From The Side of the Road… Mr. Bluegrass Manners looks at 2024

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has been away from us for a while. He hasn’t been idle, however. He’s been doing research for an upcoming book with the working title, Why You Gotta Be So Rude? He also recently spoke at an international etiquette conference that included representatives from several musical genres. He remarked that bluegrass and folk music share many similar standards of etiquette but seriously diverge on some subjects, like the sing-along and clapping in time (or not) to the music.

He’s back at last, though, to answer your burning questions that came in to my Facebook page in the past week:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When you are invited to play a new festival in a large market, but the promoter is known to have stiffed or shorted bands in the past, what is the best way to respond without completely blowing up the bridge?

– Dubious in North Carolina

Dear Dubious,

Well we are all well aware that stiffing or shorting bands is the height of bad bluegrass manners, but there’s no point in discussing that here, since the stiffers and shorters of the world are not likely to be reading this. They’re too busy reading the latest issue of Screw the Artist Quarterly (SAQ). 

One simple, yet non-confrontational approach is to ask for double what you normally would, then require a 50% deposit. It’s also advisable to ask for double the number of hotel rooms you  normally need (say “it’s for my team”). If you get the deposit and half the number of rooms, you’re in good shape. Anything you get on the day of the show is gravy. In the more likely event that you get turned down, you didn’t really want to work for that person anyway. If you don’t receive any money after the deposit, just calmly say, “my lawyer will be in touch,” and chuckle quietly to yourself, knowing you don’t really care.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it cool to ask and use astrological signs when deciding who gets into the band? Maybe a good way to decide and put together a group that can work well together might be to start with matching of astrological charts. Some people in my band think this is “not done” generally, but I point out that many bands break up, and possibly because they have not put the time in to do their charts and use that as a deciding factor. How do I get my band to see the importance of this idea? 

– Harmonically Converged in Virginia

Dear Harmonically,

It’s interesting that you bring this up because it’s rumored that one of the early lineups of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers was established that way, with both Curly Ray and Ezra Cline being Capricorns. Bobby Osborne was a Sagittarius but all three were born with the moon in the house of creativity and fiddles. 

Addressing the manners aspect of your question, is it polite to ask your potential band members for astrological information? I’d say that it’s no less prying than asking about people’s religion or their diet and sports preferences, especially if the band prospects don’t actually believe in astrology. What do they care? Still, you might also consider another method of matching up your band members on a deeper level: choose band members with compatible personality disorders. Say you have a narcissist in the band, or maybe more than one (google “media mogul, “real estate baron,” or “lead singer” for examples); try to have a corresponding number of “empaths” to provide the emotional “supply” they crave. The empathetic band members will be miserable a lot of the time, but in a way that feels comfortable and familiar to them. There will be plenty of drama on the road and the stage, but there could be some long term dysfunctional stability there, and enough tension to keep the edge in the music.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Why do parents still Insist on naming their sons “Willie”?

— Baffled in Kentucky

Dear Baffled,

Yes, it has been considered socially unacceptable and just unwise for anyone with bluegrass music connections in the family to name a child “Willie” since the Stanley Brothers’ 1950 recording of Pretty Polly, yet parents still do it. It’s also best to avoid the names “Polly,” “Rose,” and “Knoxville” for girls. 

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Big string loops on the tuner pegs: bluegrass fashion faux pas?

— Wound Tight in Ohio

Dear Wound,

I would have to say that in the world of bluegrass, this is the fashion equivalent of tying your strap to your headstock or wearing Birkenstocks with a dark suit on stage. There’s an important exception to this rule: if you’re a master of the Charlie Waller mid-set broken string repair technique, you’ll need some extra length for those strings. And if you are a master of that technique, bravo to you. Please make an instructional YouTube video about it, will you? There’s an exception to the Birkenstock-dark suit rule, too, but I don’t have the space to go into it right now.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it okay to play an electric saw in a jam?

— Cutting Edge in North Carolina

Dear Cutting,

This had never been an issue before, but ever since the release of Chris Thile’s Concerto for Mandolin and Electric Saw album last year, there’s been a noticeable uptick in use of the electric saw in bluegrass jamming situations. Prior to that, the instrument had last been heard on the alternate take of the Stanley Brothers’ Finger Poppin’ Time (with James Brown on drums). If I had to rate the social acceptability of the electric saw in a bluegrass jam session, I’d rank it below the snare drum and the 12-string dobro but well above the saxophone and the flute. I personally think it’s a haunting sound that works well on songs like Long Black Veil and Bringing Mary Home.