Tag Archives: Robert Cantwell

The Roots of Innovation

“What distinguished the Monroe Brother’s music from the rest was perhaps that it best exploited the medium of radio by discovering ways to excel within its narrow auditory confines.”

-Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown

Historian and Folklorist, Robert Cantwell, argues that Hillbilly artists like The Skillet Lickers found a new freedom in the recording studio, taking advantage of the new medium, the record. No longer restricted to the preferences of their typical audience of dancers, they could make music for musicians. Dropping the strict patterns and reasonable tempos required for dancing, string bands were able to experiment with new sounds. In time, these changes would come to alter the audience’s tastes, increasing the demand for what might never had occurred live in front of an audience.

This sort of experimentation runs rampant at public music events like the Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention that I recently had the pleasure of attending. Unlike musicians at festival performances, musicians at musical contests are not held to the standards of the audience at large. Rather, a smaller group of judges (who I can assure you are not dancing during the performances) carefully evaluates the performers according to various criteria. More often than not, this criteria involves the skill and style of the performer and does not take into account how easy it is to dance to the music. On the periphery of the contests, musicians gather to form jam sessions, feeding off each other’s energy and style to produce music that they enjoy playing. In this sort of context, it is easy to see how a separation between musician and audience could lead to innovation.

(try dancing to this tempo)

In the 1930’s the Monroe Brothers took experimentation to the next level by “exploiting” the new medium of radio. If the role of radio in the 30’s found it “amplifying the audience’s consciousness of its own identity, or even defining it,” as Cantwell claims, Bill Monroe’s unique style is a prime example. The Monroe Brother’s played clean, elegant music, easily reproduced by early radio technology. Experimenting with a new take on the mandolin and the brother’s clear, high vocals, Bill and Charlie Monroe created a niche for themselves on the radio scene, laying the groundwork for a sound that would soon come to “define” a culture and region.