A Semester in Review

This past semester has flown by, thanks to the fun I’ve had in our Bluegrass class. I was initially hesitant about this class, that we would be discussing the technical side of music, note reading, and instrumentation. To my surprise, we covered instead bluegrass’s influential role in everything from modern rock and roll, to its political and social uses throughout time. We started out our class by asking a simple question: What is bluegrass? A question that has thousands of possible answers, and continues to cause arguments in every discussion circle that approaches it. We covered how traditional bluegrass grew from its folk roots, became a national genre, and has now branched off into dozens of sub-genres and cultures. It has spread across the globe, to places like Japan and Sweden, and has produced some of the most talented musicians of our life time, such as Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush and Tony Rice, to name only a few.

Getting to travel to Appalachian State University for the Fiddler’s Convention, and attending jam sessions, concerts and festivals has allowed me and my classmates to expand our ideas of what we consider bluegrass, or perhaps what others might consider it. Through our projects and blogs, I have learned so much about the music I’ve been growing up to, and am amazed at how diverse and dynamic it can be. For every band out there, there is a sub-genre or group they can be linked to, whether they like it or not. While this can seem like conflict within the community, it has allowed these younger artists to express themselves in the way they see fit. A recurring theme in the bluegrass/folk scene is the younger generation constantly pushing the envelope, often to the the disgruntlement of the older generation.

At the end of this class, I find that I have vastly expanded my idea of “what is bluegrass”? My personal definition for bluegrass has definitely changed, as has the way I approach new musicians and bands. The biggest thing I’ve taken away from our class is this; Preserving traditional music, instruments and ideas is perfectly fine, and should be important to us. However, change is a natural part of being human, and the best way for us to express this is through our music.

As an end note, here is one of my personal favorites, Mountain Dew as performed by Stringbean:

Gender in Bluegrass Culture

Bluegrass has been, and still is, a musical genre dominated by white males, usually between the ages of 18 and 40. Why is it that so many other genres today are full of female artists and groups, yet bluegrass has struggled to showcase their female talents? Up until the early 2000’s, very few female bluegrass players were well known, and only a fraction of them were lead performers or solo artists. This is due partially to the roots of the bluegrass performers. Many of the pioneering musicians were young men from rural areas, who traveled to festivals and shows as a means to earn money, often as a part time job when there was no harvest or help needed back home. This did not transfer to their female counterparts, who were expected to stay home, help raise children, watch the house, etc. The idea of women traveling far away from home to perform in bars and festivals was not accepted well in the traditional minded communities that listened to bluegrass. As bluegrass spread throughout the country, and as new artists began emerge, women began to make themselves known on the stage. However, they almost always appeared as part of a group, using the trope of being a “mother, sister, wife or daughter” to gain access to the stage. It wouldn’t be until artists like Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss appeared that women would be able to forge their own careers, and even today, it is still much more difficult for a solo female artist or group to be recognized than their male counterparts.

Genres and Artists in Appalachia

Bluegrass is often considered an Appalachian musical genre, and most people associate the tunes of the banjo, fiddle and other instruments to this region. However, bluegrass has roots from all parts of world, with the banjo originally from Africa, the dobro from Hawaii and a medley of musical influences from blues, jazz, folk and other genres. (Warning, Offensive Language)

Today, musical artists who identify as “Appalachian” are varied in their genres and styles. Rappalachia and Hick-Hop have begun to expand as a legitimate genre, with artists like the Jawga Boyz, Bubba Sparxx and Yelawolf. (Warning: Offensive Language)

Bluegrass Festivals

Today, Bluegrass and Folk Music Festivals are extremely popular scenes,  and draw both large audiences and important exposure for musicians. However, the idea of having a festival for bluegrass music was not always popular, and was in some places actively resisted. When Bluegrass was emerging onto the national stage, most bluegrass performances occurred at recording studios, performance houses, and local small gatherings. Bluegrass music was played mostly over the radio, at church or social gatherings, and occasionally in jams or practice when traveling musicians passed through. Bluegrass concerts in the 30’s and 40’s were the main source if interaction with the musicians for the audience, in family friendly environments.

It wouldn’t be until the 60’s and 70’s, and the help of the hippie/rural revival that bluegrass would enter the festival scene. With the revival of interest in folk and bluegrass music, younger audiences and musicians wanted to have their own opportunity to get their music to the audience. However, without a recording studio or an appointment for radio, this was extremely difficult. The first bluegrass festival at Fincastle, VA was little more than a stage and a field to camp, with musicians, bands and listeners appearing out of the woodwork. camp circles formed and impromptu jam sessions were carrying on at all hours.

