XM vs. iPod

We’re off the bluegrass road for a couple of months at home. This means we need to search out ways to hear the music we love. We have lots of alternatives available to us: CDs, Music Choice on cable, XM radio, and our newly acquired iPod all provide access to plenty of bluegrass music for us. Right now, the iPod is winning hands down.We’ve had XM for a couple of years, since the time Felton Pruitt so ably acted as program manager, providing a wide variety of styles of bluegrass music as well as lots of live festival feeds. Under Kyle Cantrell, Bluegrass Junction on channel 14 of XM radio has offered some interesting programming, particularly his in-studio programs featuring performances and interviews with popular and emerging bands. Another worthwhile piece of programming is his Sunday morning Gospel show as well as his Saturday evening program bowing to the traditions of bluegrass music. At the same time, however, the musical side of the programming has become less and less interesting, because Cantrell’s definition of what constitutes bluegrass is so exceedingly narrow.

In recent months, XM radio has relied increasingly on a Top Forty approach to playing bluegrass. Songs from the bluegrass charts are played incessantly, along with a generous sprinkling of first generation players. There’s enough Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse, Osborne Brothers, and Mac Wiseman to keep the purest traditional bluegrass adherent happy. Songs from the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey of top thirty songs play over and over during the day. (Disclosure ‚Äì I haven’t actually sat down and transcribed the playlist to check out these impressions. Even though we spend many hours in the car, this task has seemed too daunting to me.) Other great players, many of them from the progressive wing of bluegrass, receive occasional play, but only in their most conservative manifestation. Thus, Cantrell can rightly claim to play many innovative players, but nothing remotely challenging from Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, or the New Grass Revival appears, merely their easiest and most accessible music.

Meanwhile, pioneer bluegrass musicians like Charley Poole have disappeared from XM. John Hartford, clearly a bluegrasser who made significant contributions to the music is never played under Cantrell. Diversity of opinion has also gone. Thus, the Austin Lounge Lizards, whose satire and innovation add humor and zest to the genre, are never heard any longer. Similarly, while XM plays cuts from Dry Branch Fire Squad, when was the last time "Orphan Train" or "He’s Comin’ to Us Dead" was played? The Kruger Brothers just can’t be heard there any longer.

Finally, the mix of secular to Gospel music seems to be out of balance. I’m not sure what an appropriate balance should be, but it seems to me to be about three or four selections an hour. My sense is that it goes way beyond that. In the end, on an eight or ten hour drive in the car, Bluegrass Junction goes from being fun to being plain boring.

At present, my iPod playlist for bluegrass contains 1152 songs taking up 3.6 gigabytes. On shuffle, it would take me 2.7 days to play through them with no repeats. There seem to be 64 artists, although the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band appears in several different conformations. I’ve also added some personal favorites to the mix which really wouldn’t be considered bluegrass. These include Darrell Scott, Asleep at the Wheel, Doc Watson (in my mind a mountain and folk singer more than a bluegrass performer), and Danny Barnes. The core of our bluegrass playlist is not too different from XM. It includes lots of Allison Kraus, Bluegrass Album Band, Flatt & Scruggs, Nothin’ Fancy, Seldom Scene, The Gibson Brothers, Carolina Road, Blueridge and many more. I’ve tried to make the list diverse and interesting. It consists entirely of CDs we own. As we hear new groups and buy their CDs, the works will be added to our playlist. I-Tunes makes playlist incredibly flexible. If we feel like listening to an entire CD or body or work, we need only push a couple of buttons. I-Pod accessories make it possible for us to play the music through headphones, our FM radios at home, or the car’s FM radio. We can shuffle the songs to play at random. The sound seems to us to be at least equivalent to that provided by XM radio.

Given this comparison, it seems to us at present, that the bluegrass playlist on our iPod beats XM radio’s Bluegrass Junction hands down. That doesn’t mean while stop playing Bluegrass Junction or give up our subscription to XM, but it looks like we’ll be spending a lot more time listening to music of our choice than that chosen by Kyle Cantrell.