Human beings love to classify things. That’s why we have a periodic table (at least I think we still have a periodic table). And, in 2016, human beings love to subdivide into ever more specialized subcategories. That’s why we have so many Grammy categories and so many varieties of Coke products.
Taking quiet exception to this love of classifying is the professional musician, who would rather have as few categories as possible. That’s partly what the Gibson Brothers’ “They Called it Music” is all about. In fact, if you could come up with a musical genre description that was even broader than “music,” most musicians would embrace it. I’ll admit “They Called It Stuff,” or “They Called it Thing” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but that’s the idea.
This principle goes back to the early days of the term “bluegrass music” too, when most major acts playing that style of music preferred not to be identified that way, feeling the term would limit them or associate them with another artist they were competing with (i.e. Bill Monroe).
Many bluegrass artists today would love to be able to tear up a classic rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” then do something completely original and different, though perhaps still musically related to “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” When a critic says, “Hey, that’s not bluegrass!” they’d love to be able to respond with, “I never said it was. Nanny-nanny-boo-hoo!” (or some less sophisticated response, like “neener, neener, neener”).
Our world doesn’t work that way, though. People need to determine if something is “bluegrass” first of all, then further decide if it’s “traditional bluegrass,” “progressive bluegrass,” “mountain-style bluegrass,” “jamgrass,” “loungegrass,” “surfergrass,” or “neo-Stanley dad-grass.”
This is understandable in a way, because it helps people to search for and identify the music they like. What musicians aren’t so crazy about, though, is the way it can be used to exclude music based on its genre or subgenre. This is especially true when fans of the music use categories as a part of their own identity. This can lead to narrow viewpoints: “I only listen to (insert subgenre here). That’s the kind of person I am.” You can see how musicians hoping to broaden their audience can be a little troubled by this, especially as categories continue to subdivide, like so many bluegrass protozoa.
That’s when you’ll hear professional musicians crying out, “Hello! This is music, not religion.” Just listen to what is pleasing to your ear. If that leads you to have an iPod that shuffles from the Stanley Brothers to Punch Brothers to Isley Brothers, is that wrong? It might be a little jarring, but other than that, I don’t think anyone’s going to be hurt by it. It’s unlikely to result in centuries of schism (incidentally, “Centuries of Schism” isn’t a bad name for an instrumental).
I recall that back when Ricky Skaggs released his first major label country material in the early ‘80s, a lot of bluegrass fans were up in arms, and were quick to accuse him of selling out. Meanwhile however, if pressed, many of these same fans admitted they actually liked the music Ricky was making. They just didn’t like the idea of any bluegrass and country cross-pollination going on (it could lead to dancing!), and of one of “our people” venturing over to “their people.” “He’ll never come back once he’s made all that money!” they said. Well we know how that prediction turned out.
Alison Krauss dealt with some of the same criticism. There again, people would admit to liking the music, but would add, “she just shouldn’t refer to it as bluegrass” (which I don’t think she was doing, anyway). In other words, if she would just call it something else, everything would be fine.
Maybe there’s an opportunity here for bluegrass artists and pickers: instead of resisting categorization, maybe we should come up with new and better subgenre names, and ways to describe our music. At least by being preemptive, we’re classifying the music on our terms.
With this goal in mind, this will be part one of a three-part series on bluegrass genres, subgenres, and their uses, with a brief detour or two into the issues of banjo strap length, and the secret code embedded in the lyrics of “Wildwood Flower.”
I should have said this was part one of the series, in case you were waiting for more. Go forth and subcategorize no more, at least until next week.