From The Side of the Road… jamming etiquette with Mr. Bluegrass Manners

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has made a triumphant return, although he wouldn’t put it that way because he’s too well-mannered. I keep telling him that social media have made it okay to brag now. We live in a time of posts like, “We rocked the house last night in Salem and sold the room out. We’re amazing LOL!!” (note: the room that was sold out was an actual living room. I have no explanation for the “LOL”). MBM is having none of it.

Still, we’re glad he’s back for his first Q&A session since last Christmas. We’ve had some questions from Bluegrass Today readers, and, as is often the case, the questions focus on the etiquette issues surrounding jamming. It seems this is the area of bluegrass music where there is the greatest amount of uncertainty about manners. It makes sense: there are many unwritten rules and lots of people breaking them, either because they didn’t know what they were in the first place, or they just don’t care. 

These questions for Mr. Bluegrass Manners came in via my Facebook page:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

What if you kick off a song at the speed you deem appropriate, but a few bars in, it’s obvious the bass player disagrees. Do you excuse him/her for obviously not having enough coffee to maintain your speed, give him the “I challenge you to a duel” look, or clog while picking to drown out the bass?

Dragged Down in West Virginia

Dear Dragged,

This is a common problem, not just with bass players, but bass players are particularly difficult to fight against for control of the tempo. If it came down to a duel, you (and everyone else in the jam) would lose. Stopping the song and pointing out that he or she is dragging isn’t good bluegrass manners, I’m afraid, because the problem with the bass player is bigger than this particular song or jam session. In other words, this is unlikely to be the first dragging incident involving this musician. Pointing it out in a jam session would just cause hard feelings. Caffeine won’t help either; it would probably just result in the bass player still dragging, but dragging nervously. Sadly, you probably just have to suffer through it the best you can, playing Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms at the speed of Banks of the Ohio, hoping it ends soon.

Your clogging idea might actually be the best course of action. You could also solve this by bring along a snare drummer, but this is generally considered to be “the nuclear option.”

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Some people like to bring the most obscure songs that can be found with them to a jam. Of course no one knows them. What can you do?

Irritated in Illinois

Dear Irritated,

This situation arises when someone is more concerned with impressing others in the room with their knowledge of Jim Eanes’ Rich-R-Tone material or late ’40s Charlie Parker tunes. You can start by simply saying, “I’m sorry, nobody here seems to know A Night in Tunisia.” If he or she fails to take the hint, or worse, begins handing out charts, I would recommend nodding your head, acting confident, and then launching into a three-chord standard like Little Cabin Home on the Hill.

In some cases it may be necessary to bring in your own jam-busters to make a subtle point. I usually recommend Little Rock Getaway or Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman. Of course this will require your learning them first for yourself. When suggesting these songs, make sure to add, “It’s pretty easy to follow. Let’s do it in E flat.”

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

What should you do if your instrument is in the usual 440 tuning at a jam and everyone else is not?

Clashing in New Jersey

Dear Clashing,

There isn’t an easy answer to this one. Back before the electronic tuner (this was also before the carbon fiber case and the fall of the Berlin Wall), people tended to tune by ear to whoever had the most reliable A note on hand. Standard tuning was A440-ish. If you’re around at the start of a jam session and can provide that note or offer your tuner to people, that might help, but if you arrive after people are playing in a committed A441, you may be stuck going with the majority pitch.