From The Side of the Road… Mr. Bluegrass Manners takes your questions

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has just completed a 14-day mandatory self-quarantine after attending a conference in South Dakota on Thanksgiving etiquette. He’s feeling well and is ready once again to take your questions:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it considered permissible or not to sing that line in the Stanley Brothers Hey, Hey Hey Hey (and the comma is important) about the girl with the “golden curls and hung-down behind”?

– Wishing to be Woke in Wisconsin

Dear Wishing,

Well first of all, I may have to quarrel with your title, and this very thing was alluded to last week as a potential argument starter. It wouldn’t be good bluegrass manners to start one, but I do believe the official title has one less “hey” in it, and exclamation points: “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Having said that, your title—especially with the comma—makes much more sense, since that’s exactly how the chorus ends, though one could argue for an exclamation point at the end: “Hey, Hey Hey Hey!” But I’m digressing into a discussion of arcane bluegrass trivia, which is not at all the purpose of this Q & A, and a violation Bluegrass Etiquette Rule # 19: Never steer a discussion away from its original subject just to try to demonstrate your Stanley Brothers knowledge.

Your question, if I’m understanding it correctly, seems to be whether using the phrase “hung-down behind” is still appropriate for bluegrass musicians seeking to be sensitive about the portrayal of women’s physical features. It’s a valid question, though I would first offer the disclaimer that we have looser standards in bluegrass music about how women are treated in song lyrics. What’s considered “woke” in bluegrass is when a guy takes a girl down to the river and doesn’t kill her. Fortunately no one gets hurt in Hey, Hey Hey Hey (Hey!) and “hung down behind” (whatever that actually means) isn’t necessarily derogatory. In fact very few bluegrass songs portray a woman’s appearance negatively, this one included, or in the manner of a typical Homer & Jethro song: “Her face has fallen arches, it hangs just like a sack/She’d like to have it lifted but she doesn’t have a jack” (Yaller Rose of Texas). Sure, we have the occasional unsolicited fashion advice: “That long tail roustabout you wear don’t do a thing for you,” (Going to the Races) but generally bluegrass lyrics aren’t terribly offensive in this way. If your concern was more that “hung down behind” is a little obscene or bordering on indecent exposure, I would point out that Pretty Polly takes a lot more liberties in that area (“He opened up her bosom as white as any snow . . .”). Mind you, that’s just the beginning of some of the issues with Pretty Polly, a song which makes hip-hop lyrics seem relatively tame, so maybe that’s not the best standard to judge by.

To tell you the truth, I always thought the lyrics were “with your golden curls that hung down behind,” just a reference to the length of her hair, which would render all of the above moot. 


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

When is it appropriate to invite yourself onstage to “do a number” with an idolized act? When doing so, what is the accepted way of going about clothing swapping? Thanks.

— Creeper in Connecticut

Dear Creeper,

Well this is a good illustration of the down side of the blurred line between performer and audience in bluegrass music. Some either don’t understand this line or just ignore it, and in their minds, everything, including a performance by Alison Krauss & Union Station, is really just another jam session. That’s the long way of saying that it’s never appropriate to do that. However, if you manage to pull it off anyway, and you want to trade shirts with one of the band members, I would recommend doing it immediately after the show before the band heads out to the merchandise table. Many professional bluegrass bands, especially at a bluegrass festival, observe the time-honored tradition of shedding their formal stage clothes within minutes of getting off stage so they can then greet the audience in person wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a dirty T-shirt. Catching the musician right at this time is ideal because he or she will just be in a hurry and may just hand you the shirt without thinking about it. If you meet with resistance, you could try bargaining for the dirty T-shirt.

I should offer the disclaimer that asking an artist to trade clothing with you is even less polite than asking to trade CDs, but if you insist on trying it, I wish you good luck.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Is it possible that during the current pandemic it is even less acceptable to play a harmonica solo on Black Mountain Rag? Related to that, does the pandemic move accordion above harmonica on the list of least welcome instruments in a bluegrass jam?

— Seeking Clarity in Colorado

Dear Seeking,

I don’t have a definitive answer for you, unfortunately. One thing I do know is that the pandemic has made harmonica-sharing in a jam session extremely unwise. You know how it goes: “Hey, nice break on Black Mountain Rag! May I try your harp?” Don’t do this. 

As to your accordion question, bear in mind there are some people who feel strongly that the accordion and not the dobro is a bluegrass instrument, because Bill Monroe had one in his band in the 1940s. These people are sometimes called “Monroe Originalists,” or “Bluegrass Accordion Advocates,” or “BAA.” I would avoid inviting these people to your jam sessions, even though I personally like the accordion and the Bill Monroe song Nobody Loves Me.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

I play four or five bluegrass instruments (okay, just sort of) and am thinking of trying to learn another. I like to bring all my instruments to a jam and switch during each song to get to play more breaks. Is this a problem?

— Anonymous in Alabama

Dear Anonymous,

Yes it is.