The return of Mr Bluegrass Manners

It’s time for our second installment of Mr. Bluegrass Manners. I had previously invited you to submit your questions below in the comments section, or ask me via my Facebook fan page (see below), and you responded. Here are a couple of new questions. These are even real submissions, or at least based on real events (so “real-ish”). Only the adjectives have been changed, just because:

Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

In view of the intent of maintaining all the drive, passion, power and originality of his music, Bill Monroe is said to have commented, ‘Boys, don’t ever end on a low chord, always end on a high chord’. The interpretation being, I assume, is the arbitrary tossing in of the useless relative minor chord, as I feel the folks who never actually graduated from Bluegrass Kindergarten are prone to do. It is like trying to travel in an aggressive manner and periodically slamming on the brakes. The rationale given is that ‘we always do it that way’; ‘it’s different from that same old 1, 4, 5 routine. How does one communicate this message of tradition to these wretched subversive souls In a kind, loving, bluegrass-spirited way? Although I am adverse in spirit to tattoos, I am considering one emblazoned with the simple saying, “NO E Minor”. That in combination with my BLUEGRASS POLICE t shirt should speak authoritative volumes of intent to rid the bluegrass world of the this mindless embellishment. Or do you feel I should be more stringent? An enquiring mind wants to know.

Steaming in Tennessee

Dear Steaming,

Well, first of all, regarding Bill Monroe’s statement about ending on “a high chord,” I’ll admit I have no idea what he was talking about there, so let’s set that aside for now. Regarding the substitution of minor chords, I’m reminded of a statement by a bluegrass fan in Texas who allegedly once said, “A minor chord is an ugly thing.” It’s pithy, yes, but I’m not sure that even the Father of Bluegrass, the writer of minor-heavy numbers like Cheyenne and Jerusalem Ridge would agree. My own feeling about minor chords, or what in bluegrass music are occasionally referred to as “off chords,” “drop chords,” or “funny chords,” is that it all depends on the context. If it’s being thrown into a song that was originally written as a 1,4,5 song, it should be done carefully, and with great respect for the song. Ricky Skaggs added the occasional minor chord to 1,4,5 songs like Crying My Heart Out Over You in what I thought was a pretty subtle fashion. Mind you, he was playing “that country music” at the time, so I suppose you could counter with the argument that it wasn’t bluegrass, so there.

My feeling is that throwing a bunch of new chords into a 1,4,5 song in a jam session is bad bluegrass etiquette (“Hey, let’s do my new arrangement of Blue Ridge Cabin Home. Everywhere you used to play an A, make it an A major 7th. The chorus modulates to F# minor. It’s easy! I’ve printed charts for everybody”). This can be inconsiderate to the novice guitar player in your jam who has just learned to play an F chord. On the other hand, if a band is working up a different arrangement of a classic, it can be fine if it’s done in a way that serves the song.

 Now if a song is written with minor chords in it, it’s hard to object to it being “not bluegrass,” since there’s precedent for it going back to the 1950s, especially in the music of Monroe himself. Some people argue that minor chords entered bluegrass around the time they started building the interstate highway system, and that they’re somehow related, both contributing to the downfall of society. I have no comment about that.

Just one word of advice: If you get that tattoo, just make sure to cover it up if you’re playing Dave Evans’ Highway 52 or the Stanley Brothers’ version of Sweet Thing. Also, you might want to make sure the tattoo is still visible while you’re wearing the “Bluegrass Police” T-shirt to enhance the impact.


Dear Mr. Bluegrass Manners,

A couple of months ago, I saw a bluegrass artist put up a politics-related post on his personal Facebook page that I disagreed with. Last week I posted on his page that I had lost respect for him as a result, and that I would no longer listen to or purchase his music. I told him that I would use the power of my pocketbook to remind him there were consequences to his actions. Some commented that I was overreacting or being intolerant of other people’s views. What do you think?

– Offended in Arizona

Dear offended,

First of all, I’m just trying to recover from the shock that someone posted something about politics on Facebook! What will they think of next?

 Seriously, though, is it your position that any artist who expresses an opinion you disagree with, even from his or her personal page, should be punished for it? If yes, I’d have to side with those who think that’s a pretty harsh reaction. I hear bluegrass artists spout political views I don’t agree with right from the stage, including direct criticism or support for President X or President Y (I miss President Y), and I still listen to them and happily support them. I do consider the injection of politics into a stage show to be not the best bluegrass manners, because as an artist you’re saying to a percentage of your audience that you’re okay with alienating them. Still, some feel compelled to, and it’s their right. In this case, though, you’re not even talking about that, but about a personal post, so trying to boycott someone for that feels like crossing a tolerance and a bluegrass manners line.

Perhaps you mistakenly made an assumption that everyone else who likes or plays bluegrass music agrees with you about current issues, and you were surprised to learn otherwise.

 Mind you, you didn’t bring up the specific content of the artist’s post. If he was advocating arson, kidnapping members of the IBMA board of directors for ransom, or drowning cute little puppies, perhaps your threat of “consequences” was justified. I shouldn’t presume.

Meanwhile, I think of music as one of the few things that can bring us together in a divisive time. Remember that if you were to maintain your position consistently, and keep your music purchases ideologically pure, you would need to get rid of all of your Ralph Stanley records if you’re a Republican, and your Jimmy Martin records if you’re a Democrat (and forget the Skaggs and Rice album). Where would your bluegrass collection be then? My advice is, enjoy the music and don’t spend too much time on Facebook. Hey, that wouldn’t make a bad commencement address.


Address questions for Mr. Bluegrass Manners in the comments section below, or on Chris’ Facebook fan page.

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