This past weekend Mountain View Arkansas was thriving with bluegrass during the annual Fall Bluegrass Festival. Cadillac Sky was one of the featured bands, and controversy was the order of the day after their first performance Thursday night. Here are the plain facts as I understand them.
Cadillac Sky was contracted to play 5 sets over the course of three days at the festival. After their first set a confrontation took place between the band the promoter. The confrontation resulted in the band being sent home.
Cadillac Sky soon released their side of the story on their MySpace blog. In their post they accused the promoter, Andy by name, of being a “Bluegrass Nazi” and firing them for not being bluegrass enough. And this after playing a set of traditional bluegrass gospel music. The post sparked outrage among the band’s fans and resulted in many comments, both on the band’s MySpace page and on other bluegrass discussion groups, suggesting a boycott of the Mountain View Bluegrass Festival, and bringing up issues of ethics and integrity.
Being alerted to the controversy, and aware that there are two sides to any story, I contacted Andy and had a lengthy telephone conversation with him. He tells a slightly different version of the tale.
According the Andy, he got the band’s CD in the mail and listened to it. Thinking it was good he booked the band to play the festival. He did realize they were somewhat more progressive than the music normally presented at the festival, but thought it would be OK. Prior to the band arriving at the festival he did speak with them and stressed the traditional nature of the festival and audience. They seemed to have no problem with the idea of playing that environment. Upon arrival though, the band started hooking up direct boxes to plug in all the instruments. He communicated to the band that they would be better to play acoustically through microphones rather than plugging in, but they continued with their normal set up.
Once their set started, the volume quickly exceeded acceptable limits for the room, due in large part to the monitor levels on stage.
You could have turned off the house sound and heard them just fine the monitors were so loud.
Starting with an audience of 600, Andy relates that by the third song the audience had dwindled by half. Andy asked the band’s sound man to turn them down and he refused. By the end of the set the audience had dwindled even further to less than 100 people.
Following the conclusion of the show Andy met with the band and told them they would need to unplug and play acoustically for the remainder of the festival. The band’s response was that they would not change their music for anyone. Andy suggested he was not asking them to change their music, just the volume level. They adamantly continued in their refusal to unplug and demonstrated an attitude of noncooperation. Feeling a sense of responsibility to his paying customers in attendance at the festival, Andy felt he could not allow the band to perform under these circumstances. Therefore, he presented them with a check for the full contracted amount and told them they would not be playing their remaining sets.
This is the first time anything like this has happened at our festival and I hate that it did happen. I just wish the band had been more cooperative. Their CD is enjoyable and good music. It was their volume level and attitude that made me fire them.
Cadillac Sky did not respond to my inquiries for comment in response to what I had learned from speaking with Andy. See update below…
I’m not naive enough to believe that all the fault lies with one party in any confrontation, but from my point of view it sure looks like Cadillac Sky has nothing to complain about. Maybe a lesson could be learned by both artists and promoters here.
The promoter could learn that a CD is not necessarily representative of a band’s live performance and they should not be booked solely on the basis of what the CD sounds like (that’s kind of sad when you think about it).
The artist could learn that not every festival is the same and some might not be an appropriate venue for their style, and that’s OK. Bluegrass is big enough to accommodate both traditional and progressive bands and festivals. There is no reason for scenarios like this one to take place if both parties would communicate, display a little humility, and put the listening audience first, not themselves. And that goes for the artist and the promoter.
Should the band have been fired? Was Andy out of line? Was he justified in his actions? What do you think?
UPDATE 3:30 p.m. – from John: I just had a nice conversation with Bryan Simpson of Cadillac Sky. He apologized for missing our email, saying that it had been directed to an account he rarely checks, something that seems to happen to all of us from time to time.
Bryan certainly feels badly about what happened at the Mountain View festival, but feels that the whole situation might be best described as a bad mismatch between Cadillac Sky and the audience at this event on that Thursday night show.
He did take exception to one thing in particular in Andy’s account of the interaction about sound levels. Bryan insists that their sound man did in fact reduce the volume each time the request was made – three times – and that he does not recall a request that they unplug from their direct boxes. He recalls that there were calls from the audience during New Found Road’s set to “turn it down” as well, with a few answering shouts of “No… turn it up!”
Further, he told me that in the discussion with the promoter that resulted in them being canceled, the issue was related to him not as one of volume – as Bryan indicated that they would be happy to turn down even further – but more a matter of the material they were playing “not being bluegrass.”
That was what really frosted me, and I guess I responded passionately on our MySpace blog, saying some things I wish I hadn’t. It frustrates me when there is an implication that we don’t respect bluegrass music, because we are grounded in it, and embrace the music in its many forms. I would hate for anyone to think that we would dishonor the traditions of bluegrass, because we love it.
It’s just that when we play traditional material, it comes out sounding differently – and when we try to make it sound like Del McCoury, it doesn’t come out right; it doesn’t sound sincere. So we play the way we play. I don’t know what else to do!
Bryan also maintains that their sound with direct boxes (plugged in) remains a true acoustic tone – with an upright bass running through a small stage amp. He said that they don’t plug in for volume, but for freedom of movement on stage. They feel a bit constricted when they have to stand in front on microphones, though their fiddler does use a stationary mic.
In the end, it does sound like an unfortunate occurrence where an act that would have been hugely popular in front of one group of people was an inappropriate choice for another. Perhaps the two conflicting accounts can never be fully reconciled, but fortunately, it seems that no lasting ill will remains.