Death of Traditional Bluegrass?

Change is inevitable. Innovations are unavoidable. Perhaps no greater example of this can be found than within musical art forms. Music is a living, breathing thing, involving many different people with many different ideas. It is foolish to think that one can prevent change from occurring, or stifle the creative urges of those who attempt to leave their indelible stamp with the art they love and leave behind.

In the past few months there has been much written and said (mostly in heated debate) about the direction of our beloved genre of bluegrass music. Traditional vs. Progressive. Inclusion, exclusion, intrusion and, in some cases delusion.

There are some worried about the direction of the only viable, functioning organization within our music, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). There is an argument that the IBMA is attempting to re-brand the music and label it in a new direction, and to define the boundaries of  “bluegrass” by erasing preconceived notions of what those boundaries are. Still others are worried about the pending doom of a horrid “big tent” which would allow almost anyone into the “bluegrass tent,” pushing aside “traditional” or “real” bluegrass artists and eventually leading to an acoustic music completely unrecognizable as the bluegrass music we currently know and love.

While there have been several folks from the more progressive side of the tent who have offered their thoughts in writing, I can think of no one who has really spoken from the more traditional side of the fence in a thoughtful manner. I am hoping to offer some thoughts as someone who makes their living attempting to preserve these legacies by sticking to the more traditional sounds of bluegrass.


You don’t seem to have to look very far these days to find pieces of the constant argument about the IBMA. There are some who have stated that a separate organization should be started that attempts only to promote and preserve traditional bluegrass. Even more have called into question the process by which the organization hands out its yearly awards.

As an IBMA member, and a former very harsh critic of the group, let me just say that it is indeed an imperfect organization. There is no possible way you can get 2,500 people to agree on the same things about something that each one of them individual feels so passionate about in their own way. Compound that with 10,000 outsiders with no vested interest in the organization screaming bloody murder and offering suggestions at every turn, then obviously you have an issue for debate.

The fact is that the IBMA has been built on the hard work and dedication of its members over the last few decades. It is truly the only chance we, as bluegrass musicians and lovers of the music, have at a real functioning organization. If as a passionate supporter of traditional bluegrass you feel as though the organization is leaving you behind then join! Speak up!! Nominate people you feel would better serve your interests. You can only get out of it what you put in, and the simple fact is that you will not save traditional bluegrass by screaming insults from the corner. Change is inevitable, but that does not mean one can’t take advantage of change while still preserving legacies.

The Big Tent, Chris Pandolfi, and Why Change is Good if You Love G-Runs

Bluegrass is not dead by any means, but it is on life support. If you don’t believe that, then attempt to feed a family by playing Flatt and Scruggs songs. Certain folks have pointed out with great pride the traditional bluegrass festivals such as Red White and Bluegrass in Morganton, NC, and The Jerusalem Ridge Festival in Rosine, KY as proof that traditional bluegrass is alive and well, and that people will buy a lineup of all traditional bands. Yes, these are successful festivals and yes, they offer lucrative opportunities to those of us who continue to play the old style. Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy paying our bills, a couple festivals per year is not enough to sustain our bottom lines. We can’t continue to isolate ourselves to the point of being the North Korea of musical genres.

If you want more folks to buy a Red Allen record, why would you not want a larger platform to tell folks about Red Allen and his music? Though I have always contended that there is no real proof that folks who buy Yonder Mountain String Band records will buy a Red Allen album, I believe that they will buy my records if they hear me.

Instead we continue to insist on playing for the same old tired crowds that know and appreciate what we’re doing, which dwindle every year, and for the same wages we got paid 20 years ago. Meanwhile Del McCoury remains vibrant, healthy, and plays and sings Rain and Snow to the same folks he did 30 years ago…along with about 10,000 other screaming fans. Instead of crying about how The Infamous Stringdusters are not bluegrass, why not take the traditional sounds to the same audiences they are playing for, show them what traditional bluegrass is?

We, as long time bluegrass fans, are doing ourselves a great injustice by not welcoming people into the tent. Are we to believe that just because IBMA attempts to educate its members on how Yonder Mountain String Band is so successful (and how we as traditional musicians can take advantage of these opportunities as well) that people will stop buying Stanley Brothers records? No one will sing White Dove in the parking lot anymore?

I will never relent in my pursuit to make music my way, which just happens to be more traditional in form, or to preserve the music of the legacies that I have grown up playing and loving. In order for me to do this though, I must seize the opportunities before me. Would I rather sing the praises of Red Allen to a crowd of 150 people at a typical bluegrass festival – 90% of whom already own Red Allen records – or would I rather do it before a crowd of 10,000 people who will also buy my records and rabidly follow us if they are presented the opportunity to actually hear the traditional bluegrass that we play and love? The answer is both.

Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for The Infamous Stringdusters, has blogged about all of this extensively. While I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, he has done so thoughtfully and without throwing daggers. I would recommend anyone read his thoughts on the subject.

Am I to believe that because I disagree with him that he’s my enemy, that I should shun him and thwart his creativity? Are Chris, his band, and other acoustic musicians who seek to change the perceptions of music a threat to my success as an unadulterated bluegrass singer? No. They have found a way to be successful and creative. We as traditional bluegrassers can do the same, without sacrificing our musical integrity the least bit. But that involves opening the doors to new fans, and the only way to do that is to appeal to larger audiences, who unlike fickle country fans of the ‘60s, love it all.

People who grew up in cabins, churned butter, and made moonshine – or know something about all of that – are slowly fading away and giving way to folks who have never lived in the country. That doesn’t mean they won’t like traditional bluegrass if it is presented to them. In our band we sing a lot of songs about anger, drinking, salvation… all real life issues that almost anyone can relate to. We also pepper our sets with a few old standards and always dedicate our shows to those who came before us. It has found favor with a lot of folks out west who have never heard the real thing before, and our most successful trips and shows have been before folks whose last record purchases probably involved Mumford and Sons and Hot Buttered Rum.

I find it plainly ironic that these conversations are taking place in the year of the 100th Birthday of Mr. Bill Monroe. Mr. Monroe never cared who bought his records or what kind of crowd he played for – particularly in his later years when he was secure in his legacy.

Again one simple fact remains-change is inevitable. How will you take advantage of it? I have been called a traitor by some for my viewpoints recently, even though I have dedicated my entire life to traditional bluegrass music. I am a big enough boy to withstand that. I am also a smart enough boy to know that without new fans, and new people to by my records, that I am doomed to failure.

So I plan on being in Nashville next week. I plan on playing old school bluegrass in 9 showcases, and I also plan on finding out the marketing genius behind YMSB and how they sell 40 times the albums I do.

I also intend to ask Larry Sparks how it felt at RockyGrass this year to have 10,000 YMSB fans screaming for him when he lit into Tennessee 1949.

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About the Author

Travers Chandler

A Virginian by both birth and choice, Travers is an adamant proponent and performer of traditional bluegrass music. Based now in Galax, he manages his own group, Travers Chandler & Avery County, with whom he plays mandolin and sings. They record and tour with an eye towards keeping the sounds of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Red Allen and Charlie Moore alive into a new century. Travers is also at work on a detailed biography of Charlie Moore, who he finds an especially under appreciated bluegrass artist.