For class on Monday, we were assigned to walk around campus and just listen, which is not something I typically do. I primarily walk to campus and back, and always have music going into my ears as I walk. After doing this assignment though, I became more aware of the noise around me.
One of the first things I noticed was the steps of those around me. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, there weren’t a ton of people walking around, but those who were walking around could often be heard. My footsteps weren’t really particularly loud, but I am one of those people who keeps their keys on a carabiner attached to a beltloop, which makes a surprising amount of noise.
I also noticed that runners keep to a very specific tempo. Their footsteps were more consistent than that of normal walkers, and also more audible. They were more rhythmic to listen to, and could easily have been the percussion section to some odd band only using sounds that are heard on a college campus.
By far the most interesting thing we did in this assignment was just to stop and sit in a single location and listen. Lots of people walked by in the time I sat. Some people have very loud footsteps. Some people do not. Some people have shoes that you can still hear squeaking from almost 30 feet away. At one point, I heard someone start a traditional “Let’s Go Hokies” chant. (For those who don’t know, this chant involves one person/group of people shouting “Let’s Go” and a group responding with “Hokies!” It is a part of the opening of football games and other sporting events on campus.) The interesting bit about this chant was that, although it was started by an adult, the response came from a group of kids that sounded like they were either in late elementary school or early middle school.
While sitting I heard many conversations of people walking by. Most of them were within a group of two or more, and so all sides of the conversation could be heard. But on occasion, someone would walk by while talking on the phone, leaving me to guess at what the other side was saying.
I was also surprised by how far away I could hear. Where I chose to sit was under the arch that connects Pamplin Hall and Robeson Hall. I could hear a construction vehicle’s distinctive backing up horn from a construction site that was easily over 100 yards away.
Bluegrass is commonly considered the music of Appalachia. Of course, bluegrass has a very wide reach, with bluegrass bands coming from all over. And while bluegrass is expanding beyond Appalachia, Appalachian music is expanding beyond bluegrass. This week’s classes focused on music that is native to Appalachia but that doesn’t completely fit the genre of bluegrass for various reasons.
Yelawolf is an artist who was born in Alabama and who grew up in Nashville. His music definitely falls into the genre of hip-hop, but his music does share some things with Appalachian music. As an example, I present the video for “Till It’s Gone” (warning: some strong language and violent images are present in the video).
This song actually has a sort of Appalachian feel to it. The guitar work sounds similar to some forms of “mountain music,” being somewhat bluesy. The video also depicts an Appalachian-like setting, and clearly depicts characters in situations not atypical to modern day Appalachia. Yet, Yelawolf wouldn’t claim to be anywhere close to bluegrass, while still claiming to be Appalachian.
Continuing on with the rap artists from Appalachia, we arrive at Beatty. This example was used in class, but I found it so significant that I had to use it. Beatty is an artist from West Virginia. This song is entitled “West Virginia Water” (warning: the song does contain some strong language).
More so than Yelawolf, this is an Appalachian song. I note a few parallels with the old coal mining songs we hear in bluegrass. This song is about a struggle that an Appalachian people group can relate to, namely the water crisis in West Virginia that left 9 counties without water for many weeks. Many West Virginia landmarks can be seen throughout the video, calling back to his home state in the heart of Appalachia. Linked to place and struggle, this song shares many elements with traditional Appalachian music, while being stylistically quite far from Appalachian music.
Switching gears a bit, we come to Goodnight, Texas. Goodnight, Texas is named after a tiny town in Texas that lies exactly between San Francisco, California and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These two towns are where the two main songwriters of the band reside, and their songs reflect a unique blend of influences. The instrumentation shares much in common with bluegrass, with banjo, acoustic guitar, and mandolin making frequent appearances. However, the boom-chuck of bluegrass is nowhere to be found, instead replaced with a feel more typical to rock and blues music. Instrumentation aside, the lyrical content also reflects many themes of Appalachia, showing that the band has a good understanding of where they come from. This song is entitled “Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine.”
Starting off, it’s obvious that this deals with the trials and tribulations of coal mining people. The song tells the story of a young couple, the man of which gets trapped down in a coal mine, and as such is never able to marry the girl he loved. I don’t mean to continually harp on the coal mining theme, but it is one aspect of bluegrass that a surprising amount of things can relate to. Some of their other songs feature calls to other folk artists, including the lead-off track to “A Long Life of Living,” “I’m Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm Forever,” a pledge of allegiance of sorts to the genre of folk music, including a not so subtle nod to Bob Dylan (who did say he wasn’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more).
A quick fun note about Goodnight, Texas, I first discovered them at Steppin’ Out, the Blacksburg summer street festival, in August 2013.
