Someone recently suggested to me that bluegrass music is every bit as violent as uncensored hip hop, especially towards women, and that bluegrass recordings should have parental warning stickers on them. I replied that I thought that was ridiculous. How could that be? Bluegrass music sounds so happy. It must be wholesome. We have adorable family bands and everything. That’s when I sat down and actually listened to all the words of Pretty Polly, and I had to admit the guy had a point.
Should there be a ratings system in bluegrass music? We don’t generally use bad language (though we’re still not sure about “salty dog”), and there’s only occasional violence, but when I started to examine how they arrive at “PG-13” and “R” rated movies, I realized we may have some issues in our lyrics that require some parental guidance.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but smoking is now enough to keep a film from getting a “G” rating. The same goes for drinking alcohol. It should be noted that a fair amount of violence is tolerated in American films, as long as while someone is being shot, stabbed, or beaten to death with a garden rake, neither the assailant nor the victim is smoking or drinking at the time.
We don’t have a whole lot of smoking in bluegrass (not counting Jimmy Martin’s I Can’t Quit Cigarettes), but drinking is another matter. Like our country music cousins, we have entire songs devoted to the subject. In most country songs, though, the alcohol is being legally consumed in a bar, and is often something relatively tame, like beer or wine. In bluegrass music, it’s mostly illegally-produced moonshine, and we really have no idea of the alcohol content, and we’re not too sure what the stuff is distilled from, either.
We do have fairly graphic violence, too, often perpetrated by characters with so little remorse, they go ahead and confess when they didn’t even have to. Take Little Sadie for example: the murderer of Little Sadie is approached by the sheriff who accuses him of the crime:
“He said young man ain’t your name Brown
Remember the night you shot Sadie down”
The killer happily confesses, then even corrects the name just to make sure no one else gets credit for his misdeed:
“I said yes, sir, but my name is Lee, and I murdered Little Sadie in the first degree” (just in case they were thinking of slapping him with a mere second degree or manslaughter charge)
So yes, I’m starting to think a rating system is in order. I thought we could use the system employed for television, in which the potentially offensive characteristics of the program are coded, so there’s a “V” for violence, an “L” for course or crude language, and my personal favorite, “FV” for “fantasy violence” which applies mainly to the blatantly inhumane things done to the coyote by the Roadrunner.
I propose the following content descriptors so we can better protect the ears of our children and the occasional sensitive fiddle player, as they listen to this less-wholesome-than-we-thought music that we love.
- M = “Moonshine,” for songs glorifying or featuring the consumption or production of illegal alcohol. Examples: Mountain Dew, Hot Corn Cold Corn, and approximately 180 songs written in the last three years.
- LW = “Little Willie” for songs featuring insecure men whose response to rejection is to brutally kill their girlfriends. Examples: Little Glass of Wine, Knoxville Girl, Little Willie, Short Willie, Diminutive Willie, Willie: A Man With Issues.
- GT = “Guilt trip” Songs that involve blame-shifting or an attempt to make others feel guilty, something that can be psychologically damaging to sensitive listeners. Examples: Bury Me Beneath the Willow, You’ll Get No More Of Me, I Just Think I’ll Go Away, Congratulations Anyway, Don’t Mind Me While I Just Go Kill Myself.
- F = “Flood” for songs that portray disturbing natural disasters, mine explosions, or other events with multiple casualties. Examples: The Flood, The Galveston Flood, The Johnstown Flood, No School Bus in Heaven, The School Bus Flood.
- “PP” = “Pretty Polly,” which is the strongest rating, reserved for songs that contain graphic and brutal violence, coupled with nudity, and/or the occult. Examples: The Ghost of Eli Renfro, Katie Dear, Pretty Polly, I Stabbed, Poisoned, and Drowned Rose Conley (It’s Her Fault) (this one also gets the “GT” warning).