They’re Changing MY Music

As if I wasn’t conflicted already, Laurie Lewis had to fan the flames. The face of the Bill Monroe stared down from the huge banner that adorned the stage. Preparing to announce the Dobro Player of the year award, she related Monroe’s thoughts on the instrument. “That ain’t no part of nothing,” she quoted Bill. “That’s the one thing that the Father of Bluegrass got wrong,” she added. I had to agree. It’s hard to imagine Bluegrass music today without the resophonic instrument. And, that’s my conundrum.

The bluegrass community is abuzz with discussion about the future of our beloved genre. The Internet forums are consumed with the “traditional vs. big tent” argument, with self-appointed genre-warriors on each side of the issue. The IBMA is still rolling out the Bluegrass Nation concept, and spending a lot of energy defending it before it is even fully functional.

Watching George Schuffler’s induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame drove the point home. A short film told the story of the walking bass style he became known for, even before he make his unique cross-picking style a part of bluegrass history. Shuffler isn’t in the Hall because he played a long time, or because he played with some famous people. Many of the people roaming the halls of this week’s World of Bluegrass celebration can make the same claim. Shuffler made the hall because he’s an innovator, twice over. One of the most impactful moments of the awards ceremony occurred when he played his cross-picking style, accompanied and emulated by James Allen Shelton, while fellow Hall-of-Famer Tom Grey walked through the bass lines just over George’s shoulder.

Listening to Lewis’ remarks, other bluegrass innovators leapt to mind. Uncle Josh, of course, who, Monroe’s opinion notwithstanding, played such a large part of the resophonic guitar’s slide into the bluegrass mainstream. Earl, who didn’t play like Stringbean or Grandpa Jones. The Louvin Brothers non-traditional harmonies. Tony Rice, who still doesn’t play like Lester Flatt. Sam Bush, who doesn’t play like anyone. On and on it goes, legend after legend, innovation after innovation.

That’s the Monroe conundrum. He was an innovator. If he had chosen to play his music the same way as his predecessors, there might be no bluegrass music today. He changed the world by changing music. And when the next change came along, he rejected it in favor of something much too young to be traditional yet.

This week, the term, “That ain’t bluegrass” has entered my mind with alarming frequency. Many of the showcase bands sported instruments that “don’t belong” in bluegrass. Cello. Drum. Tambourines, even one with a kick-pedal. Some used traditional instruments in untraditional ways, like mandolins that didn’t chop and upright basses bowed and not plucked. We even witnessed non-traditional dancing, as one energetic young lady brought us Ottawa Valley Two-Stepping, instead of good-old, down-home buck dancing.

Many of these people are younger than I; much younger. They represent the future of our music. They’re changing MY music, and I very much want to hate it that they are. But, I can’t help thinking of where our music would be if Scruggs didn’t play the banjo “wrong.” Or if Shuffler didn’t play the bass, and then the guitar, “wrong.” Or if Graves didn’t play a “non-bluegrass” instrument.

It occurs to me that Monroe’s conundrum is mine, too. When I think about my resistance to inevitable change, Bill’s words come back to mind; “That ain’t no part of nothin’.”

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About the Author

Cliff Abbott

Cliff Abbott shares his love of bluegrass music with a long career in the trucking industry. He is an accomplished songwriter with several published cuts, including one on Larry Sparks’ “Almost Home” album. He plays bass for Blackrock Station and is a regular contributor to “The Trucker” magazine, in addition to owning and managing a driver employment firm. He and wife Thresa enjoy life at their Nectar, Alabama home.

  • Jamie Doris

    It’s the proverbial Catch-22, isn’t it?
    Always struck me as funny how bluegrass purists are so opposed to innovation, when innovation is what brought us bluegrass in the first place. Yet, nobody wants the “traditional” innovations to change. I like to think that those who venture outside the realm of tradition might bring a broader audience to the music, without ruining it for the rest of us, and that there will always be bands keeping it “old school.” Sometimes you *can* have your cake and eat it too.

  • Temperance Bellerin

    One thing we all seem to forgit when it comes to this feud. Bill didn’t start out to change country music or folk music or popular music. He simply wanted to play what he liked to hear. It was the people who coined the name for the type of music we like. So those who think they need drums, chellos and bowed instruments otta think about what they like, what they want and go do it while leaving the bluegrass arena. Hooray for the Stringdusters who took the lead when Chris Pandolfi said they don’t call themselves a bluegrass band anymore. There’s NO NEED TO CHANGE BLUEGRASS. IT AIN’T BROKE! But to find another sound ain’t bad, just don’t need to do it inside our forum. The folk world has had drums, tamburines, bowed strings and a whole lot more for a long time. Maybe these folks would be in the right place at the right time over there.

    • Dennis Jones

      That’s the whole point. Play the music you want;don’t try to take a name of something it isn’t. Let your music doing the talking and let some one give you a name as happened with Mr. Monroe.

      As far as Catch-22. There is NO proof that an “innovative” band will bring anyone to Bluegrass. If that was a possibility, why is todays Country Music not gathering millions of new fans for Kitty Wells and George Jones style music?

      • Jamie Doris

        “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
        – Duke Ellington

        What’s in a name? Who cares what you call it?
        I see the country music issue a little differently — it was most definitely NOT “innovation” that changed country music into the swill that much of it has become. It was GREED. The record companies watered it down and made it indistinguishable from 99% of the tripe the poisons the rest of the radio dial. Totally different. 🙂

        • Dennis Jones

          It would appear that the “Change” Bluegrass Cheerleaders always seem to be pointing to money Jamie. So where are we there? Greed? Where do you call the line between making better money and doing what has happened to Commercial Country? I would love for all my friends who are in the business to make tons of money, I work 50-60 hours to help them do that.

          • Rick Brodsky

            I hardly think you can call it “greed” motivation in bluegrass. Most would be happy just to make a living from the music. There aren’t too many bluegrass musicians making enough money to support themselves. The market isn’t big enough for everyone to make a decent living. That’s why many players, even in top bands, are still working day jobs. It is not good for the health of bluegrass. We need to find ways for full-time players to be making enough money to support their families.

  • Rick

    Great article Cliff!!

    Dennis and Temperance,

    You might want to check out Chris Pandolfi’s keynote address at IBMA. Its on his website

    I am more of a traditionalist than anything, but Chris makes some very intersting points based on tons of research and interviews with some very notable people in the bluegrass community.

    Some of these tradional vs progressive debates seem to polarize us unecessarily. Chris shows how we have much more in common than some might believe.


  • Jon Weisberger

    “Let your music doing the talking and let some one give you a name as happened with Mr. Monroe.”

    Someone – actually, a lot of someones – *have* been giving it a name. They’ve been calling it “bluegrass.”

    • Dennis Jones

      That name is already taken by bands who play Bluegrass and call themselves Bluegrass Bands Jon. I’m talking about bands who don’t call themselves Bluegrass and don’t play Bluegrass.

      • Jon Weisberger

        “Taken?” I thought you agreed that the name was given by fans. That’s how it started getting used in the first place. Now new fans are giving it to other artists, in the same way as happened in the 50s. History in the making, just like before.

        • Dennis Jones

          Then they would be taking a name that didn’t define their music, even expressed so by them Jon.

  • Max Gainey

    Well by gosh, you’re right Cliff. I guess I’ll need to be a little more open minded. Thanks for the insight.