From The Side of the Road… can there be positive bluegrass?

In many parts of our society, we place a high value on being positive. “Just stay positive,” we’re often told, even if we’ve just received the news that we have three months to live.

Some countries are more positive than others, it turns out. According to a study a few years ago, Singapore was ranked as the “least positive” country in the world. In spite of its modern economy, and a high per-capita GDP, people there are pretty down in the dumps. Their most common responses, when asked about their general outlook on life, were: “It all just seems so pointless,” and “whatever.”

The most positive country, on the other hand, is Panama, I guess because they have that lovely canal. What’s not to like? In their responses, they said “yee haw!” a lot (translated from the Spanish).

“A positive country” is not to be confused with “Positive Country,” a movement which sprang up in country music in the late ’80s and ’90s, championed by Paul Overstreet, Ricky Skaggs, and others. The idea behind it was to try to promote more spiritually affirming, and pro-family themes, while shunning some of the seamier side of country lyrics, as well as some of the time-honored cry-in-your-beer, lost-love songs. The movement was swallowed up for the most part by the genre of Christian Country, but for a while it represented a mainstream country songwriting trend.

The principle of “positive country” still exists in country music today, it’s just that people’s positive experiences tend to involve a lot of beer in a truck down by the river.

I remember thinking, around the time that songs like Forever and Ever Amen were big, that positive country was a refreshing trend, but that we should still take the negative with the positive in order to stay emotionally honest. Sometimes things just aren’t going well in our lives, and human beings have been singing about these things since long before music was ever recorded. That is of course how the blues came into being, not to mention opera.

What about bluegrass? Could there be such a thing as “positive bluegrass?” Perhaps, but we’d have to upend the entire repertoire and pretty much start over to pull it off. For those of you who haven’t been listening to the lyrics of bluegrass music, we’re not very positive, no matter how happy the instrumental parts sound. 

Take wedding or marriage songs, as an example: looking at some of the classics, we either have somebody murdered for turning down a marriage proposal (Pretty Polly, Little Glass of Wine, etc.), a bride accidentally murdered (Veil of White Lace), or just a big guilt trip connected with the wedding, Bury Me Beneath the Willow. Then of course there’s I Never Will Marry. To say this isn’t pro-family is an understatement. It isn’t even pro-the-part-that-comes-before-family.

This is why bluegrass bands struggle to come up with more than one or two appropriate songs at a typical wedding gig. No Doubt About It and Nobody But You usually exhaust the positive love song supply of most bluegrass bands. After that, they usually just play a lot of instrumentals or mumble the songs they do know.

I prefer to think of our music, though, as a genre that takes an honest look at the hardships of life, with no attempt to sugar coat them. As long as we’re not celebrating accidental bride-murder (or “brideacide”), I think it’s a good thing to deal with this dark side head-on, preferably in as lonesome a way as possible.

At the same time, it probably wouldn’t hurt to accommodate a few positive songs here and there, if only for balance, or if only to get bluegrass bands a few more wedding bookings.

I recently wrote a column suggesting changes to some of our more violent murder ballads, and I have to admit the whole idea fell pretty flat, plus I think it’s wrong to whitewash traditional songs. Better to avoid them altogether, if you feel that strongly about it. Instead, if we really want to promote positive bluegrass, we need to just write new ones.  

Below are some potential positive bluegrass song ideas. If they seem at all based on older songs, it’s purely coincidence:

“Good Thing I Never Left My Cabin Home”

“I Never Will Marry Unless Somebody Really Cute Comes Along”

“The Peabody Coal Company Did a Wonderful Job Reclaiming That Strip Mine”

“Papa, Thanks For Disciplining Little Benny in That Kind Affirming Way You Always Do”

“Bright Lights, a Smoke-free Environment, and Very Soft Music”

“My Horse Came Back to Life (Hello Old Pal)”

“Kyper, Kyper, You Are Riding Right, Thanks”

“I Miss the Mountains, But This Large Industrial City is Quite Nice Too”

“The Little Girl and the Cuddly Stuffed Snake”

“What Have They Done to the Old Home Place? It’s Gorgeous”

“Over The Hills To My Time Share in Boca Raton”

“Don’t This Road Look Smooth and Scenic”

“I Enjoy Your Lovely Yet Concise Letters”

“I Was a Moonshiner But Gave it Up To Start a Landscaping Business”

“Yes, Willie, I’ll Marry You (Try Not to Stab Me)”

Feel free to run with these. Not only do I not want credit, if you turn any of these into songs, I’ll deny any personal connection whatsoever.