Pandolfi: Quit Fighting, Start Playing

Chris Pandolfi had some succinct advice for those on both sides of the “what is bluegrass” debate – stop picking fights and start picking.

“We’re not trying to reposition old bluegrass fans,” the banjoman for the Infamous Stringdusters said in Tuesday’s keynote address at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Nashville. “We’re trying to find new ones.”

Chris is one of the most articulate unofficial leaders of the jam grass movement, which is at the center of an ongoing debate about what is and isn’t bluegrass. The war of words intensified recently when Chris wrote the “Bluegrass Manifesto” and posted it on his blog. He noted, among other things, that IBMA was “reluctant to accept” the newcomers. So it was somewhat of a surprise that the organization picked him to deliver its major address at the annual business conference – and preceded it with a night of showcases featuring what might be called alt.bluegrass bands.

The debate isn’t worth having, Chris said after walking into the lion’s den.

“We need to agree to disagree on the question of what is bluegrass,” he said. And, he added, everybody should quit trying to define the term because “there really is no clear-cut answer.”

Instead, he said, “You have to support the music that you love and not worry so much about everything else that’s going on.” If that happens, he said, bluegrass will survive, and so will IBMA, he said.

The Dusters no longer bill themselves as bluegrassers because in the search for a broader market the term bluegrass “really represents a niche market.

But he said it would be a mistake to suggest the Dusters aren’t grassers.  “We love bluegrass and we consider ourselves a bluegrass band,” he said.

Everybody will benefit if fans of bands such as the Stringdusters, Railroad Earth and String Cheese Incident are exposed to more traditional bluegrass while attending festivals and shows, he noted. And a bigger fan base means more potential customers.

“The world of acoustic music is thriving right now like never before,” Chris said, urging everybody to embrace the beyond-bluegrass aspects.

But like any musician, Chris knows the importance of endings. So for his, he threw a bone to the traditionalists, in the form of a tribute to Bill Monroe. “We love his music, even if we don’t play it note for note,” he said, earning a standing ovation from the overflow crowd.

The debate rekindled as folks were leaving the room. Some thought he was too reserved in his criticisms. Others thought he was trying to pick a new fight. But it won’t be surprising to me if, somewhere down the road, we look back at Chris Pandolfi’s thoughtful, articulate and measured address as a key moment for the future of the music we all love.

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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.