From The Side of the Road – Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has been off for a little while. He chose to self-isolate after having had to spend some time in the Nashville Greyhound station (it’s a long story). While in quarantine he continued to answer emails, even the spam ones, including one that appeared to be from Thor, saying only “please let’s work together.” It seems that even Norse gods want to work with Mr. Bluegrass Manners. He declined nonetheless, signing the email, “Kindest regards, Mr. Bluegrass Manners.”

Fortunately, he also received legitimate emails from people without magic hammers with some pertinent questions to be answered here:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When jamming with friends or playing with my band, I often get comments from the other musicians saying that my banjo is too loud. Usually I try to play louder, so that I can’t hear the comments, but sometimes they sneak them in during those rare moments when I stop playing. Is there a recommended way that I can politely ask them to stop doing this? 

— A Banjo player whose name rhymes with “Tubernecki”

Dear Loud Banjo Guy,

Well, there are a few different approaches you can take: one is to stop playing and request in a well-mannered way that they not keep asking you to play more quietly, explaining that your chosen instrument “only has one volume,” and that’s part of the deal when playing with a banjo player. To put it in less well-mannered terms, “Suck it up people. This is what you get.”

Another option, though possibly a less polite approach, is to carry a bombard with you, and whenever anyone asks you to quiet down, you can take out the bombard, begin playing that, and they’ll soon be begging for the return of the banjo at any volume. To explain, the bombard is an early instrument used primarily in traditional Breton music. It’s widely considered to be the most obnoxious unamplified instrument in music (with sincere apologies to the numerous bombard players who read this column), a little like bagpipes without the bag, but louder and with less pleasing tone. It’s said that Breton warriors would scare off their enemies just by removing the instrument from its case before heading into battle. The bombard makes the loudest banjo and the thrashiest rhythm guitar sound like soft wind chimes in a remote Franciscan monastery. 

You could also just wear ear plugs so you can’t hear anybody’s comments.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it impolite to shout out remarks to a stranger about the size of the instrument he or she is carrying? I’m thinking of clever quips such as “That’s a mighty little git-ar you got there” to a mandolin player, or “How do you get that big fiddle under your chin, little lady?” to an upright bass player. With the heightened awareness of body shaming, I don’t want to offend, but don’t know if this extends to instruments.

— Cautious in Michigan

Dear Cautious,

Well, I hope this isn’t too disappointing to hear, but it’s generally agreed that commenting on the size of strangers’ instruments is not good manners. Though your quips may seem clever to you, you may be failing to factor in how often that musician may have already heard the very same remark, perhaps even earlier that day, thus draining any humor there might have been in the joke the first time it was told. You might try these alternative ice-breakers: “That’s an impressive instrument you have, and you play it so well.” Or, if they don’t play it well: “That’s a fine looking instrument there. Have you been playing it long?” Or, if it’s not a very fine-looking instrument: “Hello.” On the other hand, I find that banjo players still enjoy it when you say, “Uh oh! Time to paddle faster!”

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

As a new bluegrass music venue operator, what are some favorite things I should supply for bands when they’re here for concerts.

— Supportive in California

Dear Supportive,

The mere fact that you asked this question already puts you well ahead of many music venue operators. I decided to survey some musicians about this, and I got a variety of responses, from the high maintenance: “Sustainably-sourced moose jerky and 18-year-old single malt Scotch,” to low: “a stage or small corner of a room.” The most common answer in this COVID-19 era was “money.”

Thanks for all your questions. I regret that we weren’t able to get to all of them. 

With kind regards,

Mr. Bluegrass Manners