From The Side of the Road… Mr. Bluegrass Manners back from COVID

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has been away from this column for a while. Since things began opening up in the United States and elsewhere, MBM has seized the opportunity to resume touring the country, attending bluegrass jam sessions, and raising one eyebrow whenever someone spontaneously decides to play two breaks in a row on Big Mon or calls out Wichita Lineman as a “pretty easy—just follow me” jam song. This has kept him pretty busy, but I managed to get him to sit down and field some questions from our backlog.

Just a note that these are authentic questions (you can tell by the question mark at the end) submitted through my Facebook page. Mr. Bluegrass Manners now has his own Facebook and Instagram pages but he never engages with anyone there and only posts cat pictures, and even those no more than once a month.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it acceptable to question a bluegrass musician, for whom bluegrass is their living, who every time you turn around has a new boutique or vintage instrument or another high end case, how they can afford it? Here I sit with twice as many shows, touring the country, while working another full time job and can’t even upgrade to nice tuning machines. Like, do you deal drugs? Is your wife a doctor? Did you receive an inheritance? I mean, I just want to ask.

Envious in North Carolina

Dear Envious,

You bring up an interesting issue. Most professional bluegrass musicians who teach at music camps marvel at the fact that most of their students have higher end instruments and equipment than they do, even if these students may never use these pricey tools in any professional capacity. The simple explanation is that those students earn approximately twenty times what their instructor, the full-time bluegrass musician, does in a given year. That’s how they could afford to enroll in the camp and drive there in a vehicle built sometime since the last Bush Administration.

But what are we to think when a professional bluegrass musician is also sporting the fancy flight case, the pre-war herringbone, and the hand-tooled leather guitar strap that says “Follow your dreams. I did”? Here, I’m afraid we have to adhere to the social rule that says it’s impolite to ask people how much they make at their job, or what their taxable income in 2019 was. Bluegrass musicians like answering these questions even less than people with real jobs, because it forces them to admit to how little this music pays. On top of that, acknowledging other lucrative sources of income which enable a musician to live like one of his or her students can be especially embarrassing, whether that income derives from a trust fund, a well-employed spouse, the skillful trading of fast food stocks, or the sale of products not considered strictly “legal.” It’s not something anyone is going to be thrilled to talk about. It will just have to remain in the same category with people’s dental work, sex lives, or their level of education. If they volunteer that information, great (or not—be careful what you wish for); otherwise you’ll just have to be left to wonder. Have you ruled out endorsement deals or an ongoing Go Fund Me campaign?

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Usually I just let my mandolin hang on my shoulder and either drink beer or text when I’m not soloing. Sometimes this gets boring. Is there anything I should be doing in between my super tasteless breaks?

Killing Time in Oregon

Dear Killing,

I think you’re forgetting to spend a good 15 to 30 seconds admiring your own solo, shaking your head with your eyes closed, smiling, and blurting out a heartfelt “yeah!” Raising your fist could also be considered. Then you can proceed to beer-drinking and texting. Other suggestions: occasionally you can put down either the beer or the phone, freeing one hand, then hit a big open G note on the mandolin, regardless of what key you’re in. One other possibility is to listen to the other musicians while they’re playing, but I don’t want you to do anything rash.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

I just bought Bill Monroe’s toaster at an auction. Do I have to express disdain that it’s electric?

Toasting the Father in Texas

Dear Toasting,

It’s funny you should mention it: thanks to a dear friend who attended one of the first Monroe auctions, I acquired one of his frying pans, which I now refer to as “Uncle Pan.” Though I’m tempted to, I make no apologies for the pan’s teflon coating. The fact is that Bill Monroe was an innovator and was not opposed to using emerging technology if it fit his music and his lifestyle. He appreciated a non-stick surface as much as the rest of us. Bill first experimented with the electric toaster on the same 1951 recording session that featured Ferris Coursey on drums, Grady Martin on electric guitar, and Owen Bradley playing piano and organ. Bill availed himself of the electric toaster in the kitchen of the studio while on a break. He continued to use the electric toaster through the 1950s, though some claim that he wasn’t really using it because it was mounted onto Ernie Newton’s bass at the time. The fact is, it was still making toast and Monroe was still buttering it, even if Ernie was putting the bread in while playing the bass (not an easy thing to do), so feel no need to apologize. Have some toast!

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

How do you deal with a band member who keeps looking at his watch and/or cell phone during a gig?

Irritated in Idaho

Dear Irritated,

You could offer him or her a beer, too (see question from Killing Time, above). In a worst case scenario, you could go up to the microphone and announce that you’re about to text the offending band member and ask for suggestions for what to say. I don’t know how polite that is, but I think in this case it would be justified.

Thank you for your questions.