It’s All in the Family – sibling rivalry in bluegrass

The following bluegrass Thanksgiving reflection is a contribution from James Reams.

It’s All in the Family: Sibling Rivalry Between Bluegrass and Old-Time is Just Part of Being Family

James ReamsThanksgiving ⎯ it’s not a lukewarm kind of holiday. You either look forward to it or you dread it. For me, I love the food…and especially the pies! I remember Dad was always in charge of the turkey and he had this special electric porcelain oven that he used solely for the purpose of putting out the best tasting bird in the county. And, not to be outdone, Mom would spend days making pumpkin pies from REAL pumpkins. Most kids nowadays probably never had the pleasure of scooping out the soft, creamy pumpkin innards that are then magically transformed into that traditional delight for young and old. Oh man, I’m drooling just at the thought of it!

But for a lot of folks, getting together with the whole fam damily can be a recipe for disaster. Even in our family we had some friction. My uncle (we called him Uncle Uptown behind his back which should give you a hint of the source of the friction!), used to blow into our little country town wearing his fancy suit and flashing his silver cigarette lighter and a fat money clip. He was a few years younger than my Dad, and boy did he rub Dad the wrong way. His apparent success got under my Dad’s skin just like the butter that Dad slipped under the turkey skin before he cooked it. I wouldn’t say you could cut the tension with a knife, more like scoop it up with a spoon. A big spoon.

But, we were family and we managed to smother our differences with a big ladle of love poured out over all of us by Mom. I was, and still am, truly thankful for my family and all those wonderful days (even the holidays!) we shared together.

And that got me to thinking about the so-called rivalry between old-time music and bluegrass. Seems to me that it’s a lot like that rivalry between my dad and my uncle. Just like families, big brothers and little brothers (or sisters!) don’t always see eye-to-eye. Heck, more often they see fist-to-eye!

Big Brother Old-Time had been around awhile and was used to having all the attention. Then Baby Brother Bluegrass came along and grew up as the spoiled-rotten, bratty little addition to the family…always snagging the limelight and generally being loud and obnoxious (at least in Big Brother Old-Time’s estimation). But we still share the same Mom and Pop! Our DNA may be a hodgepodge of ethnicities, but it has much more in common than, say, jackhammers and songbirds. And while in some circles, Baby Brother Bluegrass is thought to “get away with murder” of the ancestral music, in other eyes it’s seen as preserving all the different aspects of the family that produced both siblings.

Now, I love my younger brother but I don’t want to lose my identity by becoming just like him or by having both of us morph into one person. It’s the same with old-time and bluegrass. These are two distinct styles that should be allowed to continue to flourish along their own path and not be forced to meld into one twig on our family tree. We both have something important to give to the world of music in ways that are unique to each of us. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. And it doesn’t mean that since one has been around longer, it’s somehow right and the newer style is wrong.

This same premise holds true within the extended family of bluegrass music as well. There are all kinds of different styles being born: jazzgrass, atomicgrass, jamgrass, newgrass, redgrass, and neo-traditional bluegrass to name a few. But just like in real life, you have some family members that prefer to remain unmarried for reasons of their own and others that jump from one marriage to another. However, the children of these marriages still retain the family connection and should be welcomed at our gatherings.

So I guess what I’m saying is perhaps Big Brother Old-Time and Baby Brother Bluegrass should recognize their similarities rather than focusing on their differences. Instead of excluding what some consider to be a reclusive or perhaps an eccentric “Uncle or Aunt” let’s welcome them in and give them the recognition, as well as love, that they deserve as a valued member of our family.

And just like family get-togethers, let’s invite ‘em all to the feast (or festival). Even those annoying cousins! What traditional music festival wouldn’t benefit from the inclusion of both old-time and bluegrass music? It’s been my experience over the past 15 years promoting the Park Slope Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Jamboree that a lot of bluegrassers welcome the chance to get out of their seats and dance around once and a while (and not just because they’re sittin’ in a pile of fire ants). And the old-time musicians enjoy sharing their talents with younger generation bluegrassers, maybe even secretly admiring a few of their new tricks!

Perhaps the family surname is really Music. So what’s stopping us from including Old-Time and Bluegrass Music in the name of our festivals? It’s certainly one way to promote family harmony!

Send me an email and let me know your thoughts. Can we be one big happy family?

About James Reams

James Reams is an international bluegrass touring and recording artist. Coming from a family of traditional singers in southeastern Kentucky, James has played both old-time and bluegrass music since he was just a little sprout. James is known as an “Ambassador of Bluegrass” for his dedication to and deep involvement in the thriving bluegrass and Americana music community. To date, he has released 8 CDs including a special DVD documentary of his band: James Reams & The Barnstormers. Celebrating 20 years as a bandleader in 2013, he released the DVD documentary Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass, the culmination of over 10 years of filming and interviews. James is also the organizer of the Park Slope Bluegrass Oldtime Music Jamboree, an annual music festival he started in 1998 that attracts musicians and fans of traditional music to its workshops, jamming and concerts — the only event of its kind in or around New York City. Recently James has launched R&R Productions with an associate in Arizona. This company is dedicated to providing an oasis in the Phoenix metro area for bluegrass, old-time and Americana musicians as they travel coast-to-coast for performances. R&R productions works with agents and/or directly with artists to coordinate, promote and manage the event.

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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.