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

Mr. Bluegrass Manners has had an unusually busy fall, or maybe it’s a normally busy fall, but because of the sharp contrast with the fall of 2020, it just seems unusual. In the course of relearning how to multi-task (while staying courteous at all times), MBM has been gathering questions from around the bluegrass circuit and will answer of few of them below.

Most questions are jam-related, which is predictable because most of the major bluegrass etiquette faux pas incidents take place in this environment. Be forewarned that one of the answers may generate some controversy, serving only to further divide us, but in a well-mannered way. 

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners:

If I’m married to one of my band members and I want to tell them I want a divorce, is playing a minor 2 during New Camptown Races too passive aggressive, or should I do something more direct like never offer them a solo?

— Ready To End It in the Pacific Northwest

Dear Ready,

You raise an interesting and challenging question. The New Camptown Races plan may indeed be too passive aggressive, but that may also depend on your placement of the minor 2 chord. If you use it to replace all the minor 6 chords in the tune, it will sound bad and be offensive to Frank Wakefield, but it may be too subtle. If, however, you replace all the 1 chords in the song with minor 2s, this is sending a clear message. But what is the clear message and how will other band members react? If the message is simply that you no longer care, or that you’re just too much of an innovator to be constrained by the most widely accepted chord structure rules, this could just get you fired but not necessarily prompt the breakup you desire (and I’ll remind you that it’s still possible to be fired from your own band, even if you own the band vehicle). If, however, your spouse is the mandolin player in the band, and therefore the featured musician on the tune, this may be seen as more aggressive than passive, and you might trigger the intended relationship fracture. Is it the best bluegrass manners, though, to end a marriage this way?

I would urge a more direct approach, because in the end this is the kinder and, therefore, more courteous route. I would avoid the plan of depriving your spouse of solos, however. What if your spouse is the bass player? And how do you actually keep someone from soloing who’s determined to do it, especially a banjo player? Instead, consider offering up a song for the band to work up that you wrote called, “I Want a Divorce.” If you’re not a songwriter, here’s a possible first verse to get you started:

We’ve been in this band so long and it’s not working out
It turns out your big ego is what it’s all about
Why kid ourselves and keep this up for even one more day?
So hit an E chord while I sing, “I just think I’ll go away”

It’s a place to start, anyway. Play a minor 2 over the phrase, “So hit an E chord.”

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners:

Why do some bluegrass jammers dislike an Appalachian dulcimer in the bunch?

Open-minded in Illinois

Dear Open-minded,

Well some bluegrass jammers dislike a lot of things, but generally the reason for shunning the Appalachian dulcimer is that it’s not technically a bluegrass instrument, especially if we define a “bluegrass instrument” as being any instrument played in Bill Monroe’s band or on a Bill Monroe recording. The dulcimer sadly is not in this category. To review, based on the above definition, the following are bluegrass instruments and should be accepted in any and all bluegrass jam sessions:

Electric Guitar

The following (among others) are not bluegrass instruments, and although it may seem uncharitable, it is acceptable to exclude these instruments from a traditional bluegrass jam session:

Resonator anything-else
Appalachian dulcimer
Hammered dulcimer
12-string guitar
Tenor guitar
Pedal Steel

My apologies: my historical research assistant Mary Ann (without her things just fall to pieces) has just pointed out to me that Barbara Mandrell played the dobro on a Bill Monroe recording, in spite of his previous public disdain for the instrument. For that reason, we can place the dobro (or “resonator guitar,” to be more polite) into the first column, but perhaps only if played by Barbara Mandrell; we may have to research further and withhold judgement.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Should spoons be invited into a bluegrass jam?

— Spoonworthy in Colorado

Dear Spoonworthy,

I knew there was something I was forgetting in the “not bluegrass instruments” list above. I’m sorry for the omission.

Thanks for your questions. I wish you a good and well-mannered holiday season!

— Mr. Bluegrass Manners

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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.