This is, according to my count (I at least waited until I came up with the same number twice), my 300th column for Bluegrass Today. On the occasion of my 200th column, I gave a quiz, and I didn’t think the 100th one was worth acknowledging, even if I’d noticed it.
I’ve decided against the quiz this time, mainly because I didn’t tell you there was going to be a quiz, and that always leads people to say “you didn’t tell me there was going to be a quiz,” and who wants that?
As a small token of their appreciation, Bluegrass Today is giving me a few weeks off, which of course I’ll spend doing extensive research on future topics, going out on the road, meeting ordinary bluegrass fans, listening to their concerns, then ignoring them. I’m sure it will be very enlightening and productive. What it really means is that for a few Tuesday nights, instead of sweating to meet my weekly deadline, I’ll be sweating trying to learn all the words to Model Church. Apparently Tuesdays are just all about sweating. Honestly, I’ll be lying around binge-watching Get Smart.
The next column I write can be considered the start of a new season, which means this is the end of the old one, and that can only mean one thing: I need a cliffhanger or something dramatic to hold people over for a few weeks.
I have no cliffhanger that doesn’t involve some sort of tease about a band’s unexpected personnel change (“Cody Newland to Blue Extremities” . . . or not?!), but I do have the ultimate controversial topic which may have people arguing for weeks, and I’ve saved it just for this occasion:
What is bluegrass? Or, if you prefer, what is bluegrass, really? For those of us in the bluegrass community, this generates more controversy than guns, Stormy Daniels, or the endless Ford/Chevy, Kentucky/Louisville fights combined (and let’s please not try to combine those).
Before we try to define bluegrass music, though, maybe we should address musical definitions themselves. Why do we need them in the first place? If you hear something you like, some might ask, why can’t you just say “Hey, that’s good”?
Well there are a few reasons for categorizing musical styles: a big one is so that sellers of the music can help steer customers to what they like. This was before they were able to access extensive information about our tastes and private lives, so that they now know what we want to listen to even before we do.
Another reason is so that we can find others who like the same things, and occasionally gather with them in large hotels, play music, and argue about the definition of the music we love. Sometimes we dress up and attend awards shows and things.
Some people like musical definitions so they can make that a part of their personal identity: “I only listen to pre-1995 reggae. That’s the kind of person I am.”
Also, sometimes we just need a good answer to, “I like that! What is that?”
I found definitions a little disappointing when I was in college, especially when, during an agriculture-oriented plant science class, the professor decided to settle the old question of whether a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable by saying there wasn’t really a scientific answer to that, “fruit” and “vegetable” not being strictly scientific terms in that context. He offered instead this definition: a fruit is generally sweet, most often eaten as a side dish or as a dessert. A vegetable, on the other hand is usually less sweet and is generally eaten with the main course of a meal. He repeated this slowly so we’d have time to write it down verbatim. But what about apples with pork chops, I asked? I knew I had him there, and with a deep sense of disillusionment, I abandoned higher education and became a bluegrass musician. Now I don’t care what my side dishes or desserts are called. I’m just grateful to have them.
Bluegrass music is tricky to define too, “bluegrass” also not being a scientific term. It was a name given to music that was being played by bands that were influenced by Bill Monroe’s sound and using some or all of Monroe’s typical instrumentation. “Bluegrass” was a term that suited Bill Monroe very well, since it was named after his band name, and helped kindle the mystique of him as the Father of Bluegrass. It didn’t serve other first generation bluegrass artists as well, though, while they were trying to define their own sound, which is why people like Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, and the Stanley Brothers were reluctant to use it, and why even today, most bluegrass professionals prefer not to get too caught up in arguments over labels.
The term was convenient, though, and it helped foster bluegrass festivals and independent bluegrass record labels. It also was a good way to differentiate between the purer acoustic sound and the sound of modern country music, though because of it, we’ve sometimes felt unnecessarily threatened by bands walking the line between the two, like the Osborne Brothers or Jim & Jesse. Without the “bluegrass” label attached to Jim & Jesse, most people could have just heard Diesel on my Tail and said, “Hey, I like that.”
Defining it based on a sound is challenging because of course the sound of musical styles will always change, especially over 70 years, and there have been quite different sounds classified as bluegrass through the years.
Defining it based on instrumentation is just as hard, since lots of instruments have been added and subtracted, even by Bill Monroe himself, through the years. Bill recorded with drums in the 1950s (most often with a drum mounted on Ernie Newton’s bass), and added twin and triple fiddles in the studio. Drums were common on many bluegrass recordings in the 1950s and ’60s, by Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and others. Flatt & Scruggs used harmonica often in the 1960s. The one instrument Bill Monroe always shunned was the dobro, yet we accept that as a mainstream bluegrass instrument today, while scoffing at drums or harmonica.
We know intuitively that “bluegrass music” generally means music with Scruggs-style banjo in it, yet there is lots of music we refer to as bluegrass that has no banjo. You know, there’s that whole Tony Rice Manzanita album.
Really, I find it easier to just give up. If I implied earlier that I was going to give a clear answer to that “what is bluegrass” question, I’m sorry if you feel a little dissatisfied, but isn’t lack of closure what cliffhangers are all about anyway? I know what bluegrass sounds like to me. I’m happy to use the term to describe somebody’s music, and maybe it helps people prepare for what they’re about to hear: “It’s sort of bluegrassy but a little old-time-ish,” or “it’s bluegrass-meets-grunge, sort of a Mac Wiseman/Lilly Brothers/Kurt Cobain kind of thing.”
If you must have a definition before I leave for a few weeks, though, here you go:
Bluegrass music is usually sweet, most often eaten as a side dish or as a dessert, or sometimes with pork chops. Often with Scruggs-style banjo.
Or, if you prefer: “I don’t know. It’s got some banjo in it and whatever.”