Serious threat to bluegrass? A rebuttal

The following is a contribution from Kip Martin, a semi-regular guest contributor to Bluegrass Today. The views expressed are his, and are not necessarily those of the authors of Bluegrass Today. Commenting is enabled for all ViewPoint posts, so please feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Recently, Ted Lehmann posted his observations in this space about what he views as a threat to the future of Bluegrass. I empathize with his concerns, but I have to disagree with much of what he said. Although he is seeing changes in Bluegrass, I don’t believe these changes are harbingers of doom–Bluegrass simply will not be homogenized as was the bland, syrupy genre formerly known as Country.

Historically, whenever a big change occurs in Bluegrass, people take sides and often passionately defend their positions. It was no different when Charlie Waller was accused of ‘polluting the waters’ when he brought non-Bluegrass material into his repertoire to expand his audience, nor was it different when Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Newgrass Revival, or the Osborne Brothers experimented with heretical ideas such as recording with drums, employing digital tools (e.g., pitch correction, room modeling, etc.), and working up non-Bluegrass material in there efforts to blur the boundaries. The wailing and gnashing of teeth from the opposing side usually stems from a fear of dilution of the tradition, increased commercialization, and a loss of clearly define definitions (e.g., What Is Bluegrass, Anyhow?). In my experience, these visionaries do a service for all of bluegrass. Instead of emptying out the Traditional camp as feared by the Bluegrass Fundamentalists, these crossover ploys seem to instead help the traditionalists grow in numbers while pushing the music out to new audiences. It’s a BIG tent–when new people come in, no one is pushed out! There’s plenty of room for both camps. I’m certainly glad Old & In the Way came along and caught my attention!

Secondly, I’m having a difficult time understanding an argument that claims having Bob Dylan and Howard Stern as announcers on satellite radio “poses a serious threat [to] the development of bluegrass.” When cable and satellite television first came on the scene, I believe programming aimed at niche markets helped both the burgeoning new multi-channel, mega-choice cable/satellite industry AND through increased competition, strengthened the networks. What is happening in radio is completely analogous. By the way–there’s great Bluegrass on many cable and satellite systems.

I also feel that the programming on XM is significantly improved with Felton Pruitt having left. Mr. Pruitt’s abysmal Bluegrass programming was, in my opinion, the largest single reason why Bluegrassers overwhelmingly chose Sirius radio. I won’t question Mr. Pruitt’s taste, but it did not match the public’s. I understand a DJ’s role is to educate his audience, but the programmer should also reach as many people as possible–that’s what advertisers pay for, which keeps the station alive. A quick glance at Bluegrass Unlimited’s National Survey, when compared to Mr. Pruitt’s most often programmed material shows a huge, gaping disparity between his selections and what the audience apparently wanted to hear. I enjoy Jamie Hartford and Leftover Salmon, but most Bluegrass aficionados, including me, would have preferred hearing more than an occasional Flatt and Scruggs, Blue Highway, Marty Raybon, or Jimmy Martin song. In fact, I don’t believe Mr. Pruitt ever played a Jimmy Martin song when I was listening. The current programming is neither overly commercial, nor is it simply a mish-mash of deep-cut obscurities. Its both, featuring a good mix of both old and new, traditional and ‘Left Bank,’ and rural and urban. It’s a fine Bluegrass channel for the Bluegrass niche. Kyle Cantrell is an acclaimed music historian and does know Bluegrass, by the way.

Finally, the IBMA move to Nashville is just natural. Most bands find that city to be central to their home-bases. Nashville is home to the music business’s best PR firms, record companies, publishing houses, entertainment industry employment, and most importantly–talent. IBMA’s membership found Nashville to be preferred as home for the IBMA festivities. Mr. Lehmann said, “we have moved in exactly the opposite direction of where bluegrass, in it’s official, organized capacity, seems determined to take itself.” If you prefer music surrounded by hay bales, blackened-out teeth, and bib overalls, then you prefer Bluegrass to be marginalized and relegated to the same level of artistic credibility as carnival entertainment or the old time medicine show. I believe the IBMA, its membership, and most of the industry would like to see more visibility and acceptance in the Music world.

It’s a crime that all but about 50 Bluegrass musicians must maintain a day job just to play the music. Most musicians make less than $20,000 per annum, which for a family of 3 or 4 is below the poverty line in most areas. The fact that none of the members of the current #1 band on the Bluegrass Unlimited National Survey chart make a living wage solely with their band is unconscionable. For anyone to suggest that making money for one’s efforts is contrary to having “a passion for bluegrass” is just silly. I’m reasonably sure Bluegrass will never become a huge megalith. It’s not for everyone, so I wouldn’t worry about “Clear Channelization” as ClearChannel only buys and controls cash cows. Last I checked, Bluegrass hadn’t created any billionaires. and only a handful of millionaires. Jimmy Martin’s amassed life fortune for 50 years of playing Bluegrass music was less than Faith Hill’s summer tour gross. I doubt we have to worry about the 800 lb. gorillas coming in and taking over Bluegrass.

Bill Monroe was always in favor of Bluegrass reaching as many listeners as possible. He experimented with his music in order to fine tune it to reach the greatest number of people. To this end, he employed a number of clever publicity gimmicks (remember his baseball team?), did live unpaid radio appearances, played anywhere and everywhere he could, stood in the hot sun all day selling product, and called DJs and thanked them for their airplay. He had a Christmas mailing list that was like a medium-sized city’s phone directory. I believe Mr. Monroe want his music heard and would have welcomed XM radio with its ability to present music to growing niche markets–just like radio in the old days.

Is there any reason to turn away from Mr. Monroe’s vision of Bluegrass being performed for the widest audience possible? Keeping Bluegrass small-time simply hurts its passionate and talented performers, and will ultimately usher in its untimely demise.

Bluegrass, like most of man’s earthly endeavors, will either grow, or be forgotten.