Pikelny to IBMA: Don’t Preach to the Choir

Bluegrass is alive and well and is poised to grow for years to come, but members of IBMA need to embrace contemporary pickers instead of trying to ostracize them, Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny said Tuesday in his keynote address at World of Bluegrass 2013.

If music fans think something is bluegrass, that’s good enough for him – and good for the genre.

“I think because of Mumford and Sons, a college student is much more likely to wander into a bar and listen to a bluegrass band,” he said. And if those fans don’t know traditional bluegrass players and history, it’s not the end of the world.

“To me, having 10,000 people out there who have never heard of Flatt and Scruggs is not a tragedy,” he said. “It’s an opportunity.”

The focus shouldn’t be on the definition of bluegrass, which he said has always been a point of contention. It should be about music that is “authentic, organic and connected to tradition.”

Pikelny’s route to bluegrass was circuitous. He liked the music as a kid, but didn’t see much chance to make a living, so he headed off to college in Chicago to study computer science. But one night, he went off with friends to hear the Yonder Mountain String Band. He found himself thinking, “Maybe there is a market for this. If these guys can do this, I can do this.”

Soon, he was playing his first gig with Leftover Salmon in Colorado. Then, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he played with Chris Thile for the first time, and it changed his life.

The standing room only crowd at World of Bluegrass received the message well, but Pikelny said IBMA has more work to do, starting with expanding the awards show to accommodate contemporary pickers.

Without continuing to encourage a broader approach to bluegrass, he said, IBMA will end up some day “preaching to the choir.”

After the speech, he said IBMA’s growing focus on music that pushes the traditional boundaries should be embraced by songwriters, bands and anyone else interested in reaching a broader audience.

“I see the opportunities growing,” he said.

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.