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’.”