In the last 10 or 15 years, bluegrass music has had its share of people trying to break in from other genres of music. Apparently the lure of low money and smaller touring vehicles is just too tempting for some people.
Some are well-established artists, often from the country music world, who either no longer quite fit in with the new country scene (A. not young enough, B. not enough songs that are just lists of sh**), or they just have a genuine love for bluegrass music, and they finally have the time to go into the studio and record some.
Others are younger artists who find the wider mass market a tough nut to crack, and they hope the bluegrass world offers potential to be “a big fish in a small pond.” Thus begins their quest to become “bluegrass famous.” Others just genuinely love the music and plan to be in it for the long haul.
One of the things that many of these artists have in common, no matter the purity of their motivations, or lack thereof, is a fair amount of disposable income to sink into promotion, the idea being that a full-on advertising blitz can achieve quick and noticeable results in a market as small (and cute) as ours.
They can also spend more than most bluegrass artists on studio time, using the top players on every instrument to back them up. The albums are usually called “The Grass I Love,” or “My Time Has Come,” or “Hey Bluegrassers, I’m One of You!” The CDs are usually given to every living human at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, each one encased in a velvet bag with a drawstring and the artist’s logo on it.
This seldom works, and eventually the money runs out.
The reason bluegrass fans, promoters, and broadcasters are not easily swayed is that they tend to distrust newcomers at first until they’re sure of their dedication to the music. It’s often called the “bluegrass community” because the business does have a true small town feel, where everyone knows everyone, there’s only one gas station, and people love to gossip. When someone new arrives, throwing $100 bills around town won’t impress the locals. They want you to pay your dues and prove your character. This often involves working long hours at the one gas station for low wages, stuck with the grouchy and alcoholic boss.
Is there any way around this dues-paying? I’m afraid there isn’t. Perhaps, though, there are ways to accelerate paying those dues, like working lots of overtime at the gas station and quitting as early as possible. Here are a few ideas to fast-track your time in the bluegrass trenches:
Apprentice in two bands at once
Getting hired by two different bands is a great way to accumulate both extra experience and stress all at once. If the two bands are competitors in the same area, so much the better; you’ll get a double-dose of the interpersonal tension and awkwardness so important to the bluegrass band experience.
Drive All Night For No Reason
The midnight departure when you’re traveling in a bus with a hired driver is commonplace, especially in Nashville, but hopping into a cramped 1997 Buick LeSabre and swapping drivers every three hours (or not) when you could easily have driven in daylight is a great way to acquire the hours of sleep deprivation required to prove you can survive this music. Try not to have a wreck, but if you do, this also adds to the necessary danger points you need to be accumulating, too.
Use Social Media
Here’s an advantage that people paying their bluegrass dues didn’t have 15 years ago. Use social media, but not in the way you might think: Instead of spending time, energy, and money blasting social media with upbeat messages and images of you looking successful (“Wow, what a great tour! Thank you Wilmington for packing the house for us!! We’ll be back!”), post depressing pictures of yourself showing how hard you’re working, living the bluegrass dream: a 3:00 a.m. photo of you at a Love’s truckstop, looking bleary-eyed, as you agonize over your beef jerky choice; you and your band, somewhere in southern Ohio, playing a dangerous-looking bar with only a single green light pointed at the stage; you and your band, standing on the side of the road somewhere in Pennsylvania, all instruments and equipment unloaded, while you wait for a tow truck to come haul away your van that just caught on fire.
Work With Bad Sound
An essential component of paying your dues is working with bad sound equipment, or with good equipment operated by engineers who have no idea how to run it. You’ll simply have to log in a certain number of hours of these glorious sonic experiences, so you might as well get in as many as possible early on. If you have any say over it, encourage the hiring of the most incompetent and surly sound people available, then spend as long as possible in your sound check, knowing that it won’t make any difference. If the sound seems like it’s going to be too good, ask for an unreasonable level of monitor (the mandolin and guitar player will probably do this anyway), insuring plenty of feedback bursts, which will be fixed by turning the entire master house volume down.
Get Bad Festival Time Slots
Everyone needs this experience, too, so instead of seeking the best time slot you can get, ask for the worst one instead. Specifically request the post-supper break slot, or the opener. Even better, get the closing time slot when you’re the least well-known and worst-paid band there. Believe it or not, this happens, because in our bluegrass alternate reality, the headliner (who in the rest of the music world would always be the closing act) will often refuse to close, sometimes spelling it out in their contract. Why? Because no matter who you are, a certain percentage of your audience will decide it’s past their bedtime and go home in the middle of your set. Imagine how many will do that if they weren’t waiting for you and may not know or care who you are. Also, as the closing act, no matter what your fame level, the CDs or merchandise you will sell will be to members of your own family.
For extra points, you might consider asking the MC or stage manager to make up any schedule overruns entirely on your set, if it means giving you the two song signal after your opening song.
You can also go the extra mile and work in broken relationships and substance abuse and recovery into your training, but that’s more a requirement for songwriters. Still it wouldn’t hurt (more than it hurts to begin with).
If you follow these instructions carefully, you may be able to cut your dues-paying time down to a year and a half, instead of the usual 8 to 10 years. Then you can go ahead and release that debut album entitled “The Grassy Side of Me.”