No go zones for bluegrass bands

| November 7, 2012 | 17 Comments

After my recent column about bar gigs, I suggested that, though we all enjoy complaining about them, they’re still worthwhile venues for certain kinds of bands.

But are there other kinds of gigs that bluegrass bands sometimes play that they really shouldn’t be playing?

It occurred to me that I should compile a list of these. Please bear in mind that as with my assertion that bar gigs may actually be good for you, this list will represent my opinion only, not a product of scientific research. At the same time, I would also point out that my opinion is right (although that is only my opinion).

Here then, is a short, but important list of gigs that a bluegrass band would do well to avoid, no matter the appeal they may hold in terms of financial compensation or good catering:

 

Weddings

Let me first add the disclaimer here that I’ve played some weddings that were not only enjoyable, they were actually special and memorable events. The Night Drivers’ banjo player, Ned Luberecki, has the distinction of having played his own wedding, when our band played at his wedding reception at The Station Inn in Nashville. I think he even made money. It was a beautiful night (and Ned thought so too, until he remembered he had to give me a ride home afterwards).

In general, though, there’s a reason this is number one on the list. I can’t think of an engagement (no pun intended), public or private, that is less suited to a bluegrass band. I also can’t think of a genre of music, with the possible exception of Gregorian chant or Mongolian throat-singing, that is less suited to a wedding gig.

Understand, of course, that we’re talking about wedding receptions, not the wedding ceremony itself. It would be perfectly fine to work bluegrass into a wedding ceremony, because, after all, nothing expresses the beauty of that long term commitment of love like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, or Dooley. Bluegrass music in a wedding ceremony, though, is most often played by a member of the family, or sometimes the bride and groom themselves (“We will have the exchange of rings in a moment, but first the couple would like to grace us with a banjo/fiddle version of Ragtime Annie, the tune they refer to as ‘their song.’ There may be some impromptu buck dancing from the flower girl. Please keep your seats.”)

No, it’s the wedding reception that a band is hired to play. And what is it that people want to do at a wedding reception? (This is not a trick question, and “Listen to murder ballads with ten or more verses” is not the right answer). The correct answer, naturally, is: dance. Bluegrass bands are not dance bands, to say the least. Even if there’s an uncle there who knows some of those steps that Bill Monroe used on the WLS Barn Dance, this isn’t the kind of dancing the bulk of the assembled guests are planning on doing.

I’ll agree that there are some valid reasons to be tempted to take a wedding gig: the money is often good, the free food and free champagne are notorious draws for a professional musician, the bride and groom may be friends of your bass player, or you may be living with your parents at age 48 and just really need the work. You still shouldn’t do it. Try to fill the date with an Arby’s grand opening, or a funeral, anything but a wedding. No good can come of it.

I’ve sometimes heard the excuse that the bride and groom “really wanted a bluegrass band” (this may be the same bride and groom who plan to play Ragtime Annie right before they exchange rings). That may be, but this bride and groom are mainly thinking of themselves, not their relatives from Phoenix who are fully expecting a band of guys in tuxes, with a keyboard, a saxophone, and a singer in a red sequined dress. What they’re absolutely not expecting is five poorly dressed acoustic musicians, singing Poor Ellen Smith, or some other equally inappropriate song.

And speaking of material, if you’ve played a wedding with a bluegrass band, you suddenly realize how hard it is to come up with a song from your set list that doesn’t involve lost love, murder, or some other non-uplifting subject. Usually the best you can do is play a lot of instrumentals and then throw in a 20-minute version of Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes, because that’s a positive love song the mandolin player kind of knows (“blue” can always be changed to another color, depending on the eyes of the bride).

This is the time when you’d love to get that “Constant Sorrow” request you usually dread, but you can’t even rely on that. What’s more likely is that the older crowd will ask for String of Pearls, the middle-aged guests will want to hear I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston version), and the younger relatives will be looking for a way to get out of there as quickly as possible.

The one small consolation is that there’s usually one black sheep family member who may actually pay attention to you. He’s the one who became an impressionistic sculptor, when every member of his family had pressured him to join the family law firm. He doesn’t dance, looks out of place in a suit, and he loves what your band is doing. He’s likely to stand close to the stage, alone and alienated from the rest of the family (as usual) and listen to you all night. Cherish this person and play all his requests. He’s your only real audience.

 

Conventions

There are exceptions to this that we’ll cover next week, but providing entertainment for private conventions is some of the most tedious work you’ll ever do as a musician. Whether it’s a convention of canned goods distributors, or the annual meeting of a religious cult, it’s something to be avoided unless the money is really, really good, and it’s in a hard-to-fill spot on your calendar.

The hiring of a bluegrass band for an event like this was usually a unilateral decision made by an event planner with a lack of (or maybe too much) imagination, unless it was  a proposal brought to a planning committee session in which everyone else was asleep.

It’s usually done in coordination with a theme for their evening social dinner and get-together, which is often called something like “Country and Western Barbeque” or “Meat and Greet Hoedown.” They called your band because the country bands they tried to get quoted too high a price.

There are hay bales on the stage, everyone is given red bandanas to wear when they enter the room, the band is asked to eat standing up in the kitchen on the break, and not a single person will be listening to you. Need I say more?

 

Prisons

These are preferable to wedding gigs, because here at least you’ll have some appropriate material for the show, but it’s still work to be avoided if you can.

Now if this is something that represents a charity or outreach mission on the part of your band, I admire you, and I applaud this. But if it’s just another way to make a buck, there are better ways to do it.

The last time I played a prison, one of the inmates pretended to shoot each one of us in succession, in artistically inspired pantomime. I took this to be an expression of disapproval of the song we were playing. That’s just an example of the interesting interaction that may await you.

If you do end up playing a prison, just keep a couple of things in mind: If you have a woman in the band, it won’t matter at all what or how you play, your show will only be about that one fact. The prison staff will provide extra security for her.

Don’t necessarily shy away from prison songs because you think it may be too painful a subject. I’ve found that prisoners actually like songs that directly speak to their condition. Sing them sincerely and you may gain some fans. Anyone who doesn’t like the songs will just shoot you in pantomime.

 

Political Fundraisers

Now that the most expensive and irritating (at least to people in Ohio) election campaign in our history is over, we can discuss this kind of gig with less of the tension it would have inspired even a week ago.

Unless everyone in your band is of the same political mind (what are the chances?) and simply want to do this job to help “Candidate A,” don’t be tempted to play this kind of show.

Unlike some of the other private gigs mentioned above, these seldom pay well, and because of the various speeches you’ll have to endure, seem way longer than they actually are.

Before you ever play a note or get to eat any barbeque, you’ll have to listen to the local party vice chair introducing the local state representative, introducing the state senator, who will in turn introduce the candidate. Often, though, the candidate is late, having to come from another fundraiser, so they’ll end up bringing him or her on suddenly, often right in the middle of one of your songs.

If you happen to be one of the members of the band who doesn’t support the candidate or the party the fundraiser is for, just do the same thing you’d do when playing the convention of a religious cult (mentioned above): whatever they say to you, just agree wholeheartedly, back away slowly, and just hope the gig is over soon.

 

Never forget there can be great satisfaction in turning down work.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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