From The Side of the Road… Mr. Bluegrass Manners delivers an exception

He’s back! Mr. Bluegrass Manners appears to be thriving well in the pandemic environment, or at least thriving as well as any other bluegrass etiquette specialist is right now. Recently I had to delicately point out to him that it wasn’t exactly good bluegrass manners to leave a backlog of questions from readers, so he’s agreed to tackle a few of the bluegrass etiquette queries that have made their way to the top of the pile:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

“I am learning how to play the bass and I am so excited to practice with other people! But when I join a jam session and start to play, a lot of times the existing bass player will put down his or her instrument and go get a beer. I always assure them that it’s okay with me to have two bass players in a jam— I don’t get hung up on silly rules! But I can never get them to come back. What can I say to let them know I’m really okay with sharing?”

– Doubling Up in Michigan

Dear Doubling,

The bass presents a unique situation in bluegrass jam session etiquette. It’s generally agreed that the number of any individual instruments in a jam session is limited only by the size of the room, if it’s indoors, or unlimited if it’s outdoors. Though some may not particularly enjoy more than three banjos in a jam session, there is no established limit, and in fact it’s considered impolite and arbitrary to attempt to restrict the number by saying to a newcomer to a session, “I’m sorry but we already have nine banjo players; you’ll need to wait until one of them leaves or dies.” The bass, however, is a notable exception, and as a rule (and not a silly rule, either), there should only be one bass at a time in even a large jam session. This is because in bluegrass music, the bass is regarded as the time-keeper of the band, and as soon as you have two sets of ones and fives with notes falling in slightly different places, rhythmic disaster results. 

You have a couple of options in this situation: you can stand there and play air bass until the other bass player leaves, or you can simply wait it out. If you’re hoping the current bass player will leave to get a beer, you might try getting one yourself, open it slowly and sensuously right in front of him or her, take a long drink, appearing to savor every aspect of the experience, then let out a very contented, “Oh yes!” as if this is the finest beer you’ve ever had in your life. This might prompt a bass player beverage break. You just have to hope he or she doesn’t say, “Oh that looks good. Would you mind grabbing me one of those from the kitchen?” then proceeding to play on the next ten songs. At this point you may conclude that this is a self-centered bass player who is abusing his or her bass-playing endurance.  


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is Wagon Wheel okay to play in Canada?

– Hey Mama Rock Me in North Carolina

Dear Hey Mama,

The newly established Wagon Wheel rule, as recently determined by a 20-member independent panel, states that the playing of Wagon Wheel is unacceptable anywhere in North America unless a band is performing in a bar and has been tipped $20 or more to play the song. Canada being extremely large, with vast areas of non or sparsely-inhabited land, however, there are a few exceptions: the board states that it is now okay to play Wagon Wheel no more than once a day in the following locations:

Clyde River, Nunavut – This is on Baffin Bay, and the sound of the waves against the rugged coast help take the edge off of hearing the song. The area is inhabited primarily by shorebirds and dangerous predatory animals.

Port Radium, Northwest Territories – This far northern outpost is home to six very cold people, all of whom work in the local radium mine, and the only live music they ever hear is provided by the one trumpet player in the village, who is terrible. If a guest band making a remote tour of the Northwest Territories happened by and played Wagon Wheel, the residents would be grateful.

Shoal Cove, Newfoundland – This tiny coastal village on the northern part of the island is out on a small peninsula, and though it boast a higher population than the localities listed above (population 19), this offers even more shoreline sounds than Clyde River and it generally makes even the most irritating man-made sounds more palatable to its citizens. Also, every family there owns a boat, so temporary escape is relatively easy.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it a sin to covet your neighbor’s Curly Ray Cline keychain? (You know, the one with his home phone number in Rockhouse, Kentucky).

— Covetous in Texas

Dear Covetous,

It may be a relief to hear that this is one of the least sinful forms of coveting. As a matter of fact, if my neighbor had a Curly Ray keychain, I would be coveting it right now because I lost the one I bought from Curly Ray in 1977. The Curly Ray Cline keychain is proof that bluegrass artists were completely accessible to their fans long before social media. It’s hard to picture Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber selling keychains with their phone numbers on them, which is why no one covets their keychains. By the way, it’s also not sinful to covet your neighbor’s copy of Curly Ray Cline’s Why Me Ralph? LP.


Mr. Bluegrass Manners thanks you for your questions and will get to others in a future session.