From The Side of the Road… let’s hear from Mr. Bluegrass Manners

We haven’t checked in with Mr. Bluegrass Manners for a while. It turns out he’s been out on the festival circuit, spreading the gospel of good bluegrass etiquette. He’s been visiting jam sessions, politely asking second bass players to go find another session, talking to MCs who failed to ask how to pronounce the band’s name before introducing them, and generally encouraging everybody to master the basics of bluegrass manners.

He’s taken some time between events, though, to answer a few questions from readers around the world. All of the questions below are real questions (you can tell that by the question mark at the end) submitted to my Facebook page this week (

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

What is considered an acceptable way to get a ROWDY neighboring festival campsite to SHUT THE EFF UP! They’re not making music, they’re just screaming and roaring and carrying on drunk as owls. At night. Is it polite to stroll over and open with “I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but . . .”  – Sleepless in Hippensnitch, OK

Dear Sleepless,

Well, as you know, there’s an unwritten bluegrass festival rule (that someone should really go ahead and write down) that it’s always okay to play music until dawn at a bluegrass festival, even if it’s an extended jam version of Old Home Place with three banjos, four guitars, and two people singing tenor simultaneously. As a camper at a bluegrass festival, you’re just expected to live with it. However, if no music is being played at all and people are just making alcohol-induced noise, it is absolutely your right to ask them to put a sock in it. 

If the campers in question are really as drunk as owls (and do owls really drink that much? That’s a side of ornithology that doesn’t get discussed enough), I’m not sure they’re even going to understand your somewhat deferential approach. The word “buzz” is possibly the only part of that they’ll understand. I would suggest a more direct approach like these options:

Walk up to them quickly, banging two pots together as hard as you can, and yell, “Hey!! Too loud!! We’re trying to sleep over here!”

Alternatively, you can walk up to them playing Shuckin’ the Corn on the banjo at Mike Lilly volume level and shout the same thing.

Possibly even more effective is to identify the closest thing to a leader of this group (usually the loudest person), take him or her aside and say, “I just found out they’re serving free booze over at campsite 32” (say this even if the sites aren’t numbered). Then direct them “over the hill, right at the camper with the Indiana plates, then left at the oak tree and walk about a quarter of a mile. It’s on the left; you can’t miss it.”

Some, out of sleepless frustration, just threaten to burn their campsite to the ground. As justified as this might feel at the time, I discourage it.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When singing at a festival, what is the appropriate response to your own inability to remember words to songs you wrote?

1. Stop midway through the messed-up line and look at your band mates as if it was their fault?

2. Swear out loud.

3. Make things up on the fly even if they don’t make sense, or,

4. Repeat the parts you do remember and hope for the best.


Me from BC

Dear Me (?),

Sometimes your own songs are hardest to remember, since you’ve heard them less than a lot of other songs. The good news is you can sing whatever you want; it’s your song. That gives you some flexibility. While the true star/diva-types would go straight to #2 and take the opportunity to blame someone else, this really isn’t good bluegrass manners, even if your songs have been recorded by Blake Shelton, Alison Krauss, and that up-and-coming band Crusty Rydge. My preference would be option #3: make up some lyrics. Even if they don’t make sense or even rhyme, remember that 90% of the audience isn’t listening to the lyrics, which might also make your future songwriting efforts a lot easier, too.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

As a festival producer, I’m always trying to find new ways to get people to festivals. Should I advertise the quantity of port-a-johns and publish the cleaning schedule? Perhaps this info could be listed above the bands on the poster. Is this appropriate?

— Shi Take from Waterloo, IA

Dear Shi,

Well, we live in an era of heightened hygiene awareness. Airlines and hotels now make a point of discussing their cleaning practices, ventilation, etc. It’s a pretty dry topic but it fits the times. Why shouldn’t bluegrass festivals use this as a selling point, too? I looked it up on and it turns out that the generally accepted maximum ratio of guests to port-a-john is 100 to 1. It should be fewer than 100 if alcohol is served, and I would add that it should be fewer at really hot festivals where large lemonade “shake-ups” are served. The 100 to 1 standard also assumes an event that’s only going to last four hours. Unless your band lineup is really terrible, it’s likely that your crowd will be there quite a bit longer than four hours. If I were you, I’d publish your port-a-john to audience member ratio right at the top of the flyer, as you suggest. No matter how exciting your band lineup might be (Shenandoah Cut-ups Reunion, the Resurrected Bill Monroe, etc.), it’ll be the clean port-a-johns that’ll have them flocking in.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When inviting friends over, is it better to “Boil ’em Cabbage Down” or “Bile ’em Cabbage Down?” The latter would seem to engage one’s liver and gallbladder more, but may cause some additional unwanted digestive distress. I’m hearing this question raised a lot lately at jam sessions. Thank you

Busy Gallbladder in Nashville

Dear Busy,

When preparing cabbage for guests, I like to refer to Martha Stewart’s Treasured Cabbage Recipes From My Home:

“I like to boil my homegrown cabbage in a brine I’ve prepared specially overnight. I like to chop three cloves of my organic garlic from my green house seasoned with a sprig of fresh rosemary from my herb garden and salt from a carefully curated salt mine just outside of Taos, New Mexico, adding it to 3 cups of water drawn from my Artesian well.”

Apparently boiling is the way to go. 

If you’re referring to the song, Bile (or Boil) ‘Em Cabbage Down, I recommend avoiding it altogether. Both “boil,” and “bile” are on my list of “too much information” words to avoid in songs:

  • Boil
  • Bile
  • Lymph
  • Pus
  • Lesion
  • Cyst
  • Mucous
  • Colostrum
  • Gallbladder
  • Islets of Langerhans
  • Spleen