Don’t fight… change the subject!

Chris JonesThanksgiving is upon us. It’s a time when bluegrass musicians, sound engineers, event producers, etc. are all taking a break from their routines, and they’re all heading to a place called “home” (remember that?) or perhaps to a relative’s house. It’s a precious time of family, fellowship, pumpkin pie, and whatever that amino acid is in turkey that puts us to sleep.

In 2016, however, more than ever, it’s potentially a time of heated and divisive political arguments, as if getting everybody through a family gathering in one piece weren’t already challenging enough! It’s statistically likely that at least some of your family members voted differently from the way you and your Uncle Claude did, and it doesn’t seem like very many people are on the fence about this.

This is dangerous ground.

I recently posted an update to Facebook suggesting that the current political environment is so tense and toxic right now that I’ve even had to unfriend myself. If you have strong—or even mild—political opinions, and you’ve made the mistake of wading into that social media mire, you know by now what will happen. Constructive dialogue? It ain’t happening.

Rather than offer tips on ways to resolve conflicts, or perhaps to debate more skillfully (since I have nary a tip to give), I thought it might be helpful if I offer some tricks for changing the subject whenever necessary. Tricks are always a handy substitute for real skill.

Changing the subject of a conversation is something we all need to do at one time or another: a good example is when someone is pressuring you to buy or trade for a CD you don’t want (I recently had to trade one of my CDs for someone’s home-burned hip hop CD, because I wasn’t quick-thinking enough to change the subject), or when an artist or agent asks you, the event producer, why their act hasn’t been booked at your festival since the food processor was invented. As you can see, then, the ability to redirect a conversation will have uses beyond the avoidance of the political quarrel. But this Thanksgiving, changing the subject may be an essential family-saver.

I should first caution you that just yelling, “Hey! Look at what the dog just did!” though technically a change of subject, is really more a desperate attempt at distraction, and it isn’t very effective, unless of course you’re quick enough to actually disappear by the time someone looks back at you after seeing nothing. We’re going to try to handle this with a little more finesse than that.

As lovers of bluegrass music, we already have some ability to steer most conversations toward the subject of bluegrass. You may have found, in your early stages of fanaticism, that you annoyed people by doing this:

Friend: “Beautiful afternoon, isn’t it?”

You: “Yes, it reminds me of a festival I went to when I was 15. Red Allen was booked there, and when he broke into Hello City Limits . . . It was Porter Church playing the banjo, if I remember right . . .”

At this point, “Friend” has tuned out and is sorry he ever brought up the weather.

Changing the subject can have its pitfalls to watch out for, however. Just ask people in the broadcasting world, who are sometimes known for the awkward segue:

“Two people were hospitalized yesterday and are still in critical condition after an altercation outside of Harold’s Billiards on Oak Street last night. The alleged assault took place just after midnight last night . . .  (cue segue) . . . Well, I know I was ready to assault someone this morning after I sat in that traffic. Here’s Terry Nelson with a look at your going home commute. Terry, are things looking any better this afternoon?”

Below are ways to derail any attempt to start a Thanksgiving political argument with some subject-changing examples using bluegrass music themes. It’s my hope that these will be a little less awkward than the local news segue above:

“Wow! What a crazy election. I sometimes wish we could just go back to the way things used to be.”

Your reply: “Sure, like when the LP was the main music format. They’re coming back, though, have you noticed? They’ve reissued Rounder 0044 in LP now, with the original cover and everything.”

“Can you believe that Hillary Clinton lost, even though she ended up over a million votes ahead in the national popular vote?”

Your reply: “Yeah, it’s like the way popularity isn’t always an indicator of sales. I heard that the Country Gentlemen still get more requests for Matterhorn even though Bringing Mary Home sold more copies.”

“I think a wall along the Mexican border should really help the immigration situation, don’t you?”

Your reply: “After the wave of immigration of Appalachian people to the Detroit area for work in the auto industry, bluegrass music really flourished there. That’s where Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers were based in the mid ‘50s.”

Or: “Speaking of walls, Wall Around Your Heart is still my favorite Reno & Smiley song, though I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still is still a very close second. What do you think?” (note the effort to turn the conversation back to the other person to try and keep it going on your new subject).

“I think the media coverage of the election was completely unfair.”

Your reply: “You know what really bothers me? Bluegrass never gets any media coverage at all, unless there’s some movie out with bluegrass in it. It’s like if George Clooney isn’t lip-syncing it, we don’t exist!”

Are we now going to just abandon trying to reduce our carbon footprint?”

Your reply: “You know I was thinking, in Footprints in the Snow, if Nellie had only left a carbon footprint, she would have been much harder to find, unless it was a footprint with actual carbon in it. Then it would have been sort of black-ish and would really have stood out in the snow.”

If none of the above work for you, there’s always, “Hey, look at that what the dog just did!”

If all else fails, just spontaneously throw a sweet potato across the room.