft rock, pop rock, etc…, I think that bluegrass has:
    – hard grass
    – soft grass
    – pop grass
    – dead grass
    – folk grass
    – alternative grass
    – ect…..

    The fact that there are so many styles operating within bluegrass may present a challenge to some folks, but the fact that the debate exists is only healthy for the art.

    If it ain’t no part of nothin’, then perhaps it’s part of somethin’.

    P.S. Flatt and Scruggs rock!!!

    • Dennis Jones

      Sing Flatt;Play Scruggs.

  • Claire Lynch

    Tears in my eyes from laughing. Thank you Chris.