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Thread: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

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    Default Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Last week a query popped up on Facebook asking people to explore what the writer suggested was a decline in the quality and quantity of bluegrass. Thinking it too complex an issue to discuss on FB, I decided to devote my column this week to it. I've selected three elements that I consider crucial in promoting the changes we're all aware have been afoot for a long time. I'd be interested on your responses to my choices as well as you see this as representing a decline. As usual, I look forward to the discussion. - Ted

    http://nodepression.com/article/where-bluegrass-headed

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I think like in any other genre, there's a combination of boredom and audacity that progresses the art form. Why continue to make copies when you can make something new? Bluegrass began that way, newgrass moved it forward, and now new groups are reshaping the sounds that can come out of traditional instruments.

    There's also an inter-generational divide that nobody wants to admit to, and it goes back to audacity/pride/hubris. Teens and 20-somethings naturally think they know more than their older counterparts, and get bored or frustrated with being told "how it's done." Likewise, adults take offense to kids who don't follow their exact instructions -- or have their ego hurt when they can't keep up with the youngsters.

    Only later will both groups let their respective guards down and realize that they each have something to learn from the other.

    So, my assessment is that bluegrass is having its midlife crisis. On one hand: Play it safe, stick to your roots, pay the bills, know that there will always at least be an academic appreciation for tradition. On the other: Buy a convertible! Cover a Taylor Swift song! Play literally anything with a banjo and call it "bluegrass" because it caters to the people who make Deliverance references without ever having read the book.

    It's not wrong -- it just is.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Hmmm. Not sure the three things you discuss are exclusive to bluegrass, enough to consider them defining characteristics. Recording affected all forms of music, flat-picked guitar predated bluegrass, and really wasn't even a hallmark of only bluegrass. The first true "guitar hero" would have been Doc Watson, and he's not considered bluegrass. And the college tours? They resurrected blues, Preservation Hall styled jazz, and any number of folk idioms. I think if I had to pick three defining characteristics it would be the high lonesome tight harmony singing first and foremost, Scruggs-style banjo picking, and the interspersing of formalized, high speed solos in between verses.

    As to a decline in quantity and quality, I'd say the quality is still just fine. Modern players are every bit as good as the old guys, many even better than the founders of the genre; they just don't have the icon/aura thing going for them. Quantity? That's a function of many things, geography playing a large part. In New England, there are a few purists out there, but by and large most of the hard-core music fans are just that, music fans, not specific to a genre. Therefor, if many have already seen a certain artist, they're not as likely to go see them again if there's something else of interest.

    Another aspect affecting quantity is the lack of innovation 9in hard-core bluegrass. It is, by definition, a closely-defined format, and if much of the material remains the same, the musicians simply become a plug-and-play event. If there's a show with nothing but bluegrass standards, how unique can it be? I know fans of various musicians will disagree, but the vast majority of the public won't be able to discern individual musician's styles because, frankly, they just don't care to dive that deeply into one form of music.

    Lastly, the big effect on quantity is the venues themselves. Bluegrass simply doesn't help a venue or performing arts center build a community presence and loyal audience. There might be one or two venues in the hotbed of the south that pull it off, but elsewhere in the country, you need a variety to keep audience members returning. I speak to a number of presenters around the country, and we all find an interesting trend in that the hard-core genre lovers (bluegrass, jazz, classical, etc) are not very adventurous concert-goers. They are genre loyal, but not venue loyal. That means that as a venue, you can't build a community that you can count on to provide a certain level of attendance at all shows with the genre-specific fans. They simply don't add to a program. Bluegrass can be a part of a program so that a presenter can show a wide variety of music, but it can't survive by focusing on that.

    A venue also needs to appeal to a wide age demographic, from millennial to young families, all the way up. The younger listeners are always more adventurous, wanting to hear newer things. We were the same way, our parents were, and so on. It's perfectly natural. So, as the hard-core bluegrass fans age, venues need to make sure there's more for other genres. And no, this phenomenon is not bluegrass-specific. Think of stars from the past 100 years, like The Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, pretty much all the finger style blues artists, rockabilly. They're all great format, but they're all dated enough that they've become niche-status. You can do a Rockabilly show once a year, but only a few bars would be able to get away with it more than once or twice a month (unless it's some theme bar).

