Mr. Bluegrass Manners is back!

I’m pleased to announce the return of Mr. Bluegrass Manners. It had been my hope that he would be on hand to take questions more often, but he has spent all spring semester lecturing at the newly opened School of Bluegrass Manners (SBGM), now part of ETSU’s bluegrass program.

He’s back, though, after hitting a few festivals and being “bluegrass polite,” which is like being “bluegrass famous,” but with better manners.

Here are some questions posed by emails and through my Facebook and Twitter accounts (to follow, see below):

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners:

Is it okay to sing while bands are performing? I’ve had dirty looks from people who never even smile at a festival, and I am smiling and having so much fun. Do bands like happy fans or those rarely smiling or clapping?

– Debbie in Georgia

MBM: Well, Debbie, to answer your second question first, bands almost always prefer audience members who are enjoying themselves to those who are sitting stone-faced, with an expression that seems to say, “okay, dazzle me” (and they’re rarely dazzled). As to your first question, most performers really like when people are singing along, because it means they’re familiar with their music (or they’re familiar with Wagon Wheel). It’s possible that your singing could be a distraction to those next to you, but that only means the P.A. system isn’t loud enough. Some bluegrass bands are bothered by clapping because of the tendency of some crowds to clap out of time to the music (usually behind the beat because bluegrass is inhumanly fast at times). One way around this is for someone in the band to lead the clapping, but in any case, musicians just have to learn to play through out-of-time clapping. It’s part of the professional training, and in my opinion, it is not good bluegrass manners to tell audience members not to clap. There are worse things than clapping, like the “dazzle me” look, sleeping, or playing the spoons.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

If the band preceding you at a festival performs a cover song from your set list, is it then in bad form to play it again?

– Lucille in New Mexico

MBM: It’s an excellent question, Lucille. A lot of it depends on whether it’s a pretty common cover song, like Rocky Top, Old Home Place, or Let it Go from Frozen. If this is the case, the band before you has every right to do the song, and they’re just taking advantage of one of the few up sides to getting the earlier time slot. If you then perform the song again, it’s not so much impolite as it is poor performance strategy: you just run the risk of the audience thinking you’re copying the previous band (they may think that band actually wrote Rocky Top and you’re covering them). If, however, the cover song is one which you have introduced to bluegrass music, or is in some way identified with you (think Alison Krauss and When You Say Nothing At All) and the band before you is likely to have learned it from you, then they are either demonstrating bad manners, or they’re just being ignorant. In that case, you should just do your version of it as if you hadn’t noticed that they had already played it. Looking over at one of their band members and saying, “this is how it goes, pal – get your own material!” is probably overdoing it.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Do you have any strategies for suppressing the withering look you want to give a well-meaning person when he makes the same joke about your instrument you’ve heard 500 times, seeing as he thinks it’s quite original and clever? “How do you get that under your chin” is the one I get most as a bass player (and it’s always a “him”).

– Wanda in Michigan

MBM: This is a common problem, Wanda, and banjo players now have it the worst. For some reason, people seem to think banjo players are the perfect audience for banjo jokes, and as we all know there are only four of those jokes in circulation, all of which have been repeated ad nauseum since 1983. 

Doctors now advise that suppressing withering looks entirely is actually stress-inducing and may be harmful to the immune system, so I’d suggest one of two possible directions you could go. You could go for the exaggerated response, in which you stop whatever you’re doing (even if you’re in the middle of a song) and double over, stamp your feet, guffaw loudly for just long enough for it to seem slightly uncomfortable for everyone present. He may get the hint, or he may be completely delusional and think your response is genuine (that fits well with thinking the bass-under-the-chin joke is original), but he’ll still always wonder. In any case, you can get some enjoyment out of your own theatrical response, and the mild awkwardness of it all will discourage him from telling this joke again. The other strategy is to reward this poor attempt at humor as little as possible, but without being rude. To that end, I would give him a mildly withering look and just go about your business. This probably won’t discourage him in the future, but you will have done your best while not compromising your immune system.

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

Why is it that people with big hats always sit in front of me at concerts? Is it something I’ve done, and what is the proper protocol for seriously injuring these people?

– Donald in Alberta

MBM: Well, Donald, the somewhat edgy tone of this question makes me think this may have happened to you as recently as this weekend, so this could be a fresh wound, I’m sorry. While I never encourage physical confrontation, fisticuffs, or decapitations, I certainly feel your frustration. To answer your first question, a recently published scientific study by Dr. Grosshut of the University of Tübingen in Germany suggests that certain people actually do attract tall people or people with large headwear, who are then likely to sit right in front of them. Dr. Grosshut believes this is similar to certain individuals being more prone to lightning strikes, and for the same reasons, having to do with their electromagnetic conductivity. As a partial solution, he recommends changing your electrolyte balance as much as possible, increasing potassium intake, while reducing magnesium.

So, the bad news here is that you are a victim of the luck of the electromagnetic draw. These big-hatted people are going to plague you the rest of your life unless you eat a lot of bananas. That doesn’t mean you can’t politely ask them to either move or take their hats off. You might try this approach: “Excuse me. Though I love your large purple cowboy hat, and I’ve been admiring  the Wall Drug pin on the back of it, would you consider removing it temporarily? I can’t see the band.” if this fails, I would try clapping out of time to the music, even (or especially) on slow songs.