As stated in Robert Gardner’s “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Life”, many listeners found their way to these festivals through friends, word of mouth, and exposure generated by other bands and genres, such as the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival. On the west coast, festivals were far more focused on the younger generation, with hippies and progressive musicians being the norm. “Traditional” bluegrass artists like Bill Monroe often were skeptic of these festivals, and usually only played organized, family friendly shows. At the end of the day, these festivals gave emerging artists and the genre as a whole important exposure on a national scale, that has allowed bluegrass to expand even over seas as an important cultural product of the U.S.


Relations between place and music

What type of music you listen to or the type you are exposed to often depends most on where you are. Different physical and cultural regions all have varying musical preferences, and can heavily influence those who grow up in these areas. Even within genres we have sub-genres, that can often have distinct differences and very picky fan-bases. Differences in playing styles, popular instruments and other factors can change vastly, even if its just one valley over.

In class this week one of the main topics we discussed was background and “authenticity”. Bluegrass is considered an Appalachian tradition, but some of its founding fathers weren’t even from the area. Bluegrass players from western Kentucky, or even upstate New York could be found touring throughout the Appalachians attending festivals and recording sessions. Visiting bands from as far away as Japan would appear at the bluegrass festivals, to share their own interpretation and love of the music. This brought many people to ask; do you have to be from a certain place to be considered “bluegrass”? What do you have to do to be considered an “authentic bluegrass musician”?

While it is true that certain music is associated with certain cultural or regional backgrounds, you shouldn’t be limited or judged for the music you play just because you are different. Songwriters and performers produce music that people can enjoy, it shouldn’t be limited by needing a seal of approval for being “100% authentic”. Besides, one persons idea of an authentic sound could be completely different from mine or yours. Instead of focusing on where the music is coming from, look at what is saying and what the musicians are trying to convey.

Politics in Bluegrass

One of our readings this week is a text titled simply “Music and Politics” by John Street. He describes how music, despite being considered one of the purest and powerful forms of free speech and expression, is constantly subjugated to censorship, political pressure, religious bashing and threats, and sometimes outright bans. Every genre of music has encountered these situations at one time or another; rock n’ roll, metal, hip hop and rap, all of these and more were and are constantly trying to be regulated and controlled. Street mentions how radio stations in Mogadishu had to halt music broadcasting due to the Islamic militia. Other incidents included bans on Swedish death metal in the U.S., and the Soviet Unions attempts to filter western music stars during the Cold War.

However, Bluegrass has had a different issue with censorship and politics in its songs and artists. Many people claim that bluegrass holds no political message, that it hasn’t been used for any political  or ethical message or platform. It certainly is true that mainstream or more well known bluegrass doesn’t include political issues, but the genre has been used to express distaste or anger over issues.

Bluegrass as a whole has actually made an attempt to separate itself from current issues, politics and conflicts. The factor that draws many people to the music is its sense of nostalgia, of better times, and how things used to be. The music is meant to be an escape from these issues that have become so invasive in our day and age. Bluegrass started out as a source of entertainment, to enjoy after a hard days work, or a friendly gathering on the weekend. Traditional bluegrass festivals were family oriented and designed specifically to offer a day or two of pure joy to the people who enjoy this music.

One of the points that is raised in Music and Politics, is a simple and powerful message that has proven itself countless times. The harder that a group or government tries to censor or block music, the bigger the resistance to them becomes, and the musical community often becomes stronger and more outspoken because of it. People are naturally inspired to express their beliefs and ideas, and no amount of regulation or redtape can stop them.

Discussion with John Lawless

This week in class we were lucky enough to meet with John Lawless, main editor and author for Bluegrass Today, one of bluegrass’s top websites for news and information. He has been writing and reporting on bluegrass for over ten years, as well as being a talented banjo player. He discussed several topics with us, including his start in bluegrass and folk music, how he came to be a writer and the origins of Bluegrass Today, and how people define “bluegrass”.

Bluegrass can be looked at as a very defined and rigid genre with strict guidelines for what makes it bluegrass, but it can also be viewed as a very experimental and progressive form of music as well. Defining what is and isn’t bluegrass is a heated topic that people from all places discuss, with a wide range of results. Some as Mr. Lawless mentioned, find that the banjo must be present, and must be played in the Scruggs style, to be considered bluegrass. Others hold that Bill Monroe was and is the only person to have played actual “bluegrass” music. On the other end of the spectrum, bluegrass could be considered anything that includes certain instruments such as the banjo or mandolin, or the type of vocals.

