One reviewer’s take on bluegrass, modern or traditional

The other night, I had the chance to attend a concert by Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen with a few friends 40 and younger. One was new to bluegrass, one a recent convert from a long dormant classical career, and the other a 15-year-old girl who plays bluegrass at every opportunity, on both fiddle and mandolin, just like Frank.

It occurred to me that I was getting a glimpse of the future of bluegrass, not only from the band but also from my friends. And I was pleased by what I heard and saw. Long after I’m gone, these friends will be playing and listening, preaching the gospel of bluegrass to newer generations. 

I know what some of you are thinking: That wasn’t bluegrass the way Bill Monroe, Lester and Earl or Ralph and Carter intended it to be. Those of you firmly in the traditionalist WWBD camp – What Would Bill Do? – are entitled to that opinion, and you are an important part of keeping the music of the founding fathers in our minds and on the radio.

My mileage, though, varies. I’m grateful to those first generation bluegrassers and I’m quick to point newer fans back to them at every opportunity. Love how Dirty Kitchen handled Dark Hollow? Track down a Monroe performance of that song. Love Mike Munford’s mastery of the banjo? Check out Earl Scruggs. There’s more than one way to play a banjo, but the three-finger rolls he perfected are still the backbone of bluegrass, at least to me. Love bluegrass vocal stylings? Check out Carter Stanley, for my money the best original voice in the genre I love.

But I embrace an expanded definition of bluegrass, and I believe it will help the music thrive going forward. I welcome experimentation. Not every experiment works, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know. If you don’t fail, you’ll never grow.

And I don’t buy the argument that bluegrass isn’t bluegrass if the music strays from the way the founders played it. The truth is, we don’t know what Bill Monroe would be playing if he were still with us.

Everything around us evolves, so why shouldn’t bluegrass? Most horse owners eventually embraced the automobile. Basketball purists saw the two-hand set shot give way to jump shots and dunks. So what is so sacrosanct about bluegrass?

Some argue that the loosening of bluegrass “rules” to allow non-traditional bands on stage is killing festivals by driving fans away. I think bluegrass festivals are like restaurants. A steakhouse is a great choice for meat eaters. But if people in your party don’t eat meat or prefer a variety of options, there are better choices.

So here’s where I come down. By all means, honor the fathers. We wouldn’t be here without them. But be willing to embrace change. You don’t have to like drums, but when solid traditionalists such as Doyle Lawson and Joe Mullins are willing to experiment with percussion, it seems likely that we’ll hear more and more bands going in that direction. 

In fact, I think bluegrass is at a tipping point. In a generation, maybe sooner, I expect drums to be as prevalent in bluegrass as the Dobro. The key question when I listen and write a review for Bluegrass Today isn’t should there be drums. It’s does the percussion add to the music or does it detract? If it’s in the way, it doesn’t belong there, simple as that. 

Don’t like jam bands or newgrass? No one will make you listen if you don’t want to. But those who don’t will miss out on the virtuosity and genius of the Infamous String Dusters, Sam Bush and, yes, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen.

One of my favorite moments at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass came some years back at a celebration of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. Sam Bush, during his presentation, turned his back to the audience and stared at a huge photo of the father of bluegrass on the screen behind him. To me, it was the ultimate tribute.

Later, Bush played the fire out of the mandolin. Some people probably imagined Bill rolling over in his grave. I like to think that Bill was smiling down on Sam. After all, all parents want their children to do better than they did.

So rather than refight old battles about the size of the tent or what is and isn’t bluegrass, let’s agree to disagree and be happy with our individual choices. I’ll continue to visit both restaurants. I’ll happily listen to Carter Stanley and Danny Paisley and eagerly wait for Frank Solivan’s new CD later this year. The taste I had at Saturday’s show left me wanting more. 

You don’t have to like it, but I urge you to at least take a bite before you make up your mind. Here’s what I’d suggest. Listen, when it’s out, to Mike Munford’s fantastic instrumental, Crack of Noon. To me, it’s proof that Solivan, Munford, Chris Luquette and Jeremy Middleton are the best instrumental unit in bluegrass these days.

Or dig back through Solivan’s records or hop online and find the band’s rendition of I’ll Go Steppin’ Too or Runaway Ramp. You’ll hear bluegrass through and through.

If you don’t like it, at least you tried. Not everybody likes ice cream, either. And that’s OK. Bluegrass shouldn’t be an all or nothing proposition. Here is the only thing that should matter: Is the music good?

