Phantom goat calls and bluegrass band names

Chris JonesI’m in the recording studio all this week at Crossroads Studios in North Carolina. If I actually wrote a new column, it would go something like this.

“Well, do we like that, or should we try another pass?”

“Am I the only one who heard what sounded like a goat in the second verse section?”

“Come on in and listen.”

It wouldn’t make for riveting reading, trust me. Therefore, since we were on the subject of band names, I thought we’d revive my first tackling of the subject way back when:

The forming of a bluegrass band and the subsequent management of that band involves a lot of important decisions, too numerous to cover in a single column, so this will be the first of a series. Future columns will deal with some of the thornier issues like the effective conducting of band meetings, snoring band members, card-playing etiquette on the road, and boosting CD sales in Missouri.

For now, though, let’s start at the beginning: Bill Monroe was born in 1911 in….oh, wait not that beginning.

Though there are bands at the top level of the business who have managers because their business has grown to the extent that they need one, or because they just like saying the phrase “our manager,” in the initial stages of your band formation, and maybe forever, you will need to be your own manager. You may manage your band in a democratic system (the slow option, see: “Government, U.S.”), divide the various duties among you, or you may have a single manager within the band. In any case, you will have some very important initial decisions to make.

You have gotten together enough pickers and singers to form a band, and now you’re wondering what the next step is toward making this a professional or semi-pro operation. Before you ever book your first show, worry about a band vehicle, or fire your first band member for being a sociopath, you need to address the image you plan to project. I’m not talking about the purchase of brocade smoking jackets —there will be time for that later. No, step one, even before the building of a web site, is the choosing of a band name.

Trust me, this is way more difficult than it sounds.

What’s in a name you ask? Plenty, and yet, history has also shown that lousy band names can be overcome with time, as the name becomes more of an empty vessel for the band image. I’m sure we can all think of examples (please don’t blurt them out loud).

A name can say a lot about the band’s concept and sound, and, ideally, it will sound appealing enough to make promoters and record labels be more predisposed to like you. But, to aim lower, if it isn’t embarrassing or hasn’t already been used by someone more well known (hint: don’t use “Foggy Mountain Boys”, tempting as it may seem), you’re pretty much good to go.

To get you started, I’ve divided bluegrass band names into 5 categories:

  1. The “Something Somethings”
  2. The Modern Bluegrass Band Name Kit
  3. The Abstract
  4. The Intentionally Over-generic
  5. The Misspelled Words


Let’s take them one at a time: the first category, “The Something Somethings” is the more traditional of bluegrass names. Band names in this category you may know include “The Lonesome Ramblers,” “The Tennessee Cut-ups,” and “The Clinch Mountain Boys.” Generally, the first word is an adjective or a geographical location and the second word is describing what the band members are theoretically doing, e.g. Rambling, or cutting-up (though how much cutting-up can you really do on a typical day?), or what they are: “Pals,” “Partners,” “Pickers,” “Boys.” This is fairly fool-proof as a naming concept, and there’s a pretty deep well to draw from, with available names ranging from “The Lonesome Pals” to “The Portland Stevedores” (though this sounds a lot like a high school basketball team).

I used this naming system myself, though, and I discovered one of the biggest problems with naming a band that almost no one considers before it’s too late: some names are too easy to mess up. John Pennell and I named our band “The Night Drivers” back in the mid-’90s, and it seemed pretty straightforward: lots of bluegrass bands are forced to drive long distances at night, and I was often the “night driver” in various bands I had been in, mostly because I had high caffeine tolerance and I drew the short straw. We never considered that, because of David Hasselhoff’s talking car, the band would be, and still is, frequently called “The Night Riders,” or worse, “The Knight Riders.” I just didn’t see that coming. I tell you this because this is an important consideration in any of the 5 categories: how easy is it for an MC to royally screw up your band name? Mind you, no one’s name is immune to this, no matter how hard you work to avoid it. Tony Trischka told me a story of him and his band “Skyline” once appearing in print as “Tony Krischna and Skylab.” And I read with my own eyes a New York Times article on bluegrass music which referred to Bill Monroe’s band as “The Blue Cross Boys” (did they think he had a health insurance endorsement deal?). I did not make that up.

Next is The Modern Bluegrass Band Name Kit: you’re very familiar with this system and these names, even if you’re not aware that you are. This is the method by which you choose an adjective, piece of geography or time of day, from column A, then combine it with a noun from column B. This is very similar to the “Something Somethings” system, except that in place of “somethings” plural, you have a “something” similar.

Common column A examples:

  • Lonesome
  • Blue
  • Windy
  • Drifting
  • Rambling
  • Blue Ridge
  • Kentucky
  • Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Cumberland
  • Midnight
  • Mountain (note: this last one works in column A or B, but try not to call your band “Mountain Mountain”)

Less common column A examples:

  • Greasy
  • Tortured
  • Boring
  • Underpaid
  • Intoxicated
  • Co-dependent
  • Las Vegas
  • SoHo
  • Mannheim
  • Gelatinous

Simply combine one of the above (from the first A list, if you plan to be conventional) with one of the nouns from this column B:

  • River
  • Highway
  • Road
  • Ridge
  • Gap
  • Valley
  • Train
  • Express
  • Mountain

Less common column B nouns:

  • Ocean
  • Estuary
  • Freeway
  • Subway
  • Spacecraft
  • U-joint
  • Resin
  • Cupcake
  • Microwave
  • Meat

You can quickly see how easy this is. If your band is more traditional in nature you can even combine these first two naming systems by creating your own column C of “somethings,” giving you names like (The) Lonesome Gap Drifters, or the Blue Ridge Gap Pickers.

The beauty of the “kit” system is that if you have formed a band that operates democratically, and you’ve reached an impasse (by the way, I strongly discourage the filibuster system in this situation), you can simply write all these names down on little pieces of paper, pick one from each pile, and just agree to accept the results. The good news is that the domain name for “Tortured Cupcake” is probably still available.

Next week: the next 3 naming systems, plus: subliminal messages in promotional material, using Facebook to hire and fire band members, and how to go on your first tour without actually having any gigs.