    Anyway, trying to keep this only about bluegrass is a red herring, it's what happens to most all musical styles as time marches on.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Well said, Drew. I like the generational distinction particularly well, because it pertains in so many other areas of aging vs. maturing. As a former young Turk who made lots of mistakes and a current old fart having to reassess all the time, you caught it!

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Well said, and all good points. Nevertheless, people still call material "bluegrass," even while hard core traditionalists will harp on particular bands not being bluegrass because the haven't a banjo or a mandolin. Generally, both instruments help to define bluegrass bands, but bluegrass happens anyway. When I talked to Alan Munde, he emphasized that many young musicians who came under his tutelage weren't interested in where the music came from, but very much liked the sound of the instruments themselves. However, I still maintain that serious students of what they themselves are doing will bring many (though not all) back to the founders to find their own connection to it. Thanks for taking the time to write.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    "Where is bluegrass headed"? Well the last "Bluegrass" festival I went to had 12 bands performing for the weekend and only one was a true bluegrass band....Sure most of them had a guitar, banjo, mandolin or fiddle and bass but the music they played was more closely related to rock and roll if you will, the singing is drowned out with loud banjos or even a dobro not backing off when a person is singing...So it is not heading any where, it has already gotten there in some parts of the country...

    Maybe this is not what you are asking but I put in my views anyway...I have been playing bluegrass for a whole lot of years and I would love to see it stay traditional, if people think they need to change it then call it something else, I know that sounds like a broken record but that is my feelings, "If it ain`t traditional sounding, then it ain`t bluegrass, it`s something else"...

    Willie

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    There might be a decline in the quantity of 'traditional' bluegrass. But is that a bad thing? I'd say that no it is not. Genres change with times. Rock, the blues, hip hop, jazz, whatever genre if you listen to modern artists and artists that are 30+ years old, they'll sound different. The times have changed since the days of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and the music needs to change to reflect that. Hell, look at the Del McCoury band, they're traditional in many ways but even they have changed with the times musically (especially his sons). The people playing bluegrass, or whatever genre distinction purists want to make, these days are influenced by other genres and it comes through in the playing. That's now it has to be or bluegrass will become stagnant and less and less relevant to a wider audience.

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    I think when a musical genre gets into the mode of trying to "preserve" the tradition, it really gets kinda stale. I love modern classical music, but the local orchestras never play it, they are busy preserving the great traditional orchestra pieces written between about 1800 and 1900. I don't go to many philharmonic concerts, it's almost all old music, preserved music, and it all too often sounds like it. It's far better, I think, to have a lively musical scene with enthused people producing new ideas based on that tradition, and maybe, other ideas and traditions. Most musicians do have a respect for the past, and for great pieces of music, so even bands that are really "modernist" are likely to play some of the old traditional tunes, and keep them alive. Enthusiasm is the key thing, even if it isn't entirely traditional.
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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    To Willie - I appreciate your comments. Many people who hold these views are friends of mine, and I've enjoyed first rate traditional bands as well as many newer ones. I think there are poor or mediocre bands in both camps, mistaking speed for quality ensemble, or shouting for singing in close harmony. On the other hand, I've enjoyed the picking and the singing of bands like The Lonely Heartstring Band, Mile Twelve, and the Steep Canyon Rangers a great deal during our years in bluegrass. There's always been a trend for bluegrass to sound very much like the popular commercial music of thirty to forty years previous. I don't see that changing. Thanks again for your comment.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Music evolves.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I think Bluegrass got lucky as it was kind of on the ropes in terms of popularity before the folk revival people and festivals gave it a shot in the arm again. It got a few bites of the genre cherry as a result & people got to hear and record the original players in HiFi too.
    Imagine if we could have had that with baroque music or early classical, before the days of standardisation of tuning at 440 and 12TET.

