From The Side of the Road… reflections on the passing scene

I know I sometimes struggle when I’m having to field questions like, “do you really wish Raleigh would be less supportive of the IBMA?” or “do you really believe Bill Monroe died in 1981 and was represented by Monroe body doubles for 15 years?” or when the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum (under previous management) protested that there was no such thing as a “retired adjectives wing” at their facility. It’s at that point that I want the words, “The following is satire!” in bright red lettering at the head of this column every week. I just always hoped that wasn’t necessary.

I bring it up now just to issue this disclaimer: the following is just not that funny and isn’t really meant to be, at least not in a laugh-O-L sort of way. Very little of the following is satire. I’m sorry to confuse you, but this does free you up to take it seriously, disagree, be offended, or express support. Just try not to do that two weeks in a row. 

The global pandemic we often just refer to as “COVID,” was declared to be over not that long ago. This isn’t an anniversary or anything, but while playing in some crowded environments in Italy recently, a country that was initially devastated by the virus, I started to reflect on how far we’ve come in the last three years, and how grateful I feel to be out playing music for people again, whether it’s just down the road or halfway across the world.

This has been a few years of tragedy, comedy, toilet paper shortages, and livestreams (immensely popular and profitable the first two times we did them). Did we learn anything from all this? Are we better off in any ways or were there only negatives?

We all can list any number of down sides that relate to bluegrass music: some legendary musicians retired earlier than they might have otherwise; some musicians died—we all know some and let’s never make light of that; some bluegrass music events that had already been struggling went under for good; more marriages crumbled than would have otherwise (perhaps there can be too much home time); some musicians succumbed to alcohol or even social media addiction; some families and even bands experienced deep divisions and estrangement, often brought on by the politicizing of the pandemic. 

Aside from the obvious toll on people’s health, some of the biggest disappointments for me have been the things that didn’t happen when the situation finally eased: I know I was not alone in holding out hope that we would enter a new era of appreciation for live music. After people sat around binge-watching 1990s sitcoms and ordering take-out meals, unable to get out and see their favorite bands for almost two years, they would flood music venues and festivals, so grateful to be able to have that experience again. Once there, they would purchase band merchandise—even CDs—just to support the artists or just for the one-on-one interaction of getting it signed. Okay, maybe at that point I was carrying this fantasy a little too far, but I had hope.

The evidence of the last year or so points to a different outcome: people discovered it’s rather pleasant just staying home, watching videos of the bluegrass artists they like, streaming their music for almost nothing, and baking and eating a great deal of bread. Many embraced their homebody side they never knew they had. It became the Zoom call, the Zoom workshop, and the Zoom therapy session to discuss how isolated we feel.

So in the end, have there been good aspects to what we’ve all been through and its aftermath? I would say there are, though some of the positives are also intertwined with the negative. Here are a few:

I do believe that for the professional musicians who made it through this period there truly is greater appreciation for the joy of playing music together, as well as greater appreciation for the people who are there to listen. We’re taking each other for granted less. I think this is true for those who’ve chosen to get out of the house and go listen, too. It means more to people than it did in 2019. Perhaps it doesn’t go as far as purchasing a CD, but in fairness, only about one in ten bluegrass fans still has a working CD player, so that’s a pretty solid excuse. A lot of fans justifiably feel that buying a CD is now like buying a set of tires for a car you don’t have.

Those band members or family members who became ranting conspiracy theorists were probably already heading down that path, so perhaps those were boundaries that needed to be drawn at some point anyway. At least some of these conspiracy theories are now pretty entertaining, like the one that claims that COVID was a secret plot designed to destroy the voices of tenor singers (the trigger instructions are contained in the Mule Skinner Blues “water boy” verse).

Some older musicians now actually know how to use Zoom, even if they still can’t quite get the camera aimed right.

Some musicians did finally learn how to operate Facebook pages, too, including “The New Pages Experience,” until they changed it all two weeks ago so none of that knowledge applies anymore.

For bluegrass musicians who are also parents, they actually got to experience a lot more of their kids’ childhood during the height of the pandemic, even if that didn’t involve attending graduations, football games, or ballet recitals because those things weren’t actually happening in person.

And I hate to bring it up in a way, but there is now much greater acceptance of the cancelled show. There was a time—like since the beginning of show business itself—when performers operated under a different standard from other professions—with the possible exception of first responders—and cancellation for any reason other than your own death or the death of a spouse or parent (and even then, rearranging of the funeral time for the gig was expected) was considered highly unprofessional, even morally wrong. Now, cancelling due to illness or just a positive COVID test is perfectly acceptable, noble even.

Finally, there’s a lot more homemade bread around now, and sometimes getting stuff delivered is kind of nice.