Parting Thoughts on the 40th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival

View of the Rocky Mountains from Telluride, COWhile attending the 40th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival I was struck by three bands in particular that caused my mind to race with an age old question.  For decades it’s been asked: “What is bluegrass music?” The question comes in waves with voices raised when a new sound rouses the rising tide; arguments and discussion, many don’t care and others live with a passion to find the answer.

The three bands that brought the “define bluegrass” topic to the forefront of my mind were Greensky Bluegrass, Steep Canyon Rangers, and The Infamous Stringdusters. After seeing assorted configurations of these groups throughout various times of day and night I was struck with the answer. It’s been right in front of us fans since the dawning of the sound.  I’ve got nothing to lose, so here it is:

“Bluegrass is an ongoing evolution of progressive string band ensemble music.”

This definition as easily paints a picture of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1946 as it does Yonder Mountain String Band in 2013. Jesse McReynolds to Jeff Austin, Earl Scruggs to Béla Fleck, Uncle Josh Graves to Anders Beck, Chubby Wise to Jeremy Garrett… I could name musicians and bands all day long and they’d all fall under this definition. For what “traditional” band of long ago wasn’t truly “progressive” for their time and what “progressive” band of today won’t be “traditional” in decades to come?

From the late 40s to the modern-day, bluegrass music has not been based upon preservation, but instead upon innovation. Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs burst upon the scene with a fresh approach to old time music in the same way that The Infamous Stringdusters now thrive within a scene evolving from the songwriting focused/pristine engineered bluegrass of the last two decades.

Yes – there is a form of “traditional” bluegrass music today that harkens back to those “progressive” bands of yesteryear. That’s a powerful thing and I love it, but it doesn’t mean bluegrass as a genre is “traditional.” It just means that musicians chose to seek out the traditions of the genre. There are pianists that study and play Thelonious Monk and guitarists that study and play Robert Johnson, as Travers Chandler studies and plays Charlie Moore. The honoring of the traditions of bluegrass should be appreciated to the utmost, for without recognition of the past, evolution is adrift and without meaning.

David Smith, Bryant Liggett and Chris Aaland at the 2013 Telluride Bluegrass FestivalAt the Telluride Bluegrass Festival I heard tomorrow’s notes on the main stage where the legends-to-be of Telluride (Greensky Bluegrass, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Infamous Stringdusters…) found the originality of that storied stage’s past heroes (New Grass Revival, Strength in Numbers, John Hartford…) and played and sang along the razor’s edge of evolution – hinting at the past, while journeying into the future.

With a who’s who in the next generation of bluegrass within the 2013 Telluride Bluegrass Festival lineup, there is reason behind my singling out Greensky Bluegrass, Steep Canyon Rangers and The Infamous Stringdusters. I feel that these three bands will have substantial influence on the bluegrass bands of generations to come. They have songs that are accessible, relatable, and catchy; the vast majority of these songs you and your friends can pick around a campfire. That’s not to say they’re simplistic – on the other hand – they’re deep and resonating. They will influence those to come.

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has “done gone on” and western Festivarian thoughts are now no doubt on to Rockygrass of Lyons, Colorado and the Folk Festival after that. This will be my last blog post on Telluride and I would like to thank Bluegrass Today and Planet Bluegrass for allowing me the fantastic opportunity to be involved with the festival in this manner.

I looked back over the archives and counted that 2013 was my 17th time attending the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I have Planet Bluegrass to thank for seeing the legends, as well as the late greats in Telluride over the years: Mark Vann, Charles Sawtelle, John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Johnny Cash…  Thank you!

So in conclusion, all of today’s progressive string bands are a part of bluegrass music (they are bluegrass music!) and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the proof.

Except the Punch Brothers – I have no idea what’s going on there…

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About the Author

David Smith

David Smith is currently the host of the Red River Ramble Bluegrass Show on North Dakota's Prairie Public Radio. Having been born and raised in the Mid-Atlantic, he moved west 20 years ago, first to Colorado, and more recently to North Dakota.

  • Joe P.

    Nice article. However, if you want to hear some traditional bluegrass just get up with Junior Sisk.

    That should clarify things.

  • Joe P.

    “Except the Punch Brothers – I have no idea what’s going on there…”

    Amen on that thought!

  • David Smith

    Joe – I agree wholeheartedly. Rambler’s Choice, “The Devil’s Old White Well” was truly my favorite song of 2012. But even that song, with its vocal a capella break in the midst of it has a progressive arrangement in modern-day bluegrass.

    I admit my definition gets a bit muddy when folks like Junior Sisk, Danny Paisley, and James King are factored in (because they’re just so hard hitting and real deal in their own right – not tied to some sort of evolution of music). The music that these musician harken back to isn’t quite as “progressive” as the Bluegrass Boys of 1946 were. They seem to have closer ties to early bluegrass from the likes of Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, and Buzz Busby – individuals I’d hardly call “progressive” at any time in their carriers. But even Carter Stanley had George Shuffler reinventing lead guitar in bluegrass. Lester Flatt had Uncle Josh Graves doing the same with Dobro – Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe and on and on. The most traditional bluegrass musicians over the years have had elements of innovation that have added to the evolution of the genre.

    So I hear you, but I’ll stick to my guns – all bluegrass is progressive – even Junior! Lord help me…

  • Joe P.

    David, I hear you also! Thanks for your response.

    Joe