Too Much Information… or Don’t Tell Everything You Know

This is normally the time of week when I attempt to be funny, but the only joke I could muster began, “A banjo player and an accordion player walk into a bar . . .”

Instead, I’m hoping you can indulge me as I get just a little serious. The last time I did this was after the death of Ralph Stanley, and before that, the death of Miss Dixie Hall. Apparently it takes death to get me to put on a straight face.

There have been no major deaths in bluegrass music or in my life in the past week, but I think we have been witnessing the slow death of civil discussion and the acceptance of other viewpoints within the bluegrass community, and in American society as a whole.

This is no doubt a time of heightened political tension and division; you don’t need me to point this out. Some of this has bled over into the bluegrass music community, though, and we’re starting to see a lot of mutual distrust, and even the ending of longstanding friendships because of it, and that’s always sad.

A controversial president and recent events are certainly a factor, but much of this has been a growing trend for the last 20 years or so. There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around: I’ve always felt that a lot of our divisions are artificially hyped, with fires being stoked by opinion-oriented and sensational news outlets and web sites, and the growing prevalence of opinion talk on radio stations where once country music, gospel, and yes, even a little bluegrass was played. We’re listening to a lot of opinions where we once listened to music, so naturally a lot of us are more opinionated than we used to be. And the sad thing is, people are profiting from our divisions. It’s entertainment to them, and it’s lucrative, and the more passionate and angry people become, the more listenership goes up, and the more the advertising dollars flow in.

In other words, yes, we may naturally have differing viewpoints, but we’re also being played.

Then there’s the advent of social media (time out for lengthy groan!). For some reason, in this environment, we feel free to spout off about a variety of subjects, often based on the bare minimum of information, and with very little forethought. And worse, we do it in the kind of strident manner that would get us beat up in most bars if we walked in and said some of this stuff. The fact that we’re just at a keyboard, or exercising our thumbs with a smartphone, and there’s no one physically present to deliver a stiff right cross at our expense, makes us feel safe and almost anonymous.

So we can easily blame various forms of media, but we do have to accept a little blame ourselves. We are willing participants, and we are picking the fights, or at least fighting back, knowing that we’ll never change anyone’s mind. Reasoned discussion among people who differ wasn’t meant for social media. In fact it might be better to think of Facebook as the bar where everyone’s a little drunk and you could easily hurt someone or get hurt (being blocked, by the way, is the equivalent of getting shoved out the door by the burly bouncer).

Can we repair this? I think we can certainly try, and we might start by understanding that people whose music we like and respect may not have viewpoints we agree with.

I’m always amazed at how many people assume that because we are of the same ethnic or socioeconomic background, and we all like the same kind of music, that we are naturally going to be aligned politically.

I get this all the time, and I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble (like the bubble we sometimes live in), but I play in a band of mixed political viewpoints, and I don’t think this is unusual at all. We also represent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, from the north, the south, and from the south of Germany. We’re united by the common bond of our love for bluegrass music, and a fondness for pretzels and pie.

And yet, if people like our music, or like us personally, they assume that we’re like them in most respects, including religious and political orientation. If they find out otherwise, they tend to be shocked and disappointed.

Of course bluegrass music isn’t alone in this. Traditional country singer Amber Digby (daughter of Osborne Brothers bass player Dennis Digby, for you bluegrass trivia fans) recently had some fans of hers say ugly things on social media about her, which included uncalled for remarks about her appearance, all because they discovered in the last few weeks that her political opinions didn’t line up with theirs. Based on that one fact, they decided that all the things they had liked about her before were now points to criticize her about, and the music that they had loved no longer mattered. She stood up candidly for her right to her views, but that shouldn’t have been necessary.

I maintain that those who love bluegrass music are a pretty diverse bunch, no matter what our assumptions about each other might be, and the fact is that hippies and rednecks, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Buddhists have all played music together pretty nicely for decades, often not realizing what their differences were (not everybody comes with a costume).

We often meet each other for the first time when we  start playing music in a jam session, a good way to form instant connections with people. Later we might find out that we have polar opposite views about issue A or president B, but as a friend of mine recently said, it’s too late; through the musical bond we’ve created, we’re stuck liking this person.

I think increasingly we’re starting to judge people first, then allowing that judgement to color everything about those people, including their music. We’re quick to categorize people and either accept them as being part of our tribe—and therefore good people—or reject them as members of that other tribe, people who are misguided and probably evil.

It might be a good time to remember that there have always been a range of opinions in bluegrass music. Jimmy Martin and Ricky Skaggs have been vocal in supporting Republican candidates and causes, sometimes from the stage, while Ralph Stanley has been an active if quiet Democrat. Bill Monroe, who quietly referred to himself as a Democrat, performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Flatt & Scruggs performed at Nixon’s 1969 inauguration, and just to keep things interesting and balanced, Earl Scruggs performed at a large anti-war rally the same year. None of this affects my feelings about their music.

It might also be a good time to recapture that feeling of taking the instruments out and playing a song with someone we barely know, sharing that bond, and keeping that in mind when we see his or her offensive bumper sticker or we read that tweet we disagree with.

P.S. If a fight ensues in the comments section below, I ask you to please take it to the nearest bar. We’ll see who has the best right cross.

  • jalanmiller

    Chris,
    Thanks for this. It’s a balancing act. Bluegrass, having sprung up from a fairly narrow subculture is dealing with the pains of success/growth/widening of audience, I guess. Folks on the stage MUST be authentic in the audience’s mind, but what ‘qualifies’ them as authentic with the audience may actually run counter to the performers personally.

    I guess it goes like this: Bluegrass, perhaps more than most genres, has always been community oriented as a whole, but perhaps less so about relationships among individuals. In any community, there are always folks ready and willing to tear a community apart over litmus tests and legalistic perfections. We all have boundaries, I suppose of what we will accept from others and what is appropriate in a particular venue and that’s fine for the individual. To project those onto a group can become problematic quickly- particularly when slander and malice are added in the mix.

    This community is strange in that it’s easy to be too familiar with everything and everyone very quickly. That speaks to the general acceptance of BG folks, but it also leads to a lot of the incorrect perceptions of each other that you allude to. It’s hard to make relationships seeing folks a couple of days a year, so we’re going to have to learn to put personality/opinion aside, as you say, when we make some music with folks we don’t know or perhaps some with whom we have an issue and let the music put some balm on the wounds.

    Thanks again, Chris. This will help Make Bluegrass Great Again… As if it ever weren’t…

  • AnnettePK

    Important points and well written. Chris Jones for President!