A Theoretical Study of Bluegrass

viewpointJambase has an article up titled Bluegrass: A Theoretical Study. Here’s the first few sentences.

Bluegrass is engaged in a stylistic civil war. On one side, steadfast traditionalists continue to make music the time-tested way: acoustic instruments with minimal amplification, rooted in gospel and crowded with traditional hymns. On the other side, progressive elements are being introduced via drum sets, electronic instruments, and improvisation, strewn together with a cocky secularism that would be content leaving joints and a few shots of Jagermeister for the congregation on the collection plate. Yet, this is a positive melee.

This is a 5 page article in which the author interviews a number of artists, both traditional and progressive, in and around bluegrass music. He talks with Del McCoury, Billy Nershi from The String Cheese Incident, Ben Kaufmann from the Yonder Mountain String Band, Willy Vlautin from Richmond Fontaine, and finally David Grisman. He asks them all basically the same question.

What are your feelings about bands that are tweaking the traditions in bluegrass like the Yonder Mountain String Band and the String Cheese Incident, i.e. bands that add other elements to bluegrass? Would that be tainting Bill Monroe’s original intentions?

Their answers are both interesting and varied. While they all basically agreed that you have to play what you feel. That’s what Monroe did and that’s what they are doing. My favorite quote from the article is something Del said while discussing Bill Monroe.

Every new musician that came in brought out their own style into his music, and of course, they stuck to the traditional way but in a diverse way.

There are some great photos of Del and Grisman, as well as the other artists involved. If you are a fan of traditional or progressive bluegrass it’s worth a read. I’m not sure I agree with the premise of his piece that bluegrass is at war with itself over which direction to go. I’m not sure he agreed with that premise either based on a few of his comments. Personally I think traditional bluegrass is alive and stronger than ever. I also feel that the progress side of things has done a lot to bring the music to people who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. So I think it’s a good thing to have that variety. It does open up a discussion about what bluegrass really is, which instruments are “allowed”, and so on. But on the whole, I’m happy with the direction bluegrass music as a genre seems to be headed.

Let’s hear from you. Go read this article and then comment here on what you think of this subject.

  • Andy Malloy

    Theoretical Study of Bluegrass?

    NO!

    This may be the most poorly written/researched article I have ever read.

    It seems to me the author of this article is just out to make friends with his favorite artists instead of trying to give the reader some insights into the music.

    If he truly set out to juxtapose “traditional” artists with progressive “innovators”, he struck out.

    Each one of the artists that he interviewed has a strong connection with either progressive bluegrass or the jamband audience. Where are the interviews with staunch “traditionalists” or even younger bands who are closely following Bill’s music?

    Two of the artists that were interviewed (String Cheese Incident and Richmond Fontaine) would never even be mistaken for bluegrass bands. Sure they may have been influenced by the music, but wasn’t this article supposed to be about comparing bluegrass bands.

    Please note I first got into bluegrass music by listening to Old & In the Way, Yonder Mountain String Band, String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon. I by no means despise these groups, for they introduced me to a wealth of other artists, but this article did nothing to help outsiders understand this so-called “civil war.” It seems that this was a one sided battle and the other side never got a chance to speak out.

    Borrowing a little bit from Frank Zappa:

    “Traditional Bluegrass Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells Funny.”

  • Shain Shapiro?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s piece on bluegrass theory is interesting in that it supposes a constant in bluegrass music. In the strictest sense, I think David Grisman has it right when he says that if Bill Monroe isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t in the band it isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t bluegrass. When we attend a bluegrass festival, we find ourselves enjoying some bands playing traditional bluegrass, i.e. lots of Monroe songs sung in a single microphone setting with all acoustic instruments. Nevertheless, a festival becomes a long three or four days if that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s the only music available. And, in the end, there really aren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t that many songs. We enjoy hearing the old favorites, but unless we hear some music that introduces approaches new to us or songs that explore a variety of new ideas, we don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t feel very fulfilled. That?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s one reason we like going the Merlefest, where we know we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll hear a broad variety of Americana.

    A great attraction of bluegrass music is the variety of interpretations provided by different bands. While there is a generic bluegrass sound and the use of conventional instruments, there is a world of difference between Seldom Scene, The Gibson Brothers, and Adrienne Young. Not every band is to everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taste, and that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a good thing. I could name a dozen other groups that present different and engaging sounds. This trend is enhanced by the emphasis on singer-songwriters. While I believe that part of the motivation for this trend lies in not having to pay royalties for using songs in performance, it also reflects a desire in audiences to have artists express their on sensibilities. This finds expression in the ability of fans to recognize individual bands when they hear them.

    I have often said and written that Bill Monroe could not have imagined where the music would go. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and many others have added sounds and dimensions that Monroe could not have anticipated. There are dozens of other musicians who advance the music every day. I think a bigger problem faced by bluegrass showed itself at the recent IBMA presentation ceremony. In its desire to become more popular, bluegrass faces the risk of becoming too slick and packaged. One of the great gifts of the bluegrass experience is finding surprise in the music. If the surprise is lost the music will be compromised.

    Ted Lehmann
    tlehmann@ne.rr.com