Politics in bluegrass, or evangelical dentists in Texas

Chris JonesToday is post-Super Tuesday Wednesday, sometimes called “Un-super Wednesday,” or “Super Tuesday Boxing Day” in Canada. By now we’ve all gotten our fill of exit polls with need-to-know statistics, like the fact that Ted Cruz managed to get 70% of the coveted evangelical dentist demographic, a possible key to his Texas victory.

Bluegrass Today dipped into presidential politics recently with a story about Nathan Stanley endorsing Donald Trump for president. This is information I would just rather not have known, to be honest.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that Nathan has every right to endorse whoever he prefers and to let people know about it if he wishes. I also acknowledge Bluegrass Today’s right to cover it, and I understand it. I realize there’s a bluegrass human interest angle there, since Nathan is publicly differing with his grandfather Ralph Stanley, who is known to be a Democrat. I differed with my grandpa on matters of politics, too (he was a loyal Whig voter), but he was a lot less famous and sang a notoriously weak version of Oh Death, so it’s less of a story.

So to be clear, I’m fine with the information being out there, I just wish I didn’t know about it. The reason for my wanting to put my fingers in my ears and sing a loud chorus of Hey Hey Hey in this situation is that I lament the loss of our political innocence in the bluegrass music world. Yes, I was vaguely aware that Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe are/were Democrats, and Jimmy Martin was a Republican, but it was generally something that none of us thought about much.

Bluegrass musicians and fans are a pretty politically diverse group, as a matter of fact, maybe more so than fans of other kinds of music. The beauty of it was that most of us didn’t know it or even care about it. People got together in jam sessions from all over the country, and usually their only source of disagreement was what key to do Footprints in the Snow in (E is the correct answer, and don’t even try to debate the issue!)

Somewhere along the line, though, people who would naturally have had only a passing interest in matters political, suddenly became outspoken advocates for one cause or another, or one political party or another. Some even took it up as a hobby and soon started to regard themselves as experts. Bumper stickers were applied to instrument cases. Bands started performing at rallies (for free food). This naturally led to arguments in public forums, or between band members, taking up valuable time that could have been spent learning all the chords to Crazy Creek.

This change may have coincided with the disappearance of music on AM radio, replaced by talk show hosts speaking into a microphone in their outdoor voices. Whatever the reason, it’s where we are today: divided and opinionated. A banjo player and a mandolin player from different backgrounds, who at one time could just play a tune together with no consideration at all about their political leanings, are now a little suspicious of each other, one worrying that the other is “one of them.” Or, what’s sometimes worse, the banjo player will assume that the mandolin player automatically shares the same political views because they both like the same music, and will proceed to launch into a statement about Governor X that offends the mandolin player, who contributed to Governor X’s campaign. The jam session ends early.

I think we’d be fair to blame social media, too. For some reason, people have decided that this is a good forum for spouting views about politics, and worse, arguing about it with people whose views will never align with theirs. Some get downright harsh. Apparently some people feel that same kind of anonymity they feel when they cut someone off in traffic, in spite of the fact that they have a name, profile picture, their high school, and possibly their zodiac sign there for all to see.

I have political opinions myself—I’m vehemently opposed to the designated hitter, and I’m not that keen on Tilapia, for example—but I endeavor to keep those opinions among friends who already know what my views are, and either agree with them, or hate them, but in a nice way.

When it comes to sharing your views with a live concert audience, I’ll confess that I’ve never understood the rationale behind knowingly alienating a segment of your public, even if that segment is only 10% of your crowd. Politics on stage can also make for inappropriate segues in a show. A statement about the administration’s health care policy, or the obstructionism of congress generally makes an awkward lead-in to Black-eyed Susie or Big Mon, or really any song that doesn’t directly relate to those issues.

I feel the same way about actors, directors, and cinematographers making political statements when accepting their Oscars. If the film didn’t relate to that issue, it just comes off as an uncomfortable afterthought: “I’d like to thank the academy, my wife Australia, my agent Biff, and my entire makeup team. Oh, and shame on our government for supporting the brutal regime in Liechtenstein!” I realize they tend to feel like they’re talking amongst themselves to a friendly crowd, and they’re probably not worried about losing CD sales at their merch. table during intermission (though wouldn’t it be more fun if they were?), but it’s still hard to see what’s being gained by doing that.

But among our bluegrass selves, I’d love to go back to the days when we didn’t know much about each other’s political views, and it might not hurt to keep our audience in the dark about it, too. We need every CD sale from those evangelical dentists we can get.