The Bluegrass Symposium being held in conjunction with Wide Open Bluegrass

The Bluegrass Symposium, which debuted this morning in Raleigh, has academically-minded bluegrass fans buzzing as it got underway today in room 304 of the Marriott Convention Center. Throughout the next 24 hours, some of our industry’s sharpest minds will be on hand presenting research on a number of bluegrass-related topics.

Although this isn’t the first gathering of this nature, it’s shaping up to be quite an event with papers and discussions surrounding a number of topics related to bluegrass history. A keynote address from Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Neil Rosenberg is sure to be a memorable start. His speech titled “Bluegrass: Scholarship and Realities,” is based on the last chapter of his soon-to-be-released book, Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir, which details his involvement in the bluegrass music industry from 1961-1963. Other works being presented include topics discussing the legacy of performers like fiddler Jim Shumate and the Lilly Brothers, trends in harmony singing, and the impact of recordings and broadcasts, among several other subjects.

“I think that most bluegrassers would understand that it is important to gather with the people who care about music, to figure out what you know as a group, and then figure out what you don’t know and then learn about it,” said Lee Bidgood, an associate professor of Bluegrass, Old Time, & Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University and an organizer of the event. “The Symposium brings together a group of scholars who are intent on understanding what bluegrass music has been, is, and will be. We have a lot to learn from their individual presentations, and from the discussions sparked by the presentations.”

Along with the public, the scholars themselves are looking forward to new findings from fellow academics. “I’m excited to hear what scholars from all over the country have to say about their research and their thinking about a field that deserves to be studied and taught,” said presenter Fred Bartenstein. “In 2009, a marketing study indicated that 15.5 million Americans (5 percent) consider bluegrass their most-favorite form of music. That’s pretty amazing for a form that’s more than 75 years old; that incorporated many older styles, material, and instruments from the British Isles, Europe, Africa, and North America; and is well on its way to becoming- like classical, jazz, and rock – a global phenomenon.”

Though everyone recognizes aspects of bluegrass that could be considered standard, Bartenstein believes there’s more to the music than that, and that the Symposium will help bring attention to it. “Over the years bluegrass has developed its standard ways of doing things,” he said. “But if we look back at early recordings, there’s a lot more than just the standard things we do nowadays.” He compares it to biologists preserving biodiversity through heirloom seeds. “By paying attention to some of the unusual harmonies in earlier bluegrass, we can tap into the music’s ancestral diversity to bring richer emotional content to the music we love.”

While Bartenstein is looking into unique historical aspects of the music, Jordan Laney, another presenter, plans to delve into a more theoretical side of the music. “I believe bluegrass scholarship that pushes disciplinary boundaries is crucial at this particular juncture in local, regional, and national history, and I am glad to be a part of this dialogue,” she said. “We need more feminist and critical theoretical interpretations in most fields of study. I hope my work offers new entry points and methodological opportunities for bluegrass scholars.”

Why do this at World of Bluegrass? “IBMA week is the one time of the year that so many people who are involved seriously in bluegrass are all in the same place,” said Bartenstein. “So it makes sense to have the Symposium at the WOB not only because so many of the bluegrass scholars will be gathered together there, but also because it makes their work accessible to the musicians and fans who will be in Raleigh for the event.”

The Symposium is sponsored by the Foundation for Bluegrass Music as part of their mission to collect and distribute resources that will enrich the future of this music. Presentations continue throughout this evening and begin again tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m.

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About the Author

John Curtis Goad

John Goad is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, with a Masters degree in both History and Appalachian Studies from ETSU.