    One thing is certain it’s still played by lots of folks, but that doesn’t make it ‘popular music’ anymore.
    That is an ever-shifting term which BG no longer has an interest in chasing.
    It’s just like any other genre with it's afficionados and those who like to keep it being played live.
    Good tunes, great harmonies and fun to do, but a historical niche music with passionate followers. There are many derivitives on that musical family tree as it evolves to become something else. It’s not going extinct any time soon.
    Eoin



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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I'll just pick on a couple of instruments, banjo and mandolin. Just because you play them does not mean it's bluegrass. Trampled by turtles, Chris Thile, and you know the rest are just not bluegrass. No matter how you try to rationalize it if it is not like Billl,Scruggs, or the originals, it's not bluegrass. Period. So where is bluegrass headed? It's probably heading to some form of where pure heavy metal ended because of stupidity. What is stupidity? The need to evolve a genre of music because of profit.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I realize any music changes over time, but how far from it's roots can it go and still be the same style of music. Bill Monroe formed The Bluegrass Boys, named for his home state, years before Scruggs started playing banjo with him. His music was not called bluegrass then it was hillbilly. When Scruggs joined the music was so different people started calling it bluegrass because it was so different and it was played by The Bluegrass Boys. What was different? Those same instruments had been used in hillbilly music for years. Monroe and Scruggs gave it a drive that no music had at that time. Monroe and Flatt gave the vocals a sound that derived from " brother duets" but was higher pitched and puncher that most of that time. That is what defines bluegrass the drive and the close harmony. I love the songs about the cabins in the southern states, I love the southern dialects and the country way of droppin the G's on words endin in ing. I've heard people say BG has to change because those things are dated, music should tell of the current times, maybe but maybe not. Maybe we should keep these in honor of where the music comes from or because I like them maybe not, but as far as I'm concerned if we lose that drive and harmony ( which so many of the new bands have lost) then it ain't bluegrass. It might be good, it might be acoustic, it might be enjoyable, but IT AIN'T BLUEGRASS.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Quote Originally Posted by sheets View Post
    I think when a musical genre gets into the mode of trying to "preserve" the tradition, it really gets kinda stale. I love modern classical music, but the local orchestras never play it, they are busy preserving the great traditional orchestra pieces written between about 1800 and 1900. I don't go to many philharmonic concerts, it's almost all old music, preserved music, and it all too often sounds like it. It's far better, I think, to have a lively musical scene with enthused people producing new ideas based on that tradition, and maybe, other ideas and traditions. Most musicians do have a respect for the past, and for great pieces of music, so even bands that are really "modernist" are likely to play some of the old traditional tunes, and keep them alive. Enthusiasm is the key thing, even if it isn't entirely traditional.
    Agree 100-percent.

    IMO, if something needs to be "preserved" that means it's already dead, a pickled specimen in a jar in science class, a curiosity for students to study and see how it's put together, or some sort of museum display piece to show the rest of the world "what used to be", but not a living thing anymore.

    (To follow that line of thought, I suppose one could take a Frankenstein approach and assume that if enough people engage in such "preservation", then the thing becomes alive again and functions as some sort of zombie anachronism for the devotees of the thing.)

    I suppose some of that is necessary, otherwise we wouldn't know what any of the earlier musical styles sounded like. If it weren't for the preservationists, a lot of fantastically good music would be lost forever. And if such music were to be changed up very much, modernized, added drums and electric bass, it would start to sound like everything else we hear nowadays, so I can understand the wish to not alter the older styles by giving them modern interpretations. (Personally, I like drums and electric bass in just about everything anymore, although I certainly didn't grow up that way.)

    That said, I think changes in music are more motivated by the musicians themselves, rather than the audiences. The musicians get tired of playing the same ol' thing over and over again, and they change stuff around to suit themselves. The resulting sound isn't "authentic" anymore, but who cares, it's still fun to play, and if music isn't fun, then what's the point of having it. If the existing audiences like it, that's great, if they don't, then maybe it's time for new audiences.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    As Mandoplumb correctly states - After Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe & raised the popularity of the band as a whole via his ''fancy banjo'' playing,folk liked it so much,that they wrote to the radio stations asking for more of that 'Bluegrass (style) music,& so eventually,as Neil Rosenberg says in his book - ''Bluegrass - A History'' - the fans named the music. That music style was 'new' at that time. Yes,the instruments had been around a long time before that,but they'd never been assembled in a band that had 'that sound'. There are parallels in Classical music - we can go from Medieval music > Baroque > to Classical as we know it , which in itself is still evolving via the 'modern' composers around today,& mostly going in a direction that i personally don't like. Even the instruments themselves had to evolve to be able to play what the composers required.

