Traditional vs Progressive with Russ Barenberg

Russ BarenbergIt seems the debate over what constitues ‘traditional bluegrass’ and what should be labeled ‘progressive bluegrass’ has no end. Stack on top of that, the debate over how much ‘progressive’ bluegrass should be allowed at a certain festival or event, and you’ll have a lively discussion for sure.

Popmatters.com posted a story yesterday about this very topic. Guitarist Russ Barenberg is the center point of the piece. Barenberg has recently returned to music full time, after a number of years working behind the scenes at the Saturn car company.

My favorite quote from the article follows.

…people talk about `traditional bluegrass.’ You hear that term a lot. Well, in 1946, bluegrass was brand-new. It wasn’t traditional music. It was just as much of an experiment from what came before it as anything we’re doing now. It’s a continuous process for musicians and creative people. They discover new things but appreciate music from the past at the same time.

I think he’s right. I love the ‘traditional’ stuff as much as anybody, but if I never heard anything new, I’d get bored after a while. As it is, I enjoy the new artists, like Punch Brothers, pushing the boundries of what we call bluegrass, and that just enhances my enjoyment of The Stanley Brothers all the more.

  • Back in the day when I was an undergraduate English major (early sixties), one of my professors defined greatness in literature, and by extension in other art forms, as contributing work that helped move the form to the next level. Everything else, he suggested, was merely slavish copying of previously successful forms. The continued insistence by bluegrass fans, particularly those at festivals, that they should only hear so-called hard driving traditional bluegrass acts as an anchor on the music. The best new bands find a way to honor the traditions of bluegrass while creating a sound that is unique and incorporates new sounds, content, lyrics, and so-on. That fans will walk out on a band whose sound is not quite what they expect shows both disrespect and rigidity. However, it’s well to remember that Stravinsky’s “Fire Bird” was booed by the first audience which heard it. – Ted