As I was reflecting on the never-ending question about what is or isn’t bluegrass, it dawned on me that it is the high quality level of bluegrass music itself that is responsible for many former bluegrass bands heading down a path that is markedly different from traditional bluegrass.
When a local bluegrass band realizes that there are a thousand bluegrass bands that can do a better version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, the band is left with two choices: keep doing bluegrass covers that will never equal the original versions (or most cover versions by other regional bands), or the band can start writing original songs that may not fit traditional bluegrass chord progressions, tempos, and subject matter.
This has certainly been the case with my own band. As Rural Delivery (www.myspace.com/ruraldeliveryband), we recorded a CD last year with many traditional bluegrass songs on it, although we did add a lot of harmonica and a couple of original songs, but our covers did not break any new vocal or instrumental ground. Our limitations as musicians and vocalists were most apparent on the traditional songs we recorded, and while limitations may be what create “style”, our limitations probably didn’t give us a distinct style that was marketable and different enough to catch anyone’s attention. That’s completely fair: if you’re going to do a Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, or Flatt & Scruggs song or instrumental, you’re going to be measured against the original version and the countless cover versions that have been recorded over the years. Nothing wrong with that.
When our banjo player moved from Fairbanks, Alaska to Olympia, Washington, we became the Porch Dogs and began to concentrate on performing original songs written by the remaining band members. We still love bluegrass, we still listen to bluegrass, and we still play bluegrass. I still buy every bluegrass CD I can get my hands on. But we’ve found that our original songs, despite the fact that we play them on the same acoustic instruments that everyone associates with bluegrass, have turned the Porch Dogs into something other than a bluegrass band. The chord progressions, tempos, and subject matter of our original songs have made us something else: acoustic, bluegrassy but not bluegrass, folky, country, bluesy, or all of the above.
Now when we sing our own original songs, no one compares our versions to the “originals”. Our versions ARE the originals. When Suzanne sings the song she wrote about the Anchorage earthquake, “1964”, it works because she lived that song. Anyone else’s version would be a poor cover of her heartfelt version. When Jeff sings his song “Moline”, about the Devil chasing him around the state of Illinois, it’s funny but it’s also believable because Jeff grew up in Illinois. Even when I sing one of my songs, “Waitin’ for the Evening News”, based on a short story by Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux, I can sing it with conviction because it’s my personal take on the story. We may no longer be a bluegrass band, but we’ve finally found our voice . . . thanks to bluegrass.
Someday a bluegrass band may do a “bluegrass” version of one of our songs, or maybe one of our songs will even become a bluegrass standard once its non-bluegrass roots are forgotten (think “Fox on the Run”). That will be fine with us. We can admire the way the Infamous Stringdusters, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and even Cadillac Sky can walk the progressive bluegrass line without getting too far from the tradition. We don’t have the incredible vocal or instrumental talent of those bluegrass bands, so the Porch Dogs will continue on their own path . . . but always with deep, deep thanks to bluegrass.