    All music will evolve as individual musicians seek to expand on what they already play & bring new 'textures' into their music. IMHO - there are still a lot of bands playing what i'd call ''Trad based'' Bluegrass,but,they are singing new songs & playing new instrumentals - as did Bill Monroe & other bands back in the day !. ''Bluegrass'' itself was a revolution in 'string band music',& was as different to the folks listening to it in it's early days as Newgrass Revival was to us - the same instruments playing a 'different' music. And so it continues with bands such as ''The Infamous Stringdusters'' / ''Greensky Bluegras'' / ''Railroad Earth'' etc.

    IMO - I think that many bands will continue to play 'Trad.based' Bluegrass music, & still sing the old songs,but,they'll also sing / play a lot of new stuff as well. As somebody posted above,what would it be like if all we heard at Bluegrass festivals were the old tunes of Monroe / Flatt & Scruggs etc. ? - IMHO ,pretty darned boring.

    We had a very similar discussion going on a while back about 'what is Bluegrass music' ? (or similar). For me - bands such as The Lonesome River Band / Blue Highway / Balsam Range & others, are still playing what i'd term 'Trad.based'' Bluegrass music,but they're playing their own songs - just like Bill Monroe & the bands that followed his style. I've listened to the 'old songs' possibly 1000's of times over 55 years of being involved in Bluegrass & i've played maybe more than my share of 'em as well. Right now,13 years into mandolin playing,the styling of 'The Stringdusters' & the other 'new' bands is very refreshing.

    I still love the old songs,but 'The Little Cabin Home On The Hill' began to look very sad a long while back = time for something new,''as well as'' ?. (IMHO).

    It may be that in several years time 'Trad.' Bluegrass could be revived as folk seek the roots of the 'new' music,in a similar way that when the Folk music revival began,boosted by the popularity of Bob Dylan & all the other 'Contemporary' folks,people began searching for the 'roots & origins' of 'Folk' music in general. ''The New Lost City Ramblers'' made a career out of playing the musical roots of Bluegrass music - ''Old Timey'' music. It could happen all over again as folk forget & seek to be reminded,
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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Quote Originally Posted by sheets View Post
    it's almost all old music, preserved music, and it all too often sounds like it. It's far better, I think, to have a lively musical scene with enthused people producing new ideas based on that tradition, and maybe, other ideas and traditions. Most musicians do have a respect for the past, and for great pieces of music, so even bands that are really "modernist" are likely to play some of the old traditional tunes, and keep them alive. Enthusiasm is the key thing, even if it isn't entirely traditional.
    Thanks for this comment. I tend to be one of those people who listen to classical orchestral music, although my time frame is a little longer than you suggest. It also ranges into the twentieth century to include Ives, Gershwin, and perhaps, if the future deems it worthy, John Williams. I find composers like Philip Glass to be unlistenable. I actually have a good deal of sympathy for people who treasure the music they first encountered as teens, as well as knowing that it will always change. My listening to music has expanded broadly as I write reviews of music-related biographies I read while listening to music I hadn't seriously considered before. Dave Van Ronk, Jimmy Buffett, and John Prine, all of whom I had a casual musical acquaintance with came alive for me as I read their work. Familiarity does not breed contempt!

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    To Ivan Kelsall - Thanks very much for your comment. It seems balanced and reasonable to me, but maybe that's because it's pretty well in line with my thoughts. Listening to streaming music, especially the weekly and daily playlists selected by Spotify algorithm has increased my musical literacy, as has writing about music. I'm grateful for both, as well as your lucid reply. - Ted

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    It's not all about music, actually.

    (I'm going to make some statements which involve politics and religion, so if any editors are not happy, please delete my comments).

