Promoting bluegrass in Europe

This post is a contribution from Terri Holloway, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. See her profile here.

Bluegrass, apparently, isn’t quite as popular in Europe as we all believe. At least according to Rainer Zellner, promoter, and Hansjoerg Malonek, cultural arts director. According to these guys, it’s an image thing. Country music (oh, gasp!) has a relatively bad reputation in Germany and our genre is considered an off shoot, while being very unknown and inseparable to the “average Joe,” although Johnny Cash country is considered kind of cool, Merle and Lefty aren’t as well thought of.

The key, Zellner explained, is to change to affiliation from “country” to “Americana” or, even better, “roots music.” The country music image in Germany is stuck on the romanticism of the 1940’s and ’50’s cowboy era twisted into cowboys, Indians, Old West gunfights and horses. American folk music isn’t as well accepted because of the negative anti-war sentiments left over from the Viet-Nam era (and probably aided by current politics as well).

In many parts of Germany (these guys focused on Germany, Austria and Holland, claiming to not promote acts in the rest of Europe) “roots” music has a big hold because of the ethnic nature of the title. “Jazz is not considered to be American music, where American or Country is not so well accepted,” said Zellner.

When asked how to raise something that’s not known or has a bad image, Malonek suggested that the genre needs to be presented in an art form that’s more acceptable to town councils (who run the arts and cultural councils). He continued by suggesting that bands not be booked in a single events, but play through a music series, mixing genres (i.e., classical program this month, bluegrass next, and jazz the month after).

Presentation by artists needs to be highly visual and active. Pictures in the press kit need to show action – Zellner reported that bands with a high-energy stage presence but static press pictures won’t be able to draw a crowd which disappoints event producers and leads to a further disconnect. “Magic of the music should be in the picture” of the band, Zellner told his small audience.

Reaching the listening audience is best accomplished by entertaining them because, Zellner said, “Germans love to be entertained.” Part of the magic, he continued, is in telling the story of the song.

Additionally, the competition from local bands is minimal as Zellner will only promote those who are acceptional. He acknowledged that these bands tend to have their own fan-base, which does help with crowd draws, but that the originals need to be there first. American bands are considered the founders of the genre. Zellner continued, “We have no bluegrass police, I can do what I want.”

  • kevin

    Terri’s impression of the Euro bluegrass scene (“Bluegrass, apparently, isn’t quite as popular in Europe as we all believe”) is rather unfortunate.

    With all due respect, the viewpoints discussed by Rainer & Hansjorg in their IBMA seminar do not necessarily reflect the total bluegrass picture in Europe, Scandinavia, and the nearby eastern European countries. [Please note that I did not attend, and am only responding to the facts as written above.]

    While both gentlemen have loads of experience (in fact, decades of experience & success), their view of Germany’s scene does not represent the whole. I think it’s a given that the music will never draw the numbers on the Euro continent, that it does in America. But make no mistake, the music and musician scene is a rather healthy one…and growing each year.

    If there is an “image” problem with the genre in Germany, then I argue it’s up to the promoters to solve any misconceptions. Surely anyone who sees one of Rainer Zellner’s traveling shows cannot come away with a negative view of bluegrass music’s image. That’s a start.

    I would like to see even one of Rainer’s show dates come to central Holland, where they would be readily accessible to everyone. Throwing one or two open dates their way close to the German border, and for only one artist out of three on his tours, is rather unfortunate for the Dutch fans.

    Back to IBMA: Perhaps future seminars relating to Europe, could or should be represented by more than one country?

  • kevin

    At the risk of being annoying…I have one more observation regarding Terri Holloway’s account of Rainer Zellner’s comments at the ‘Bluegrass In Europe’ IBMA seminar:


    I will argue that only promoting bands whom one personally considers “exceptional” may be a solid financial business move for the short term. However playing it safe by arranging tours “only for exceptional bands with an established fan-base” may not help advance the cause in Germany, nor any corner of the bluegrass music world. Perhaps totally ignoring lesser-known artists (yet equally professional and capable entertainers) is not the best recipe for building and insuring a solid following or future for any musical genre?

    When I hear a promoter say something as bold as: “We have no Bluegrass Police…I can do what I want,” it does not give me an impression of belonging to a community, nor working together with ones peers to help build and further the genre.

    Perhaps I understood that statement incorrectly, but that’s the impression it gives to me.

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  • Terri Holloway

    I too was at Herr Zellner’s workshop and yes this post is pretty much what he had to say. I agree with the previous comment that perhaps more than one country should be represented at a workshop of this title. However it should be noted that Zellner himself prefaced his comments with the fact that he could not speak for all of Europe, only the teritory that he covers in Germany.

    I also disagreed with the concept that country music is not widely popular in Germany. I don’t want to argue with Zellner as I am not a German citizen nor have I ever spent time there. However I do have long-time, (30+ years) friends from Berlin who send a “German Country” CD every year for Christmas. Not only do they think country music is big, they think the most Germans also think this. They’ve made many video and audio recordings of huge concerts they’ve attended in their country from American country stars.

    However, it should also be noted that bluegrass is not country and perhaps the problem, as Zellner states it, could be the confusion of the German fan of the difference between the two genre’s.

    Perhaps this workshop was either mis-titled to include all of Europe and even too broad in scope to include all of Germany.

    After listening to Zellner, I think the most appropriate title for this presentation should have been something like: “What Zellner wants Americans to know about, and what American Bluegrass musicians to do before coming to Germany”


  • I attended the seminar and while I am not going to be arguing the accuracy of Mr. Zellner’s view of bluegrass in Europe, I did walk away with some ideas for dealing with misconceptions of bluegrass in my home state of Kentucky.

    While it is an unfair characterization, there does exist a belief that bluegrass and country are but two heads of the same coin among the uninitiated. I have run into this stereotype several times while promoting my festival.