This issue of defining bluegrass was further explored in our readings, Thomas Adler’s “Festival People and Lore” and Chris Pandolfi’s “Bluegrass Manifesto”.  Both authors discussed the same topic and how different crowds approach the bluegrass genre. From family-oriented shows, to the introduction of the hippie and folk culture of the 60’s and 70’s. At the end of the day though, bluegrass is a genre that is continuously changing and evolving, just as blues, rock and jazz are constantly updating their sound. How one defines their idea of bluegrass is certainly defined by their personal tastes, but should also keep an open mind to current music trends.

Origin of the Five String Banjo

The 5-string banjo is considered one of bluegrass’s most important and historical instruments, and is one of the most easily recognized instruments in the world. The banjo itself can be traced back to Africa, where they were made using animal skins and gourds as the base. A  stick was used as the neck, with no frets or fingerboards, just acting as a holding element for the strings over the skin. Unfortunately, the banjo was spread around the world as a by-product of the slave trade. As African slaves were moved around the world, they brought their music with them, and it blended and evolved as they encountered new things. Exposure to European instruments like the lute and Spanish guitar led to a fretboard being added to the neck of the banjo in the Caribbean islands. The banjo later became a regular part of slave life on plantations and farms in the U.S., and drew the attention of white performers.

One of these performers was Joel Sweeney from Appomattox, Virginia. An early black-face performer, Sweeney was one of the first minstrels to use a banjo as a regular instrument on stage in recurring shows. He is also credited with creating the drum-like resonator seen on modern banjos. Another major addition to the banjo was the addition of the fifth string. The banjo’s fifth string is different in that it starts at the fifth fret and is tuned to a higher open pitch then the other four strings. This is a key part of the playing style of the banjo, relying on rolls and re-entrant tuning to create its distinctive sound.

After the popularity of bluegrass and old time music, the banjo continued to evolve in several different variations. The tenor banjo, which features a shorter neck and higher pitched tuning, allows a banjo player to simulate the sounds of a mandolin or fiddle. Large scale versions of the banjo were also created, such as the cello and bass banjos, even including a stand up bass banjo.

1930's Gibson bass banjo ad.jpg

Finally, the banjo has also advanced into the electronic instrument market, with electric banjos making their way into modern electric bands and alternative bluegrass music.

2nd & 3rd Generation Musicians: Tony Rice

One of the most influential bluegrass musicians of the 20th & 21st centuries, as well as one of the top guitarists of our time, Tony Rice has left an enormous impact on modern bluegrass music. As said by Alison Krauss, “There’s no way it can ever go back to what it was before him”. A member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Tony has influenced not only bluegrass, but folk, jazz, and helped pave the way for progressive and modern bluegrass musicians.

Born June 8th, 1951, Tony and his family soon left his infant home of Danville, Virginia to live in Los Angeles, California. There, Tony and his brother Wyatt learned how to play bluegrass and country music from their father, Herb. They would polish their skills listening and mimicking the local musicians of L.A. such as Clarence White, Ry Cooder and Chris Hillman. In the early 1970’s, Tony had moved to Louisville, Kentucky and played with several musicians until joining J.D. Crowe’s The New South. With the later addition of Ricky Skaggs, The New South became one of the most popular bands in the bluegrass/country circuit.

In the late 70’s, Tony met up with David Grisman and formed the David Grisman Quintet, who are considered one of the greatest acoustic string bands to have ever performed. Starting in the 80’s, Rice moved on to form the Bluegrass Album Band, which included his old bandmate J.D. Crowe, as well as Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Todd Phillips. He played with them as well as doing solo work and recording with David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, all the way through the 80’s, until the early 90’s when he developed a condition in his vocal chords, making it extremely difficult to sing. Since then, Tony has struggled with his failing vocal chords, arthritis, and a life of touring on the road. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013, and has won the I.B.M.A’s Guitarist of the Year Award six times, despite a dwindling album number and having had to cancel the majority of his performances due to health issues.

One of Tony’s most important aspects is his instrument, a 1935 D-28 Martin guitar, the instrument of his former bandmate and friend Clarence White. The deep, rich sound Tony has been able to produce with this instrument has led many to call it the “Holy Grail of Guitars”.