    It seems to me that Gospel plays quite a large part in bluegrass, and given a very largely white group of people involved in the music, some people may well find the whole genre really pretty unattractive, however good the musicianship.
    I should say that although I am not religious, I actually do quite like some of this gospel material.

    But when you look at people involved in 'Americana' (a vague and amorphous term, admittedly) it seems to me that the whole scene is much more alternative, counter-culture, and generally something which younger people of a certain type might identify with.
    And this could also include American icons like Willie Nelson, who with his hair, views on marijuana etc seems to me to represent an entirely different world, really.

    I don't know if anyone remembers the DVD Bluegrass Journey which included (of all things) a pagan wedding at what I thought was a bluegrass festival. I confess I was confused!
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Adrihan View Post
    I'll just pick on a couple of instruments, banjo and mandolin. Just because you play them does not mean it's bluegrass. Trampled by turtles, Chris Thile, and you know the rest are just not bluegrass. No matter how you try to rationalize it if it is not like Billl,Scruggs, or the originals, it's not bluegrass. Period. So where is bluegrass headed? It's probably heading to some form of where pure heavy metal ended because of stupidity. What is stupidity? The need to evolve a genre of music because of profit.
    I can't say I agree with this, but you express a view held by many. In the end, I think my plea in the last paragraph calling for some sort of middle ground works, at least for me as well, I think, as many others. Simply to dismiss string band music played in emerging styles as "not bluegrass" is insufficient.

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    I was pretty sure this subject had been discussed ad nauseum in the thirty other threads. The music will evolve or die, traditional factions will be there as will progressives, the only constant in life is change.
    I should go change strings...
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    New bands can play their own songs as long as they play them in a traditional style then they will still be considered "Bluegrass", it`s not all about playing songs that are 50-60 years old, it is the style that they are played in...Compare what country music was 40-50 years ago to what it is today, it is trash and there is no other way to describe it and I fear that bluegrass is fading in that same direction if it hasn`t already gotten there...I also like listening to a lot of the new bands but I don`t consider them bluegrass, surely Del and his sons have stepped over the line but I still love what they do, I just don`t like to hear this stuff called "Bluegrass"...Folk music is still played the same way it was written by Stephen Foster and a lot of other writers so why can`t bluegrass still be played in the same style that it was originated in and call the "off shoots" something else but not
    Bluegrass"...I don`t see why that is so hard to understand and get across to people...

    Willie

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    Willie you said it. Bluegrass is drive not speed, drive. The classic Country Gentlemen are the best example I know if they were playing fast the music drove right thru you, if they were playing slow it drove just as hard. Most new so called BG band don't have that drive. Of you ain't pushing the beat you ain't playing BG.

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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I've expressed this opinion before, but what the hell, why let that stop me... IMO musical genres have a shelf-life, after which comes a point of diminishing returns. You may bemoan the fact that there's no 'real' bluegrass around anymore, but really, what are you going to hear anyway that's going to rival Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt and Scruggs, etc.?

    There are still blues bands, but what is there in the same league as Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy? Same with jazz, is there really any need to listen to (hardly) anything post-Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus?? Etc etc ad nauseam. You still have the old records, give them a spin and enjoy!
    "The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculations, and often lose themselves in error and darkness!"
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    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    I don't know where Bluegrass is headed.

    My taste in Bluegrass is simple to include the following:
    Del Mc Coury (SP)
    Seldom Scene
    Flatt and Scruggs

    Though the originator of Bluegrass.. I never cared for Bill Monroe.

    I believe it depends on the individual.

    However, if it is going the way that the last BG venue I attended, which was a flat bore, and anything but what I define as BG, I really do not care. I won't be there.

    As to some names dropped that are not Bluegrass.. I agree, and by my definition largely self absorbed grandstanders. Brilliant and boring, and not at all "musical". Bluegrass to me is audience driven, not showmanship.
    Which gets us back to define the audience.. diverse.

  42. #25

    Default Re: Column: Where is Bluegrass Headed?

    At a bluegrass festival, later in the evening, as the stage show winds down, as folks break out their instruments and gather round, what tunes do they play? From whom?

    How many Chris Thile songs do they play?
    Why is that?

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