Share this:

About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.

  • Herbie Beasley

    I like more or less traditional bluegrass myself. Some of the progressive stuff is entertaining sometimes, but other times not. When I listen on the (satellite) radio to bluegrass and something new and exciting (and not exactly bluegrass) comes on, I’ve got 200 other channels to try if I want. If I’m at a festival (or IBMA WOB), I chart my times to get to each stage based on the schedule of the bands – bands I’m not in love with get lowest priority to try to see them. Pretty simple really. Honestly though, the more progressive the playlists become of late, the more I worry about “my bluegrass” becoming harder to find. Because no one thought in the 90s when Garth Brooks started getting big just what damage his “Bro Country” was going do to traditional country in just about a single generation. So long as I can find it somewhere, online, at obscure venues, whatever, I guess it’ll be OK when today’s progressive “bluegrass” is considered mainstream bluegrass in the future and we’re forced to seek more traditional grass out that way – much the same way traditional country music lovers have had to do it for about 15-20 years now.

  • Jeff Bailey

    This is a topic that has been troubling me for a while. Bluegrass is not for everyone, but you should be able to listen to bluegrass music on bluegrass stations or at bluegrass festivals. Much of what I hear of modern, main-stream bluegrass music sounds like something else. When I look at the bluegrass charts that you publish, I see mostly country songs or pop music played with some bluegrass instruments. It is almost as if it is bluegrass music aimed at and played by people who don’t actually like bluegrass. In an attempt to “expand the tent,” I fear that mainstream bluegrass is becoming watered down and unrecognizable. As an experiment, I recently played a “number 1” bluegrass song for a friend who is a musician, but not an active bluegrass fan. I asked him to identify the genre, and he could not. He thought that it might be an indie pop song, maybe garage rock, or possibly light country, but bluegrass did not even cross his mind! I came to bluegrass later in life, and I love it. Bluegrass should not be a museum, but we all know that there is an identifiable sound. The other sorts of music, though sometimes very good, are not bluegrass.

  • James thrasher

    Just as a whole group of folk wanted to bill themselves under the “Country Music” label in order to have a ready made audience, the same thing is happening with today’s Bluegrass grous. Now the genre called Country Music has no resemblance to the music of a few years ago. My thoughts are this; play your music, and let the fans come to you. Nobody is forcing anyone to apply the Bluegrass tag to any song or album. If it is applied and the fans find it to be something else, it damages all the groups who have been playing the festivals and shows. Fans will buy and support the music they enjoy, and will dismiss those songs and groups they don’t like.

  • J S Crail

    Great article! Frankly, I’m excited about the expansion of bluegrass. Purism is important for preservation and inspiration, but today’s fusion is the future’s form. Let us not deny the next generation their own participation in this vibrant art.

    I’m thrilled that more and more new fans are exposed to the masters by virtue of fusion into styles they already enjoy. I was exposed to bluegrass in my youth, but fell away from it until my jazz interest brought me back to my roots by way of David Grisman’s JazzDawg/DawgGrass with the help of the incomparable Stephane Grappelli. I remember the days when jazz, blues, and bluegrass were stirred in the same po’folks pot. Also, to complain about fusion and experimention now, is to ignore what’s been going on in the past 40-50 years where bluegrass and pickin’ has been stretched in the hands of Al Di Meola, Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, Lew London, Bela Fleck, and many others. It breaks my heart to think separating bluegrass from newgrass might end up confining bluegrass to an antique coffin with it’s originating demographic. Rock, jazz, blues, and hip-hop all evolve and flex to incorporate new interpretations and sub-genres. I hope Bluegrass does as well.

    One contemporary band blasting crossover boundaries best is the bluegrass hip-hop smash machine Gangstagrass. The brainchild of mastermind Rench (RenchAudio.com/@RenchAudio), their mix is reverent, but breaks new ground with heart and fire. Their rap takes me back to the jubilee gospel of the 1920s, and the fast-talking preachers of old, but my teen students hear their favorite MC stylings and marvel at this new-fangled country bluegrass thing they’ve never heard of. They are a generation accustomed to hearing samples of other music in rap and stretching their palette back in time to taste the original. This is where the next generation of bluegrass lovers will come from. Fusion. Where old-timey becomes new again. That’s how Gangstagrass made me excited for the future of bluegrass again: through the sparkle in the eyes of the young.

