Mr. Bluegrass Manners has been away for awhile. First he was dealing with final exams at ETSU where he teaches a class in the bluegrass program there called “Bluegrass Etiquette in a Rude Rude Rude Time.” Then he took a three-week vacation over the holidays to Hammond, Indiana, where he was very polite to everyone he encountered (although he told a few people off, too, because they were asking for it). He’s finally back, though, and has agreed to answer questions submitted through my Facebook and Twitter accounts (facebook.com/chrisjonesgrass and @chrisjonesgrass —Mr. Bluegrass Manners is too polite to have his own social media accounts).
The questions seemed to focus heavily on jamming etiquette, so he’s going to concentrate on those questions for this round:
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,
How do you explain to a newcomer that the song they wrote cannot be kicked off by the banjo player, as in, “Here’s a song I wrote, you kick it off”? (I’ve witnessed this in real life more times than I can count)
— Dumbfounded in Kansas
Well this brings up the whole thorny subject of original material in a jam session. My view is that unless you’re Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and asking the banjo player to kick off one you wrote called Rocky Top, there’s no place for original material in a jam session. Let me add that it’s highly unlikely this hypothetical person in your jam is going to be Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, because, among other things, it would require being dead and being two people. Most people will find this even more challenging than kicking off someone’s original song they’ve never heard before. The place for original material is when you’re sitting in a smoke-filled room with Kris Kristofferson, Billie Joe Shaver, and Willie Nelson. You sing your song when it’s your turn, and even there, don’t turn to Willie and say, “You kick it off.”
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,
Is playing over everyone else “leading by example” or am I just a sociopath?
— Loud in Oregon
You’re just a sociopath.
And, from Loud’s less sociopathic brother:
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,
In jams with multiple guitars, how do you determine who does G-runs? Delegating breaks is one thing, but this is a bit more nebulous. In friendly communities like Portland and Canada, I’ve found that everyone leaves room for the others, and there ends up being no G-runs. In more hostile environments, everybody plays the G-runs and eventually a fist fight happens. Is there no middle ground?
— Loud’s less sociopathic brother
Dear Less Sociopathic,
Well, leaving aside your referring to Canada as “a community,” the presence of three or more guitars in a jam is problematic for a number of reasons: For one thing, Tom Dooley could break out at any time, and if more than one of these guitar players is the thrashing type, this jam is in trouble. There are a few polite ways to deal with the G-run issue: one, and it’s honestly the least preferable, is to work out a “G-run trio” in which two guitar players harmonize with the one playing the traditional melody of the G-run. This has much of the same appeal as twin banjos in that it’s significantly more enjoyable for the players than the listeners around them. Another method is to alternate with every guitar player present using eye contact or by shouting, “It’s your turn! Go!!” every time there’s a space for a G-run. A more competitive solution is to designate one guitar player to start as the official “G-runner,” a position he or she will maintain until the first instance of blowing the G-run, whereupon the responsibility is passed to the next guitar player in line. And, since the G-run is harder than it seems, this is likely to happen early on in the first song. Whether or not a guitar player has “blown” the G-run can be determined by a committee of banjo players who will try to come to some sort of consensus before the next banjo break comes around.
Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners:
How do you inform an enthusiastic non-picker that his/her version of singing bass harmony—singing the lead in a lower octave—during EVERY song in a jam, is not advancing the cause?
— Wincing in New York
I’m enjoying imagining a “her” singing bass lead, but getting to your question: there are two possible approaches, both of which avoid an actual verbal confrontation: for starters, you can use the avoidance strategy, which is to give the enthusiastic non-picker the wrong location or address of the jam session in the first place. If it’s too late for that, you can send him or her out for an impossible errand, like picking up a 12-pack of white wine popsicles, or a bag of cinnamon-flavored ice. If that fails, you can drop a musical hint by getting someone there with a high range to sing the melody an octave higher, too, giving you a lovely 3-octave trio. It may not fix the problem, but you could get someone to record it and post it to YouTube. It would be priceless entertainment for years to come. I don’t recommend the verbal confrontation route, because you end up having to explain why bass isn’t welcome on When I Stop Dreaming and that if it was welcome, bass singing generally involves sing the root note of the chord, and then you have to explain that, and all of a sudden it becomes very time-consuming, and then you’ve missed all of Little Bessie. By the way, are you sure “advancing the cause” is really the goal of the enthusiastic non-picker?
Wishing you a tactful and polite week.