During the past week, I received responses, both positive and negative, to last week’s column featuring Mr. Bluegrass Manners. Here are a few of the highlights, with the third one being my personal favorite, so make sure to read all the way down:
Dear Mr. Jones,
I don’t appreciate your Mr. Bluegrass Manners columns at all. Who is this “Mr. Bluegrass Manners” anyway, and what makes him qualified to answer anyone’s questions in the first place? I don’t care if he taught at ESTU or wherever. Has he really lived the music as I have?
Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Randall Thornbeam, and I’m a guitar player, lead singer, and songwriter. I lead Randall Thornbeam and True Grass Lyfe and I wrote the hit songs, Walk Through Your Own Corn, and Stop Messing With Our Music. More importantly for our discussion here, I am the author of two of the four banjo jokes your so-called “Mr. Bluegrass Manners” was disparaging last week, the one about “perfect pitch,” and the one about the definition of a “true gentlemen.” I wrote both of them on the same day back in 1979, a day when I was extremely annoyed at my own banjo player (who shall remain nameless because I’m still annoyed), who kept tuning on stage while I was trying to talk. On and on he tuned. On and on. Anyway, I first told the jokes on stage in 1980 and got a big laugh. And if I say so myself, they’re still pretty funny, and I still get laughs, so why should I stop? Does your “Mr. Bluegrass Manners” have a better one? I doubt it, or he would have let us know last week, just so he could feel superior. I don’t know who wrote the other two banjo jokes. They’re not as funny, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t even think about criticizing someone for telling them.
In the future, please write about things that matter to lovers of bluegrass music, like how disc jockeys aren’t playing my music, the price of gas, and how banjo players should think about tuning less. Thank you.
I can’t believe Mr. Bluegrass Manners thinks it’s “bad manners” or “ignorant” to perform other artists’ songs before they go on stage to play those songs themselves. I consider it a way of flattering the artist. Years ago we had a chance to open for the Osborne Brothers, and we played Rocky Top, Ruby, and Midnight Flyer. Sonny Osborne approached me after our show and said, “nice choice of songs.” Our bass player was worried about it and thought he detected some sarcasm, but I assured him that Sonny was completely sincere. I’m very good at picking up on this kind of thing.
The above readers were unhappy with last week’s column, so I was especially glad to receive this informative and supportive email from ETSU’s Professor Dan Boner (and yes, he really did write it). This is a letter you can even read to your little ones at night:
I’m so glad you acknowledged Mr. Bluegrass Manners, our distinguished guest lecturer at our newly opened School of Bluegrass Manners (SBGM) at East Tennessee State University.
In addition to the four recurring banjo jokes that plague our industry, I would add the ever-frequent question asked by parents and prospective ETSU students, “What can you do with a degree in bluegrass?” I have found the following response typically weeds out those casual inquiries from the serious prospects. Let me present a bluegrass adaptation of the Velveteen Rabbit:
“A bluegrass degree isn’t about what you can do with it,” said Tenbrooks. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When you love bluegrass for a long, long time, not just to play, but REALLY love it, then you become BLUEGRASS.”
“Does it hurt?” asked Molly.
“Sometimes,” said Tenbrooks, for he was always truthful. “When you are BLUEGRASS you don’t mind traveling long distances and performing for very little, or no financial return.”
“Does it happen all at once, like when a wound-up fiddle peg springs loose,” she asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said Tenbrooks. “You become BLUEGRASS. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break strings easily, or have picks with sharp edges, or who have instruments that must be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are BLUEGRASS, most of your family has disowned you, and your bandmates drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are BLUEGRASS you can’t stop being BLUEGRASS, not even by people who don’t understand.”
“Hmmm,” puzzled Molly…
“… you’re lookin’ mighty squirrel.”
Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City, TN