    I dare folks to go see a Gangstagrass show with multiple generations in tow. Not everyone will love everything, but there will be something there for everyone to love.
    Well peppered with classics, their shows are exhilarating, and the musicianship of the individual players is superb. Each one a virtuoso. It’s a stomping, whining, twanging, grindin’ and rappin’ good time. BTW they’re on tour.

    And isn’t a good time what most of us are looking for? Bluegrassiness that hooks in, wriggles deep, and draws every generation of the family together with harmonies?

  • J S Crail

    Great article! Frankly, I’m excited about the expansion of bluegrass.

    Purism is important for preservation and inspiration, but today’s fusion is the future’s form. Let us not deny the next generation their own participation in this vibrant art.

    I’m thrilled that more and more new fans are exposed to the masters by virtue of fusion into styles they already enjoy. I was exposed to bluegrass in my youth, but fell away from it until my jazz interest brought me back to my roots by way of David Grisman’s JazzDawg/DawgGrass with the help of the incomparable Stephane Grappelli.

    I remember the days when jazz, blues, and bluegrass were stirred in the same po’folks pot. Also, to complain about fusion and experimention now, is to ignore what’s been going on in the past 40-50 years where bluegrass and pickin’ has been stretched in the hands of Al Di Meola, Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, Lew London, Bela Fleck, and many others. It breaks my heart to think separating bluegrass from newgrass might end up confining bluegrass to an antique coffin with it’s originating demographic.

    Rock, jazz, blues, and hip-hop all evolve and flex to incorporate new interpretations and sub-genres. I hope Bluegrass does as well.

    One contemporary band blasting crossover boundaries best is the bluegrass hip-hop smash machine Gangstagrass. The brainchild of mastermind Rench (@RenchAudio | http://renchaudio.com), their mix is reverent, but breaks new ground with heart and fire. Their rap takes me back to the jubilee gospel of the 1920s, and the fast-talking preachers of old, but my teen students hear their favorite MC stylings and marvel at this new-fangled country bluegrass thing they’ve never heard of. They are a generation accustomed to hearing samples of other music in rap and stretching their palette back in time to taste the original.

    This is where the next generation of bluegrass lovers will come from. Fusion. Where old-timey becomes new again. That’s how Gangstagrass made me excited for the future of bluegrass again: through the sparkle in the eyes of the young.

    I dare folks to go see a Gangstagrass show with multiple generations in tow. Not everyone will love everything, but there will be something there for everyone to love.
    Well peppered with classics, their shows are exhilarating, and the musicianship of the individual players is superb. Each one a virtuoso. Each with more traditional-genre solo works to relish. It’s a stomping, whining, twanging, grindin’ and rappin’ good time. BTW they’re on tour http://gangstagrass.com

    And isn’t a good time what most of us are looking for? Bluegrassiness that hooks in, wriggles deep, and draws every generation of the family together with harmonies?

  • Jose Mature

    Reminds me of the break-up of Flatt and Scruggs. It was so obvious, in their waning years, that Earl, most likely influenced greatly by teen sons Gary and Randy, was taking their traditional sound in a more “progressive” direction, by virtue of song choice. All of a sudden, covers of modern folk/rock artists’ songs started showing up on their records: Positively 4th Street (Bob Dylan), Nashville Cats (Lovin’ Spoonful), Colours [(Donovan)–this one actually worked when “bluegrassed” up. Loved it.], etc.
    From what I’ve heard, Lester didn’t like it, but went along for awhile. Then the break-up.
    The relatively small world of bluegrass–fans and artists–is full of its share of Earl’s and Lester’s, both. And I think there’s plenty of room for both. It’s not a competition, after all, about which one gets to wear the mantle of Sho-Nuff Bluegrass. Both are an homage and tribute to the ones what brung it. One’s just expressed differently, that’s all.
    Traditional bluegrass ain’t goin’ nowhere. It’ll always be there for anyone that wants it, and I most certainly do. But, a steady diet of anything can get a little monotonous for some. Nice to have a little something different to whet the palate again.
    But to get back to the F&S analogy, I had the great pleasure to attend the 8th Annual Warrenton/Culpepper BG Festival at Lake Whippoorwill in 1974, a few years after the breakup. Like other times past, a revived, wider interest in BG was underway, thanks to the hit Deuling Banjos from the movie Deliverance. (The last time such a revival took place was in the late ’60s, when the theme from Bonnie and Clyde–Foggy Mountain Breakdown by F&S–was a cross-over chart topper.) I think it was Bill Monroe himself who referred to those days as “the dope days”, and for good reason, as you can imagine. Hippies and bikers were well represented, to say the least.
    The Earl Scruggs Revue took the stage that Saturday afternoon, best I remember, Earl’s hair, still slicked back but touching his collar at this point. They went through a few of their recorded, by this time, numbers and the audience would politely applaud after each. Then they turned Earl loose on Foggy Mtn. I never heard so much whooping and hollering, and hippies dancing and stomping–the place went crazy.
    Point is, no matter how far out you get or how far from traditional BG you stray with your music, there’s always going to be an audience out there for the traditional stuff, even in the not-so-traditional ranks.

