Several weeks ago, I compiled a list of things that a newly-formed bluegrass band needs to do to get off the ground. I don’t have that list in front of me, and I’m too lazy to actually look for it (if you want to find it, though, it’s right here), but somewhere between naming the band and booking the first gig was this very important item: “Discuss and select band clothes.”
I suppose the argument could be made that the “discuss” part of that task could be dispensed with in a band leader/side musicians situation. Just change that to “Dictate and select band clothes” if that fits your own situation better. Some band leaders even choose to simplify this further, by just going to Sears and buying the number of suits corresponding to the number of band members (preferably during a “buy one-get one free” sale). Then they choose band members that fit into the suits they’ve purchased. If one of them happens to be a very good fiddle player in addition to be being a 39 regular, so much the better.
The issue of stage clothes, though, and bluegrass fashion in general, can get a little more complicated. One question that will need to be answered by your band or by you as band leader is: what kind of image are you wanting to present to your audience? This can vary widely, depending on whether your band falls into the traditional, progressive, Gospel, jamgrass, or neo-Deadhead-Monroe-tribute band category, or any possible subcategories.
If it’s a straight ahead, traditional bluegrass band, the suit option is always a good one, or just matching shirts, always a good summer option, in case you don’t want to lose a third of your body’s fluids during one 45 minute set at Bean Blossom in June. Choose as timeless a style as you can, to keep from looking outdated too soon (to understand what “outdated” means in the bluegrass world, see below). Hats optional.
If your band is more contemporary in nature, you may want to dress in a way that reflects that, leaving room for a little more individual expression. Be cautious, though, that you’re likely to have at least one member of your band who has no idea how to dress (take a good hard look during rehearsal; it can be pretty sobering), so if there’s too much leeway you could be in trouble. A little guidance might be needed.
While allowing for individuality, you want to make sure to avoid radically different looks from one band member to the other, where, for example, you have one member in a 3-piece suit, another one wearing shorts and flip-flops, one wearing a full-blown western outfit, complete with spurs and chaps, and a woman in a formal gown. If you’re going for a sort of bluegrass Village People concept, this might work. Otherwise, it just looks incoherent and silly.
Whatever style you happen to adopt, it’s important to look as good as possible on stage. German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “A performer should always look better than his audience.” It may have been Conway Twitty who said that, now that I think about it, but the point is that your audience will expect you to make that effort, and they regard it as a sign of your professionalism. Perhaps there are certain situations where you can overdress for a gig (the grand opening of a nudist beach, for example), but think about how many times you’ve seen Larry Sparks or Tony Rice dress down because it was a more informal kind of venue.
We’ve established some unusual dressing protocols in bluegrass music, especially at festivals, that I’ve never seen in other genres of music. One is the afternoon informal look, followed by the dressed up evening show. A band that may dress to the nines in suits and ties for their nighttime set can be seen on stage at 2:30 wearing shorts, T-shirts, and occasionally sweatpants or swimwear. I suppose this helps them look better at night by creating a sharp contrast. Sometimes people just think it’s a completely different band.
Another bluegrass tradition is the shedding of stage clothes within thirty seconds of the last note of the show, so you might have the same guitar player that was wearing a suit and tie on stage, greeting the audience immediately afterwards wearing a mustard-stained NASCAR T-shirt and cargo shorts. This seems to me to present an inconsistent image. I’m thinking that if it’s so difficult and uncomfortable to wear stage clothes, why not restrict it to just the middle 3 songs of the set, dressing down completely for the beginning and end of the show. This transition could actually be made on stage, which would add more interest and create some of the movement in your performance that people are always accusing bluegrass acts of lacking in their shows.
Many people would agree that it’s important to dress stylishly on stage, but what exactly does that mean? In the bluegrass world, we operate by our own fashion timeline, and it’s important to understand this, or you’ll either look outdated or way ahead of your time, which can be a turn-off for your audience.
Generally, what’s in style for a bluegrass band is whatever was in style in the world at large approximately ten years ago. Take everybody’s favorite men’s hair style, the “mullet” (or “hockey hair” as it’s called in Canada). The short-on-top-long-in-back look first started appearing in the early ‘80s, around the time they started making music videos. By Bill Clinton’s first term in the early ‘90s, this phenomenon had fully run its course. In bluegrass music, though, the first mullets were sported by younger, forward-thinking (and backward combing) pickers in the late ‘80s, and most of them weren’t gone until after 9/11 (there may or may not be a historical connection there).
I bring this up merely to advise you that if you’re too up on current fashion trends, you’re likely to just look weird to your audience. Now if you manage to develop your own personal sense of style (along the lines of John Duffey, David Grisman or Bill Knowlton), you never have to concern yourselves with trends, new or old. You just have to find a source for your clothes.
Here are a few men’s hair styles you can consider to achieve that “just enough out-of-style” look we’re all trying to achieve:
Traditional Slick: Think early ‘70s Clinch Mountain Boys. Just grease it up and comb it back. It works perfectly under a hat.
Best Gospel Hair in a Non-Gospel Performance: A timeless classic. This requires a blow dryer and lots of hairspray. Caution: this may lead to sticking your index finger up in the air when singing a high note.
Contemporary Christian: I would discourage this because it requires you to carry a hair stylist with you on the road.
Spiked: Just find the right hair product for the job. Don’t even try to get yours like Ned Luberecki’s, though; I have it on inside information that he uses a product that’s mainly available in Canada and the Netherlands (which is why we make sure to tour in those places regularly).
Jamgrass: Wash hair no more than once a week, and make sure that it’s at least 3 days from your next gig when you do. Goes nicely with Hasidic-style beards.
Next week: The return of paisley (the pattern, not the Danny) to bluegrass stage wear; new bluegrass irony: wearing dark, pinstriped suits and really ugly, beat-up shoes on purpose; bluegrass’ newest trend: wearing two bolo ties at once; and, is it ever appropriate for women to perform on stage wearing a bathrobe?