While publicly I’m all for big tents that allow more people to be part of (or at least buy a ticket for) this thing we call bluegrass, personally I have a very narrow definition:
Bluegrass is whatever Bill Monroe whistled in the shower between 1929 and 1996.
This satisfies my two requirements for any definition of a musical genre: 1) it’s specific, and 2) it’s ridiculous. But that’s just me. You may require a banjo in the shower.
Some people love to get worked up over things like Doyle Lawson’s use of a snare drum and electric bass. I’ve tried to get worked up over it, but besides there being more important things to think about—such as how the heck did that snail make it all the way up the back stairs?—I keep coming back to the fact that I trust Doyle to know what sound he likes and what will help his band make a living. And that’s just two of the 12,559 reasons why nobody should be judging Doyle Lawson. He’s forgotten more about bluegrass than most of us will ever know.
But I think I have the antidote to this What Is Bluegrass, Anyway (WIBA) bug that’s been going around. While the bluegrass community has been struggling to define itself under one name, the rest of the music industry has gone on happily subgenre-ing itself into the pocketbooks of a grateful nation.
We don’t need to narrow or broaden our definition of bluegrass. We need new subgenres to describe all the different sounds that make up bluegrass in 2011. (Some of you just thought, “Okay, I can think of two—there’s the Lonesome River Band sound and the Leftover Salmon sound.” Stay with me here.)
Just as there used to be only a few TV channels, there were once only a few musical genres: rock-n-roll, country & western, jazz, classical and Spike Jones. Today, genres include (among others): ambient techno, bitpop, metalcore, clownstep, liquid funk, sissy bounce, melodic death metal, Ninetendocore, oldschool jungle, trancestep, crunk, crunkcore, crunkadelia (okay, I made that up), shoegaze (I didn’t make that up), chillwave, glitch, laptronica, bubblegum dance, electroclash, grind, hip house, stoner metal, fidget house, Japanoise, psybient, triphop, and my favorite: Yorkshire bleeps and bass. I imagine there are people out there arguing about what is and isn’t Yorkshire bleeps and bass. WIYBBA.
What I’m proposing is not a big tent, but a lot of little tents where we can all get a good night’s sleep and then meet at the campfire where we can have a civil time together, but it’s getting late and I have a nice, comfortable tent of my own, thank you. I mean, it’s been a lovely evening, but I can’t even get along with the mandolin player and you’re asking me to move in with that band with the didgeridoo? Yeah, yeah, bluegrass is a mansion of many rooms, but how come they get the room with a view?
So far, the only subgenre of bluegrass we’ve had is newgrass. That’s how traditional this music is; until now, the one subgenre has had to rhyme with bluegrass.
If bands could come up with new subgenres then we’d avoid rambling responses like this to the question What kind of music do you play? “Well, it’s kind of bluegrass but with a techno beat and Jamie here writes most of our stuff and he’s into Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of stuff about dwarfs and dragons, but it all relates back to the secret messages that Bill Monroe put in all his songs.” Instead of that, he could have just said, “Geekgrass.”
There are a couple of ways to go with this. We could borrow already-existing genres from the pop world and just add the word bluegrass or grass after it. Hence, gangstagrass or perhaps sissy bounce bluegrass (if you are on heart medication, don’t Google this).
Here are a few other suggestions:
Boom Chick: a particularly danceable version of bluegrass where the downbeat and upbeat are emphasized to the point where everybody wants to dance, but they know they’re not supposed to, so they don’t.
Ship Hop: The kind of bluegrass you get on cruise ships when someone in the band has visited the bar too often and is now launching into bluegrass versions of Jimmy Buffet songs without notifying the other band members.
Funnel Cake Bounce: This requires all band members to weigh over 300 pounds and jump up and down on the first downbeat of each measure.
Reno Boom: This is where the banjo player gets going so fast playing his/her Don Reno single-string licks that he/she crosses the sound barrier and sets off a sonic boom. Not to be confused with Reno Bop, which has nothing to do with Don Reno, but rather it’s when the banjo player has lost all his (women are too smart for this) money in the slots at a cheap casino in Reno and doesn’t care what he sounds like anymore.
Melodic Death Dobro: This is where the banjo player thinks he can play the dobro just because it’s tuned in G. Usually played to a ballad, the resulting caucaphony sounds like an F-16 just crashed into a Yo-Yo Ma Concert.
Ambient Trad: Each member of the band plays a different traditional bluegrass song at the same time in different keys. This creates a kind of Phil Spector wall of sound, which has been known to make some audience members so angry they will stand at the band’s record table for an hour after the show and not buy a CD.
Gene Pool: A subgenre describing family bands who decide to have another child because they “need a dobro player.” It’s not so much a sound as a haunted look in the eyes of the younger children.
Yorkshire Bleeps and Bass Bluegrass: I have no idea; I just like saying it.
This idea has three merits: 1) we can finally stop trying to define bluegrass and worry about our logos, 2) we can all win Grammys in our respective subgenres, and 3) it’ll look cool on t-shirts.
You may be asking, “What do we do with the word bluegrass then?” A better question would be, “What’s that snail doing on my couch and is it dangerous?” In fact, there are a lot of better questions, because the word bluegrass will survive as it always has. It’s too cool to ever go away. It has the word blue in it, which brings up images of Miles Davis, and the word grass, which brings up images of Jerry Garcia. Put them together and you get a guy named Jerry Davis who was my seventh grade Chemistry teacher. He was definitely not cool, so I see I’ve ended this paragraph by demolishing my own point.
Let me try again. Put them together and you get Miles Garcia, which happens to be the secret name for the Dos Equis guy, the most interesting man in the world.
There. Instead of arguing about what is or isn’t bluegrass, I just came up with a marketing plan. Bluegrass: The Most Interesting Music in the World. Now With 52 Subgenres!