Bluegrass to English translations

Chris Jones, our dutiful chronicler of bluegrass whimsy, found himself low on time this week, so we are re-running this clever column, originally published in April 2012.

People that are new to bluegrass music sometimes need some help in translating our jargon. Hearing that someone is “tearing it up on the five” may sound like ordinary and recognizable information to us, but to the uninitiated, it’s not immediately apparent that this means “playing the banjo really well.” To an outsider, this could just as easily mean that the “tearer” chooses to shred office documents at 5:00 p.m. Or maybe this person chooses to strip  at the end of every workday.

And what about some of our common bluegrass euphemisms? Euphemisms are the phrases we use to soften the blow of what we’re really saying. They’re a part of every day life, of course, and we’re so used to them that we don’t even notice most of them anymore. For example: “passed away” instead of “died,” “low income” instead of “poor,” or “musician” instead of “unemployed slacker.”

We have lots of our own euphemisms in bluegrass music, and one day my friend Paul Kovak and I were sitting around after lunch trying to compile a top ten list of them. I recall it being a pretty good list at the time, but sadly it was all hastily written on a napkin that was then used to wipe up a coffee spill, so the list was lost.

This forced me to recreate it as best I could, and very quickly I realized that holding the list to just ten was going to be difficult, so I’ve expanded it. The following list contains not only bluegrass euphemisms, but also common bluegrass statements designed to be more palatable than the painful truth.

Here then, for those who haven’t gone through the full bluegrass initiation process, are a number of common bluegrass-related statements and euphemisms, followed by their translations (note: the “full bluegrass initiation process” often involves dangerous hazing rituals, like forcing the newcomers to  wear unbearably hot, oversized suits, carrying two 90-pound instrument flight cases, while running down the center of Broadway in Nashville, screaming “Give old Tenbrooks the bridle!!” Consult a doctor before attempting this.)

We’ll begin with things you might hear musicians say in a rehearsal or jam session:

From a guitar player: “I’m more of a traditional guitar player.”
Translation: “I can’t play an A minor chord.”

Or: “I’m more of a contemporary guitar player.”
Translation: “I can’t play a G-run.”

From a singer: “I can throw a harmony part on that.”
Translation: “I’ll be singing in unison with you right in your left ear.”

From a banjo player: “Can you all use a second banjo in your jam session?’
Translation: “You’re going to have a second banjo in your jam session.”

From a bass player: “I like to play on the front side of the beat.”
Translation: “I’ll be finished with the song while you’re still singing the last chorus.”

Or: “I like to play on the back side of the beat. It’s probably my jazz background.”
Translation: “I drag.”

From a bass or guitar player: “I don’t know it, but I’ll follow you.”
Translation: “I won’t successfully negotiate a single chord change in the entire song.”

From a fiddle player: “I’ll just throw some fills on that verse.”
Translation: “I’ll be playing the melody, slightly out of tune, right over your vocal.”

Note: I’ve given mandolin and dobro players a pass here; I think they’ve been abused enough in past columns.

Then there are the lines that professional musicians hear from event producers and club owners:

From a festival promoter: “We’re already booked up for next year.”
Translation: “You’re not cheap enough.”

Or: “We’re already booked up for the next two years.”
Translation: “You’re still not cheap enough, and I hate your music.”

From a small venue owner: “You just play for the door, but we usually get a pretty good crowd in here.”
Translation: “You’ll be walking away with $85.”

Or, just after the show: “Too bad about the crowd. It’s the economy these days.”
Translation: “Not a bad crowd, considering the only advertising I did was that small sign on the door with your name misspelled.”

Let’s not forget some of the choice words used by bluegrass artists with promoters and the public:

From a band leader: “I’ll be bringing an all-star lineup.”
Translation: “My entire band just quit and I’m making desperate phone calls right now.”

Or: “We just played to a packed house.”
Translation: “We just played a house concert with a capacity of 25.”

From an artist who has recently decided to embrace bluegrass music: “I’ve decided to go back to my roots.”
Translation: “I lost my record deal.”

Then there are the ways that band leaders address delicate subjects with their musicians (touched on in a previous column):

From a band leader: “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
Translation: “You’re fired.”

Or: “It just hasn’t been a good fit for us personally.”
Translation: “You’re fired because you’re bat sh** crazy!”

Or, from a musician giving notice: “I’ve decided to pursue other interests.”
Translation: “I’m hoping to work for someone who pays more and is less of a jerk.”