Judah and the Lion is a band from Nashville that uses traditional bluegrass instrumentation to play songs that fit more into the modern alternative rock genre. On “Hesitate” we see some slow and easy moving guitar, mandolin, and banjo work, which is followed by a later section where they bring the tempo up, reflecting some faster-paced bluegrass influences. I would easily compare this song to “Laundry Room” by the Avett Brothers.
So we see another example of Appalachian music instruments being used to play music that is influenced by Appalachian music, but that maybe doesn’t fit a traditional definition of Appalachian music.
The point I’m trying to make through this muddled and disjointed writing (that I probably shouldn’t have started at 2 am) is that Appalachian music is broader than bluegrass, and bluegrass is broader than Appalachian music. With bluegrass bands coming from Colorado and California, and with the genre’s popularity overseas in places like Japan, one cannot possibly argue that bluegrass is currently just the music of the Appalachians. Sure, it may have started there (which is apparently also debatable,though that’s for another day), but it hasn’t stayed completely in Appalachia. Likewise, artists from Appalachia aren’t necessarily required to play bluegrass in order to be considered Appalachian. In my mind, the definition of Appalachian music encompasses a wide range of music, that allows for everyone from Yelawolf to Judah and the Lion to be considered Appalachian. There are a number of things you can do to be considered Appalachian in your music. You can use your lyrics to speak of Appalachian themes, or you can use instrumentation typical of Appalachian music to play tunes that don’t necessarily fit into the bluegrass style, or you can play songs that are clearly influenced by Appalachian music and themes and use traditional bluegrass instrumentation to do so. The possibilities are seriously endless, and the definition of Appalachian music is certainly up to interpretation.
My argument boils down to this: let Appalachian music be Appalachian. You aren’t necessarily Appalachian if you play bluegrass, and you aren’t necessarily bluegrass if you’re Appalachian. Appalachian identity is something that has become more diverse, while still retaining many of the qualities that have made it endearing to people worldwide.
Many people will claim that success in music is all about the music. Quality music produced by quality musicians begets success. Such is the common belief in many people, especially budding musicians with dreams of making it big. But is that the reality?
Within popular music, I’d say yes and no. Many often feel and state that the music that saturates pop radio is garbage and is manufactured more than it is played. Success in popular music often requires more marketing skill than it does musical talent.
However, I don’t believe the same to be true with bluegrass. Yes, marketing absolutely plays into success in bluegrass, but bluegrass seems to be one of the genres out there that actually focuses on talent above all else. As stated in the Goldsmith readings, Alison Krauss began to make a name for herself while playing at the IBMA conference in 1987 (this, of course, after winning many fiddle competitions). But since this is the factual history of Krauss’ rise to fame, it does bring to mind a few questions about what might have happened to Krauss without the 1987 IBMA. Would Alison Krauss be the Alison Krauss we know today if she had never played at IBMA 1987? Would she have ever achieved fame, or would she have taken another path through life? These questions may seem irrelevant given the actual course of events, but the point of me asking is to point out the importance of major events in the rise of artists in bluegrass.
Of course, talent is important, but as can be seen with the example of Alison Krauss, promotion and even a little bit of luck can go a long way in achieving success in the genre of bluegrass.
In relation to the visit our class had today from John Lawless, editor of bluegrasstoday.com, and an article by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters, I’m going to (yet again) address the question of just what exactly bluegrass is, something I previously touched on in an earlier post.
In class today, Mr. Lawless said that bluegrass can be music played by people brought up in the bluegrass tradition, even if they’re doing something different now. Pandolfi feels similarly about bluegrass. Pandolfi says that bluegrass is “wide open,” and “whatever someone says it is.” He continues to argue that bluegrass isn’t politics, but music. The issue that lies in this approach is that many of the traditionalists of the genre are very conservative in what they will designate as bluegrass. They take an approach of exclusivity, with a great hesitance to call something “bluegrass” for fear of tarnishing one of the greatest musical traditions around.
Is this a reasonable approach to take? Bluegrass, as I’ve said before is one of the most interesting genres of music currently around due to its reverence for tradition and roots and its supposed appreciation for innovation. However, the appreciation for innovation does seem to contradict with the conservative view.
In 1965, Bob Dylan (rest assured, I’m not arguing that Bob Dylan is a bluegrass artist) played Newport Folk Festival. Dylan decided on a whim that he would play with a full backing band, or “electric” as they called it. At this point, Newport Folk Festival was a pretty traditional folk festival, with “electric” acts getting a bit of a hard time and disapproval. Dylan wasn’t exactly a fan of this attitude, and in an attempt to subvert this perception, decided to go “electric” with his set at Newport. This was met with mixed reactions. Both booing and cheering were heard as Dylan played his music. Some artists appreciated what Dylan was doing, some hated it. Some attendees loved it, some hated it. In that day and age, folk music didn’t venture too far from acoustic instruments, which is why, when Dylan played with an “electric” band (electric guitar, electric bass and drums), he was met with some harsh criticism. However, in retrospect, this is absolutely an innovation in folk music, as we see modern folk music using a variety of both acoustic and electric instruments, and few people even bat an eye at this.
