In sooth, just a village and a homestead

Chris JonesThe four stomachs of a cow are the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum.

What does this have to do with bluegrass, you may be asking, aside from a cow ingesting actual blue grass and sending it straight into the rumen? It’s an expected and completely valid question. I’ll reassure you first that I have no plans to work in a Randall Hylton pun involving “The Rumen at the Top of the Stairs.” I’m not going in that direction at all.

By the way, in layman’s terms, those stomachs are known as “the big one and the other three.”

20 years ago, a friend of mine—we’ll call her “Elizabeth”—wrote and assembled my first press kit when I first formed my own band. She felt, rightly, that aside from past credentials as a sideman, I needed some sort of marketing angle. Before a new artist has had the time to accumulate concert and media credits, usable quotes, etc, he or she is a bit of a blank slate. Johnny Staats, for example, when he was signed to a major label record deal, was still somewhat unknown even in the bluegrass world. The label and their publicists decided to tout him as “the mandolin-playing UPS driver” because he chose to keep his day job. He knew a good job when he saw one, and he clearly understood the economics of the music business better than most. “Mandolin-playing UPS driver” had a lot better ring to it than “mandolin player who knows a good job when he sees one and clearly understands the economics of the music business better than most.” This became a very good publicity focus and landed Johnny some high-profile media appearances.

I volunteered that I could name the four stomachs of a cow, thanks to some past dairy farm experience in the northeast (I worked on a New York State dairy farm briefly, and helped earn my University of Vermont Ag School tuition by doing the afternoon milking shift on their farm). I’m sure the Gibson Brothers can do the same, since they’re from a New York State dairy farming family, but they weren’t around at the time.

It was either the cow stomachs or my claim that we had the only bluegrass band with two former oboe-players. In the end, the stomachs seemed like the better choice. It turns out that although it’s a lovely instrument, the oboe is still very obscure, with 65% of focus group respondents thinking that it was either some vague part of a diesel engine or a kind of benign tumor.

I’ll admit now that my ruminant gastric knowledge didn’t get me a lot of gigs or morning talk show appearances, but it was something to latch on to in the first year. New artists who are starting out in today’s very crowded and competitive bluegrass market would do well to think of an angle like that to help differentiate themselves from the hordes of bands (or bands of hordes) with comparable music skills to their own.

Below is a list of possibilities you may not have thought of. The most useful part of these suggestions is that if you can’t make these claims-to-fame at first, they are all quite attainable in a short period of time with no genetic alteration necessary:

  • The bass player who does a nearly-perfect Cary Grant imitation (while playing Grandfather’s Clock)
  • The bluegrass band that supplements their income by playing the board game “Operation” for money
  • The lead singer who memorized every Stanley Brothers song ever recorded, then forgot them all
  • The entire band with a shellfish allergy
  • The mandolin player who has received over 200 parking tickets, all in the state of Nebraska
  • The lead singer who performs exclusively with her back turned to the audience
  • The guitar player who has eaten at every single Waffle House in America (and ordered hashbrowns a slightly different way every time)
  • The band who rode in a van coast-to-coast without ever speaking to each other (maybe this isn’t that unique)
  • The banjo player who has written lyrics to the entire Foggy Mountain Banjo album
  • The lead singer who has sung the entire Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice to the tune of I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home
  • The bluegrass band with abnormally large feet (maybe this one would require genetic alteration)

Finally, if the above ideas don’t work for you, or seem too difficult to pull off quickly enough, these are a couple that can be implemented right away with a minimum of effort:

  • The bluegrass band that never changes clothes

And, one that will guarantee a very full calendar:

  • The bluegrass band that will play anywhere for a dollar.