From The Side of the Road… Mr. Bluegrass Manners encore

Mr. Bluegrass Manners is offering an unprecedented “two-fer” (even though he advises me that the term “two-fer” is not considered ideal bluegrass manners, though preferable, he says, to “two-for”). The reason for this MBM encore is the flood of questions he has received in the last two weeks.

Why this onslaught of bluegrass manners queries after months of what was, at best, a slow dribble? The answer is that this summer marks the beginning of a new era of good bluegrass manners. We are finally on the brink of living in a world in which people don’t request Wagon Wheel from a 1950s-style bluegrass band, or from anyone really; an era in which people offer up songs at jam sessions that most people know, rather than Little Rock Getaway or chordy originals; a time when people refrain from telling the same two banjo jokes over and over (unless they’re really short of material).

What brought about this welcome trend? Some say it’s the newly-offered bluegrass manners major at Morehead State and two other post-secondary bluegrass programs. Others credit the new bluegrass etiquette track at the IBMA World of Bluegrass (mentor sessions on Tuesday at 8:00 a.m.). Those with an interest in astrology claim that it’s due to Jupiter being in Libra and Venus entering the house of jam sessions.

No matter the reason, Mr. Bluegrass Manners is ready to take some of the excellent overflow questions there wasn’t space for last week.

The first two questions deal with the thorny issue of alternative chords and keys:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

If you’re jamming on Sitting On Top of the World at an open jam at a festival and one guitar player always plays an E minor in the chorus when God obviously didn’t write it that way, should we stop after the second chorus and stare at him/her or keep playing it the way God wrote it with the hope they catch on, and expel him/her immediately following the last chorus if they don’t?

Major Bill in Etherton Flats, IL

Dear Major,

Before I answer your question, I have a historical question for you: was it actually God who wrote Sitting On Top of the World, or merely Solomon inspired by God. Solomon seems like the likely author since it would follow that a guy with that many wives would come up with the glib line, “Now she’s gone and I don’t worry . . .” Or was it just written by a member of the Mississippi Sheiks, inspired by a woman who didn’t like his peaches?

In any case, we now think of it as a traditional song, and therefore it’s open to slightly altered versions and chords. What the person you’re hoping to bend to your will is failing to do is to “read the room” and get a feel for what the majority of the other musicians are playing, no matter the holy or holy blues origins of the song. Attaining this simple awareness requires exercising the most important skill in good bluegrass jamming manners: listening. It seems easy enough but many fail to do this. They plough through, playing a song however they’ve always played it and are unlikely to notice that they’re clashing with everyone else. 

The skill of listening is not teachable during the course of a single song, unfortunately.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When playing Molly and Tenbrooks in the key of F#dim, and the guy wearing his 1998 Blistered Fingers T-shirt (that has been on since 1998) yells out, “That ain’t the way Bill played it,” what is the appropriate response? 

Blistered and Diminished from Nova Scotia

Dear B&D,

Well I have to assume this is a hypothetical situation because if anyone ever played Molly & Tenbrooks in F#diminished in real life (even if that was a real key), a large crack would open up in the earth and swallow the players whole, and they would eventually meet the dead horse Molly face-to-face. She would have a vaguely disappointed look on her long face.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

In a jam situation, how many singers should take part while singing three-part harmony?

Part-counting in Maryland

Dear Part-counting,

Is this a trick question?


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

What do you do when one of your players constantly speeds up to warp nine, starts in the wrong key, sings songs in reverse order, and blames us, BUT he owns all the equipment necessary for us to play in public?

P.A.-poor in Michigan

Dear P.A.-poor,

The only aspect of this musician’s bad traits that are technically bad bluegrass manners is the tendency to blame others for his or her failures. The rest are simply old-fashioned musical incompetence. The overall package, though, leaves you with a problem and a challenge. Other bands face this issue in which a problem band member either owns the bus, owns the name of the band, or owns the other band members themselves through gambling debts or other means of luring them into indentured servitude. To break free, you have to somehow save enough money to purchase your own sound system. If you can set aside just 10% of your take home pay from every show, within one to two years, most members of a semi-active regional bluegrass band will manage to save the amount they need for a reasonably good P.A. system. If you’re saving for a bus, the estimated time expands to 73 years, even less if you pool money with other band members. There’s hope. 


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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.