Honestly, I see the bluegrass community being similar today. A more conservative crowd, fearing the tarnishing of something they loved dearly reacted negatively to something that, in retrospect, was innovative, but at the time seemed to be destructive to a prized genre. Others, seeing the innovation and being excited by it, reacted positively.
My point is that, by fearing the destruction of tradition, are we missing out on innovation? None of these modern artists are actively trying to destroy bluegrass. They all have a deep reverence for the tradition in bluegrass. Pandolfi says that he isn’t sure “traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music.” When I saw Mumford and Sons in Fairfax, Virginia about two years back, Marcus Mumford (who is from England) told the crowd it felt good to be back in the south (of course, few people from the states would consider Fairfax, Virginia the “south,” but that’s another argument entirely). While this may seem inauthentic or misinformed, I didn’t take it that way. I took it as a showing of respect for the musical traditions of the south, including the folk and bluegrass traditions, which have obviously heavily influenced a band like Mumford and Sons. Now, of course, we could debate the “bluegrassness” or “bluegrassality” of Mumford and Sons for days, and I’m not saying either way whether or not I think they are bluegrass (because I’m honestly torn), but who is to say they aren’t? Maybe they’re an innovation of bluegrass. Maybe the Avett Brothers are an innovation of bluegrass.
Now, I want to clarify and say I mean no disrespect whatsoever for the traditionalists of bluegrass. Bill Monroe was a master, Lester and Earl were incredible and Ralph and Carter are extremely valuable as well. But what were they if they weren’t innovators? Bluegrass didn’t exist when Bill started playing. Earl invented a whole new style of banjo playing.
Pandolfi point out an irony in the current tension between bluegrass traditionalists and progressive artists. “Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford (Mumford and Sons) and Yonder (Yonder Mountain String Band) want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before.” He goes on to say that “bluegrass needs these bands way more than they need bluegrass.” I would have to agree. Nobody is trying to tarnish the good reputation of bluegrass. The fact that these bands want to be called “bluegrass” and that they are seeking out this distinction from a community known for being stingy with such a distinction should indicate a great respect for the tradition. I don’t think tradition will be lost if these artists are allowed the title of “bluegrass.” If anything, these bands will help bring more people to know the tradition. Tradition does run the risk of getting lost if these artists aren’t allowed the title of “bluegrass.” By broadening the definition of the genre, it will broaden the fan base of bluegrass, allowing many more people the opportunity to explore the wonderful world of bluegrass some people are trying so hard to defend.
So here’s to Bill Monroe. Here’s to Scott Avett. Here’s to Earl Scruggs. Here’s to Marcus Mumford. Here’s to coexistence and acceptance. Here’s to bluegrass.
J.D. (James Dee) Crowe is a well-known banjo player. Crowe was born on August 27, 1937 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Crowe first picked up the banjo when he was 13 years old, after seeing Flatt & Scruggs play. Crowe began attending their performances frequently and would sit as close as he could to the stage so he could study Scruggs’ picking style. He first came to prominence as a banjo player in the 1950s while playing for Jimmy Martin. He recorded for Jimmy Martin between December of 1956 and August of 1960.
After his time with Martin’s band, Crowe went on to form the Kentucky Mountain Boys, a band which lasted for a few years. By the time the early 70’s rolled around, Crowe had gone on to form J.D. Crowe and The New South, and they would go on to become one of the most influential groups of the 1970s. The original lineup had Tony Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bobby Sloan on bass and fiddle.
The New South was so influential because they blended folk, blues, country and rock styles together to create an innovative form of bluegrass. They also emphasized playing on electric instruments to aid their unique style. Their 1975 self-titled debut album took the world by storm, and many considered it an incredibly important album in the development of bluegrass.
Crowe is still alive today, though he (sort of) retired from touring in 1988. I say “sort of” because he has appeared on a few tours and played a number of shows since his “retirement.”
This video is a live recording of J.D. Crowe and The New South from 1974.
