Post Literalism in bluegrass music

Chris JonesI think we may have a small problem in our world with bluegrass fundamentalism. I’m not referring to the desire on the part of some to define bluegrass music in some sort of legalistic terms with a set of rules and formulas that would be very foreign to the bluegrass music pioneers themselves. That desire to categorize is just a natural human tendency, and it keeps people occupied on listserves and other on line forums, thereby keeping them off the streets, where they’re liable to join acoustic street gangs like the “Capo Kings” or the “Maniac Mandos.” I’m all for that.

Instead, I’m referring to the tendency I’ve observed toward the literal interpretation of bluegrass lyrics as if they were equivalent to a set of bunk bed assembly instructions. Incidentally there once was a bluegrass song about assembling bunk beds but the writer eventually became discouraged and turned it into an instrumental. You probably know it now as Bill Cheatham.

Several people over the course of my adult life have asked me—perhaps as a snappy way to initiate a conversation—what a “coffin ready-made” for a horse is (from Molly and Tenbrooks). I usually just tell them not to worry about it. They’re already miles ahead of most people who listen to that song and are just barely aware that Molly and Tenbrooks are even horses. They’re mostly waiting for the banjo break to come around again. “Ready made” rhymes nicely with “in the shade” and shouldn’t we just let it go at that?

Someone recently wanted to engage me in a discussion about the philosophy behind the song New River Train. I said “Why? Do you have a problem with the same old train that carried him there carrying him away again?” That’s what the round-trip ticket is all about, isn’t it?

It turned out that my friend was more concerned with the song’s mixed message about monogamy. I guess I could see the point: the first verse says, somewhat brazenly, that “you can’t love one and have any fun.” All the verses that follow, though, are a series of warnings not to have multiple partners, e.g. “you can’t love five and get honey from my beehive” (and please, this is not meant to refer to an actual beehive).

I meant no disrespect to the original lyricist of the song when I said, “who cares?” It’s catchy, it’s mainly about a train coming and going, and the verses are just rhyming filler in a handy numerical sequence that makes it easy to remember if you’ve had too much to drink at a jam session.

The subject of “old man Flatt” and his farm came up last weekend while I was playing at the wonderful Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Connecticut. Just to bring you up to speed on the reference, the fourth verse (approximately) of Down the Road by Flatt and Scruggs goes as follows:

Old man Flatt he owned a farm
From the hog lot to the barn
From the barn to the rail
He made his living by carrying the mail

My position on this is just that the verse “sings” well, there’s some nice farmy stuff in it, and “Old Man Flatt” clearly wasn’t making a living from farming because he had a mail-carrying day job. For me it’s the end of the story, but apparently this verse has opened up some troubling questions, particularly about the parameters of Old Man Flatt’s farm. Did he own all the land from the hog lot all the way to the rail, and if so, why is the barn in the middle a factor at all? Perhaps the section from the barn to the rail was actually leased but there wasn’t enough time to explain that in the verse. And what does this have to do with “Pearlie Blue” anyway, the real subject of the song?

It’s a mystery that prompted this in-depth discussion caught on camera. I’ll have to confess that these are my own band members taking up this weighty subject after our second show at the festival. You may dismiss this as the ravings of musicians in a road-weary stupor, but these guys had been on the road for a mere two days, so that’s no excuse.

Ned Luberecki, it should be pointed out, was at one time employed by a title company in Arkansas, so perhaps it’s only natural that he should have a keen interest in the legal dimensions of Old Man Flatt’s farm.


I’ll let you be the judge of the validity of any of these arguments about the farm’s borders (perhaps a simple survey could be ordered). My own view is that somewhere between the people who just think of bluegrass lyrics as the white noise in between instrumental breaks, and the people trying to make perfect sense of every song’s narrative, lies a happy medium.

There’s no doubt that it’s discourteous to the writer to start tuning out the Little Maggie lyrics right after “. . . yonder stands,” but it’s also going a little far to worry about Little Maggie’s possible alcoholism, or to be offended because she’s being exploited by getting people to lay down their money and jewelry to see her “dance for Daddy.”

Just enjoy it and decide whether you’re going to go to that 5 chord after the flat 7 or not.