  • John Perkins

    Every BG fest. I go to the audience is well into their 70’s age wise. When the music becomes something else who’s going to replace that audience? It’s the same with square dancing. Young people are not replacing the old folks. BG bands have a short life. Making the music something else is going to make that life even shorter and quickly non existent. When NGR came on the scene BU said they sounded like they spent too much time in a smokey bar the night before. When Earl started the band with his sons, BU said he became an under recorded sideman. Young people are not attracted to BG in large numbers.

  • d340b

    I don’t mind changing the radio station if a new grass song comes on, and as long as the new style bands play first in the concert lineup I can go to my seat later when a real band comes on. But I’m sure not going to listen to BINO bands by choice.

  • Michael Stevens

    I enjoy BG a lot, especially ones like The Johnson Mountain Boys, and Doyle Lawson. But I did not grow up listening to that genre. I am 61 years old, but was introduced to bluegrass about 18 years ago and have fallen in love with it.
    One of my favorites – which ties right in with the authors obsevations, is the band Iron Horse. All traditional instruments and voices, but they use BG on rock songs, like for instance, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”.
    It blew me away first time I heard it.

    I do think this is the future of BG, but no way is it the end. Too many new ears, that can hear the beautiful picking of a BG band with songs they know. I for one am looking for more.

  • Mitchell Reynolds

    Traditional BG fans are cheapskates, as a rule. I know many who complain about the price of a CD or a festival ticket. The simple fact is, traditional bands can’t make a living from their audience. Bands have to make a living from their good customers. They can’t make a living from customers who steal their music. It costs a lot of money for 5 musicians, and often, a FOH sound man, to travel around the country. People want their Spotify or XM that comes free with their satellite TV. Look at the bands who are hanging it up, like Rambler’s Choice. The grind isn’t worth it. There are more great musicians around than ever. There is more great music around than ever, whether taditional BG, contemporary, or newgrass, Americana, “grassicana” as Bluegrass Today calls it. Go see a band. Buy a CD. Support the music by putting your money where your mouth is. Oh, and buy an instrument and play yourself. THAT is what separates bluegrass from other forms of music. We are a participatory fan base. Is it any wonder the music has evolved? Each picker contributes something to the fabric of the whole.

  • Jose Mature

    Well, your editorial certainly generated a lot of chatter, David, and that’s a good thing. I, for one, enjoy talking about music almost as much as making it. Good job, and by all here at Bluegrass Today in keeping a truly great home grown art form “out there.” (An especial tip of the hat to Terry Herd and his Into the Blue show.)
    But before anyone goes to dismissing acts like the ones you’re talking about–Grassicana, Americana, Newgrass or whatever–I would suggest they consider the late Arthel “Doc” Watson, for just a moment.
    You couldn’t peg Doc into strictly bluegrass, but he was just as comfortable and adept at playing it as any of the early masters. In fact, you really couldn’t peg Doc into any one genre “slot” without a whole lot of him hanging out the sides. That’s cause Doc played what he liked and Doc liked purt near everything–old rock or rock-a-billy, country, folk, traditional, old swing standards, blues, and, yes, traditional bluegrass.
    Doc played an eclectic mix not to be different, but rather moreso for the sheer joy of PLAYING, I think, and being able to play well that which he liked, whatever the genre.
    That’s a big draw to the music, as well.
    I think Mitchell Reynolds (in his post here) said it best :

    ” We are a participatory fan base. Is it any wonder the music has
    evolved? Each picker contributes something to the fabric of the whole.”

    Amen to that. I know I spend more time parkin’ lot pickin’ than listening to the bands whenever I go to festivals now. The traditional stuff is still heard there mostly, and it’s great fun to be able to participate. That’s the main reason I go. If you’re more keen on the newer “experimental” stuff, just wander around a bit, it’s there too. And I don’t think either is going away anytime soon. Enjoy…both of ’em.