In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, Cantwell writes about the influence that radio had on bluegrass music in the genre’s early days. In the 1920’s, when the Monroe Brothers were coming into prominence, radio was in its early stages. The quality of audio coming out of radios wasn’t anywhere near the quality we are used to today, and for some forms of music, that wasn’t such a great thing. However, bluegrass found itself prospering on the radio. The simplicity of bluegrass lent itself very well to the primitive forms of radio people had in the 1920’s. As Cantwell states, “it communicated to the airwaves only what the receiving set could be relied upon to reproduce with perfect accuracy: simple melodic lines and parallel harmonies…high-pitched but effortless singing, a steady and unaccented rolling rhythm.” Bluegrass did certainly contain all of these things, which made it the perfect match for radio in the 1920’s. Early radio was not good at reproducing tones in the bass end of the spectrum, nor was it good at reproducing dynamics within a song. Bluegrass, while not completely devoid of dynamics, is often not very dynamic, making it a great choice for an audio system unable to produce a high dynamic range.
The Monroe Brothers, of course, embodied these characteristics that made bluegrass suitable for the radio, and as such, they became one of the most popular groups of that era. The Monroe Brothers embraced the technology of their time and found ways to excel within those parameters. The following video is a recording from slightly after the era in question (mid 1930’s), but is a good example of the quality of recordings in this time.
So in reading about how the Monroe Brothers embraced the technology of their time, I began wondering about modern bluegrass artists, nearly a century later, and how they are embracing the technologies of their time. While not exactly a bluegrass artist, David Crowder is an artist who clearly has some bluegrass influence in his music. On his most recent album, Neon Steeple, Crowder included the song “My Beloved.” The song is written to be used in church worship services, but includes a distinct banjo part on top of an electronic drum beat. This fusion of bluegrass tradition with modern instrumentation is certainly interesting and notable, but I doubt this is the future of bluegrass, and I don’t believe it will become as influential as Bill Monroe and his embrace of technology.
One of the most interesting things to me about bluegrass in today’s world is that I can see bluegrass influences on a wide variety of music outside of what is traditionally considered bluegrass. For example, bands like Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers both mix traditional bluegrass with rock music, but they do so in distinctly different ways. In my opinion, Mumford and Sons plays music sort of in the vein of alternative rock music blended with a bit of folk rock, but does it all with traditional bluegrass instrumentation. A typical performance from Mumford and Sons involves just an acoustic guitar, a banjo, an upright bass, a keyboard you can barely hear, and a bass drum keeping the rhythm. The following video is a great example of the Mumford and Sons style, with a driving rhythm and chord progression that one might say is atypical of bluegrass, but certainly more typical of alternative rock, but played with bluegrass instruments.
On the other hand, we have the Avett Brothers, who have played a wide range of music over their career, but some of it falls into the traditional bluegrass genre. Below is a song called “Laundry Room,” which is played in a style that is closer to traditional bluegrass (especially the breakdown at the end), but is played with instrumentation not always seen in bluegrass such as drums and keys. (Sidenote: I tried really hard to find a video of the Avett Brothers playing a traditional bluegrass tune with drums and such, but I had a hard time finding one. I recall them doing something along those lines in a concert I saw of theirs once.)
So this raises the question of what is bluegrass and what isn’t bluegrass in the modern age? Bluegrass is a genre that values tradition and innovation equally. As such, what can be considered bluegrass innovation and what is to be considered outside of bluegrass?
Ed Haley was a musician born in Logan County, West Virginia in 1885. At three years old, Ed lost his eyesight after contracting measles. As a boy, his uncle gave him a fiddle, and within a few years he was playing with many different local musicians.
Haley would go on to become known as one of the best fiddle players in all of Appalachia. He almost never recorded his music out of a fear that he, as a blind man, would be taken advantage of by the record companies. He was known for having an incredibly wide repertoire of old-time music, and performed this music in all sorts of places.
Haley died around the age of 65, due to a heart attack. He will be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in October 2015.
Bluegrass is something that is hard to pin down, but you certainly know it when you hear it. The distinctive sounds of banjo, mandolin, and guitar blend together in a unique way that certainly sounds like bluegrass.
But bluegrass is a broad term for a wide range of music. The genre of bluegrass is comprised of many unique styles of playing music that place equal value on both the roots and traditions of the genre as well as innovation within the genre. There aren’t many genres out there that give this reverence to both tradition and innovation. These seemingly contradictory values are what set bluegrass apart as a genre.
The lines drawn between bluegrass and other styles are getting increasingly blurred. While traditionalists will stick to the guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, and a whole bunch of vocalists, we see a number of bands in the modern days playing around with the definition of bluegrass. Whether they are playing modern style music on traditional bluegrass instruments (e.g. Mumford and Sons), or playing bluegrass style music with a drum set and electric guitars (e.g. The Avert Brothers), bluegrass influences are plainly seen in today’s popular music.
So finally, what is bluegrass exactly? I would say that bluegrass is simply the music of the Appalachians, containing a mix of experiences and influences from the backgrounds of the people living in the Appalachians.