Is Bluegrass old enough to be traditional?

Chris ThileExpress, a blog belonging to the Washington Post, has a short article up about Chris Thile. They quote Chris on the topic of bluegrass tradition. Chris expresses his viewpoint in words similar to those he used in our recent GrassCast interview with him. Chris is obviously on a mission to let people know that bluegrass is really a young music and that it’s still growing. But he opens up a controversy with his comments. Some in the bluegrass world would like to prevent the music from changing because they fear it will no longer be bluegrass if it changes from it’s present form, or the form it had in the ’40s, or whatever. Here’s Chris’ exact comment.

“The community treats it like … it needs to be preserved and put in a glass case,” he said. “I’d like to help dispel this feeling that it’s this old American form that’s a relic.”

I see his point, but at the same time I have a great love for traditional bluegrass and don’t want to see it dissolve into a featureless amalgam of music with or without a banjo in it. I have confidence that it won’t. I think there are plenty of fans who will look for and purchase different styles of bluegrass, I will. Chris’ music and Del’s music can sit side by side on my iPod without conflict.

What do you think?

  • I found another link that might be of interest. This one is in the Roanoke Times this morning. In this story Chris

    scoffs at the talk that he has gone back to his bluegrass roots

    saying he doesn’t really have any. Interesting…

    Here’s the link.

  • VirginiaDave

    I don’t think that traditional bluegrass is at risk at all. Sure, there are lots of young pickers out there bringing new influences into the genre. All one needs to do, though, is to head out to the hills to get a good dose of traditional picking. I teach in SWVa and have taught middle schoolers well steeped in traditional grass. They often raised an eyebrow when I threw some newgrass or jamgrass on to my CD player, even going as far to tell me that “That stuff isn’t bluegrass.”

    Tradtional grass is alive and well! Fear not!

  • Lynyrd Banjovy

    I think that there is plenty of room for expansion and experimentation in bluegrass but, if the music is going to retain it’s identity, there has to be a 5-string banjo, played in the style popularized by Earl Scruggs, which gives the music it’s “drive”. There have been attempts at defining bluegrass and, at least to me, this “5-string banjo, played in the style popularized by Earl Scruggs” is the common denominator that makes bluegrass, “bluegrass”. Without it, the music becomes something akin to bluegrass but still too different to be defined as bluegrass. There are people who would argue that defining “bluegrass” is useless and they stretch the term to include every kind of music from old-time stringband to jazz and rock. I believe that the word “bluegrass” does have meaning and when it is used to describe all this other music, it not only dilutes the definition but it also misleads people as to what kind of music they are actually hearing. But, whenever someone hears the sound of the 5-string banjo, played in the style popularized by Earl Scruggs, there is no doubt what type of music they are hearing!

  • I just got Chris’s new album a little less than a week ago and it is ALL that I have listened to. I love every bit of it, from the more traditional sounding songs to the cover of The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” I listen to this knowing that it is “progressive” bluegrass, and not traditional. I love traditional bluegrass too–Del McCoury is of course a must have, and Rhonda Vincent is pretty much my hero. Still, any art form ceases to be art when it is forced to remain stagnant. It becomes a big group of people copy-catting everybody else, and it all begins to sound the same. There will always be traditionalists and there will always be those who push the limits of what bluegrass can and should be. I think as long as we can remember our bluegrass roots and maintain a balance between the two, we can all enjoy every spectrum of what Bluegrass and its younger generation has and will have to offer us.

  • nashphil

    Not this argument AGAIN!

    Have no fear…….
    Bill Monroe’s traditional 5-string Earl Scruggs style Bluegrass is alive and well, and it ain’t changin’.
    No one would ever let it.

    I agree with Thile here, too many people get hung up over labeling music of all genres. Who cares? Good music is good music, no matter how you make it, where it came from, or how many or what kind of instruments are in it.
    None of that matters.

    There will always be people making traditional bluegrass, just as there will always be people trying to preserve it, just as there will always be people trying to improve it, expand it, dissect it, and bring to a new audience. There is room in this world of ours to do all of the above, and most importantly enjoy it!

    Cheers, Phil