Cassette tapes – the next big thing in bluegrass

Chris JonesYou know not to throw things away that have gone out of style, don’t you? That skinny tie you wore in the ‘80s (or perhaps in the early ‘60s) is back. The 100% polyester/plastic “trucker hat” you had thrown away because of the oil stain on the Dekalb logo has been back for years and is now fading away again.

This means that the future is bright for pleated shorts, the mullet, and the bolo tie. In other words, whatever was worn in a bluegrass band’s publicity photo about 15 years ago is on the verge of becoming hip, just as soon as a young band decides to chart some new fashion territory and wear any of this stuff ironically.

Irony can even be used in the realm of recording formats, too. I really enjoyed the set by the talented Chatham County Line at Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh. I was also thrilled to be handed a copy of their latest release on a cassette. Yes, I said “cassette.”

I approve of this marketing idea for so many reasons, I really don’t have time or space to fully cover them all.

I assumed, first of all, that this cassette was meant to be listened to ironically, too, that is to say, not at all. Like the LPs being bought and sold by people who no longer have working turntables, it’s a cool souvenir of the band and a good reminder to download the music.

I had them fooled, though. I still had a semi-functional cassette player in an old vehicle of mine. Yes, it involved jump-starting the truck, replacing the alternator, figuring out how to get the driver’s side door open, and running my hands through some spider webs, but the cassette player inside worked. Well, it worked for a song and a half, then it ate the tape (hence the “semi” part of the “semi-functional”). No problem: I was around in the 1980s and I can still roll those things back up with my finger, exactly as I had done with Conway Twitty’s Lost in the Feeling cassette (though on that one, I think I had to iron a section of the tape).

Fortunately, the Chatham County Line cassette is a two-song release promoting the single Living in Raleigh Now so I got to hear most of it before the tape-gobbling commenced.

Probably my number one reason for loving this cassette concept is a selfish one: I still have boxes of my first solo album in cassette form, and I had assumed I was going to have to give them all away as incentives to buy one of our trucker hats, before they too go completely out of style and have to be used as free incentives to buy one of our CDs.

I also prefer reviving the cassette to reviving the LP, again with self-serving motives. I love the LP, and I still have a working turntable, but no touring musician who has to fly to any gigs relishes the idea of trying to send these through checked baggage, or pay today’s shipping prices to send them ahead. Unless you carry nothing else, I think 10 LPs will pretty much put you over the weight limit, after which most airlines will charge you in the neighborhood of $8,500 and a pint of your blood to check the bag. There’s a reason artists are charging $20 for them now.

Cassettes, on the other hand, are light, small, and cute. The cassette is also a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time, a time before the cell phone, when people still conversed face-to-face, and young toughs could wander into the locally-owned record store and slap down ten dollars (possibly acquired through questionable means) for the latest Megadeth tape.

In the bluegrass world, the cassette isn’t such a long-ago relic. I’m pretty sure I saw a band selling them in earnest at a festival in Missouri just three years ago, and I still have people coming up to our merch table asking for our latest “tape.”

Here then is an important guideline: any item can be revived in an ironically hip fashion, whether it be mustaches, Crocs, leisure suits, skinny jeans, 8-track tapes (oh, please let this happen!), exactly one week after the last time one of these items is seen and/or sold at a bluegrass festival.

So, as you clean out your garage/closet/truck-cab/bus, keep this in mind: maybe that item that reminds you of a villain on Columbo, Suzanne Somers, or a Virginia Squires album (make that cassette) cover is just one week away from hipness. Hold on to it.

If you’re trying to find me 15 years from now, just look for the guy in the skinny jeans, with the newly-grown Hasidic-style, Duck Dynasty/relief-pitcher beard. I’ll be selling CDs. Very hip. You may even have a machine that will still play them.