Bluegrass Blasphemy?

Alison Krauss  -  Photo Credit: Randee St. NicholasNot long ago I came across a new blog site called Culture 11. The site’s authors say their goal with the site is to provide some perspective on life in America as culturally conservative Americans find themselves facing changing times and uncertainty.

Much of the site’s content speaks to the intersection of religion and culture.

One week ago, one of the authors, Noah Berlatsky, posted a blog entitled Bluegrass Apocalypse. In the article he states that

Bluegrass has been transformed from a mostly played-out festival circuit relic into a viable commercial force. But at what cost?

He then attempts to explain this transformation as the result of efforts to

Polish bluegrass up, recruit a female singer, and capture a bigger audience

You know of whom he speaks, Alison Krauss. Berlatsky describes Krauss’ music as “vaguely spiritualized prettiness” and then goes on to make this incredible statement.

As this suggests, I loathe Alison Krauss’s music in all its obsessive, over-produced perfection. To me, it sounds like every note on her albums has been focus-grouped, voted on by committee, and then carefully performed by a soulless government functionary. The vestige of rural authenticity — the tunes, the fiddles ‚Äî are there almost for purposes of ritual emasculation.

Joe Carter, another author on the site, responded with his own piece from which I took the title of this post, Bluegrass Blasphemy. Carter takes Berlatsky to task for being an “urban, over-educated atheist,” and defends Alison’s honor as the primary instructor who gives “singing lessons to the seraphim” in her spare time.

Berlatsky then responded on his personal blog by saying that Carter, indeed anyone who claims “country authenticity,” is simply a poseur. His reasoning?

…country has gotten to this place where credibility has everything to do with liking this or that product, and very little to do with any actual values or morals. Rural identity is just another affectation, bolstered through arbitrary product purchases.

Krauss’ music is the result of sheer giftedness combined with countless hours of rigorous devotion to a craft. Berlatsky seems to have equated inauthenticity with this exceeding excellence.

As someone who grew up in a rural community and currently lives another, I rejoice to see the virtuosity of the practitioners of the bluegrass arts. In no way do I find them inauthentic, or think them to be poseurs.

  • 1969mets

    I’ve been reading this story my entire life…since discovering the New Grass Revival and John Hartford’s music in the early 1970s. I imagine it was happening with the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen before that. It’s really just a question of semantics. I loved the NGR and I love bluegrass, but I wouldn’t consider NGR’s music bluegrass for the most part. Heck, Bill Monroe played wonderful music I wouldn’t call bluegrass (listen to his “My Last Days On Earth”!)

    The blogger seems to be riffing on the distastefulness of using the term “bluegrass” as a marketing ploy, especially to a purist. He has a point. And it happens that Alison Krauss has been the poster child for this movement for quite some time now. She has made some bluegrassers a lot of money, I suspect. But she, for the most part, does not play bluegrass…especially as far as purists are concerned.

  • argie

    Let’s face it…there is a lot of plain BAD bluegrass or music that gets categorized as bluegrass. I guess part of the problem is defining a genre that is as multi-faceted. People are generally quick to tell you that they either hate it or love it. I’ve been picking for more than 40 years and have yet to be able to say for sure what is bluegrass or what is not. If one wants to be a purist, Bluegrass vs. bluegrass would be the music of Bill Monroe vs anything else with 5-string 3-finger banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass. Then you have to decide whether to include resophonic guitar, autoharp, dulcimer, tenor banjo, clawhammer banjo etc. Bluegrass is the victim of its own success(finally) but if it had to depend on nose-singers whining in too-high keys, singing maudlin tales of death and poverty, it would have remained in the backwoods and hollers of the Appalachians. Its discovery as a folk-art form and its transcendence into a quaint “authentic” music would have to lead naturally to interpretation by those “less authentic.” The embracing of the music by classically-trained musicians would therefore indicate a higher level of musical competence by those who, not able to evoke authenticity, would provoke curiosity at least. While not a big fan of AK, I admire her talent and success and appreciate the wider audience to whom she appeals. Many, who having heard her, have chosen to give bluegrass a “second listen,” wher they previously may not have.

  • “In other news, irrelevant critic offers unsolicited opinion…”

    Wow, I can only imagine Alison’s utter devastation in facing a negative review from some disgruntled comic-book critic.

    Surely Mr. Berlatsky can perceive the audible delineation of mainstream country and the niche occupied, owned and created by Krauss? Even the most staunch purist I associate with appreciate the undeniably appealing musicianship of AKUS. What he calls overproduced, I call the sparkling culmination of the best musicians, engineers and sonic energy on the planet.

    In my own unsolicited opinion, it’s too bad some ears are clogged by skepticism and religious intolerance – not to mention such confusion regarding the ideals of Capitalism.

  • Honestly, I don’t know what Kitty Wells and Polish singers have to do with Alison Krauss. She has an Angelic voice, with the best bunch of pickers in her band. I don’t agree with her running around this year ,promoting her CD from last year with Robert Plant(of Led Zeppelin), There is traditional bluegrass and what I call new grass, which Alison seems to represent more.
    Bluegrass doesn’t miss her, We still have plenty of great bluegrass bands around and singers and pickers. She will be back, her type of jam music drifts, but it always comes back to the Union Station.
    Jim Moulton