I recently got a message from a musician with a band called Grandpa’s Cough Medicine (I was a little hurt that they rejected my band name idea, Grandpa’s Immunosuppressant Rheumatoid Arthritis Medicine, but I got over it). He suggested that I write something about the “cross-pollination” of music, audiences, and if space permitted, clover and ragweed.
The ulterior motive in this suggestion is that their band has recently fused bluegrass and heavy metal, ironically with a sort of anti-metal song called The Murder Chord in which a dissonant power chord causes a young man to murder his whole family. Sort of Megadeth meets “The Lawson Family Murder.” Apparently it’s generating buzz, though that may just be the distortion.
His suggestion was a good one, though, and I think it’s an interesting, if pretty time-worn topic. After all, most musical styles were born from the blending of other styles, and that blending continues, sometimes to critical acclaim, sometimes to violent protests in the streets and hunger strikes at the World of Bluegrass lasting up to six hours.
Bluegrass music is a perfect example: Bill Monroe fused the influences of his old time fiddling Uncle Pen Vandiver and blues guitarist Arnold Shultz with other musical styles, both black and white, to form a unique and revolutionary string band sound. The old time string bands that came before him were themselves a product of the blending of different styles, while wearing overalls.
The first generation of bluegrass artists didn’t feel bound, necessarily, by Bill Monroe’s style, heavily influenced by it and even personally connected to it though they were. For one thing, they didn’t think of themselves as “bluegrass artists” in the first place (that concept came later). For that reason, Jim & Jesse or the Osborne Brothers weren’t deliberately trying to take bluegrass music in a different direction when they added instruments like steel guitar and electric bass. They were simply carving out their niche within the broader country music world.
When Jim & Jesse did their tribute album to Chuck Berry in the 1960s—as daring in its day as mixing heavy metal and bluegrass—they were only trying to do something different that would be musically interesting for them and expand their audience in the process. It helped that they did it very well.
It did generate some controversy, though, even if it was decades before our present day obsession with categorizing everything we hear, and coming up with ever more specialized radio formats and awards categories (“and the winner of this year’s best Hispanic Christian Hip Hop (traditional) recording is . . .”).
It may actually be more commercially difficult to blend styles now than it was then, because today there’s the constant concern about which audience segment you’ll appeal to, or offend, as the case may be, and what kind of radio station will play it.
I’ve found that the musical fusion efforts I’ve liked best are the ones that were motivated at least 50% by artistic desire, rather than being mostly an attempt to make a fast buck through gimmickry. This is often subjective, though, and we sometimes accuse artists of a commercial ploy, when we simply don’t like what they did.
Before attempting cross-pollination of bluegrass with other styles, you might take a look at this list and determine which of these best describes your motives:
- I want to make money as quickly as possible
- I like these styles and have always wanted to try and blend them
- I’m musically bored
- I enjoy offending people
- I just want to be able to use the word “cross-pollination”
Maybe your motivations are a combination of all of the above, and that’s okay too. I just think if you’re driven only by “1” and not at all by “2”, your project may have less musical integrity and value. If “4” is your driving force, you’ll find lots of options available to you.
Newgrass Revival combined rock‘n’roll and bluegrass, and though they were marketed in different ways in their career, they did it primarily because it’s just what they wanted to do musically. Whether you were a fan of what they did or not, it was honest.
Some of the rock’n’roll and folk material that Flatt and Scruggs did in the last years of the band didn’t work as well because it was primarily driven by a producer’s idea of what would sell and grow their audience, and the enthusiasm for the material was not shared by everyone involved, making it a little forced at times.
I still love Nashville Cats, though.
Next week I’ll give some other examples of bluegrass being blended with other styles, and list what I believe to be some of the more and less successful efforts.