This week, I was confronted with a pretty simple question.
“Is this bluegrass?”
John Lawless, editor of the popular site Bluegrass Today, asked us this question, before admitting to registering it as a domain name for a future humor site poking fun at the question and the people who spend their time online asking it.
“If Flatt and Scruggs are up there on the stage playing, and Earl breaks a string, is it still bluegrass?”
Jokes aside, the question of a standard bluegrass definition is one I have been asking myself since day one. There are the undeniably classic bluegrass artists, the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but what about The Country Gentleman, members of the prestigious Bluegrass Hall of fame, who pushed the boundaries of the bluegrass repertoire since at least 1963? If they’re out, there is no hope for the Avett Brothers.
Some judge by instrumentation, vocal range, lyrical content, and even geographic origins. Others will argue the historical angle, claiming even Monroe wasn’t playing bluegrass until Earl Scruggs and his iconic style appeared on the scene in 1945. We all know how Monroe felt about that…
While we’ve talked about the usefulness of definitions before , I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated by the constant attempts to unify the sound. Online, heated debate runs rampant. Surely no other musical community has faced such a crisis!
(Note to self: A link between the early online bluegrass community and the modern flame war? Potential Thesis?)
The point I want to make here is that for some this does matter. A lot.
As mentioned before, the power to define is the power to decide who’s in and who’s out of the club. The desire for acceptance is part of human nature, and the approval of the older generation can make or break a musician’s career. But for up and coming musicians, bluegrass might not be the most profitable club to join.
“If they’ve never heard you, do you want them to think you are a bluegrass band?”
In Chris Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto, he explains why the Infamous Stringdusters made the choice to distance themselves from the bluegrass label.
“Not if you want to portray the image of a rising act capable of playing huge rooms to huge crowds, because right now that’s just not what bluegrass is, not what it wants to be.”
He’s got a point.
Bluegrass has traditionally found itself more at home in smaller venues, perhaps owing to it’s roots in the living rooms of people across the country via radio. And while it is totally valid to point out the first bluegrass band was a tightly run, commercial machine right from the start, the modern scene hasn’t exactly been quick to embrace that.
Perhaps the folk movement’s role in bluegrass resurgence has something to do with that. Is the modern bluegrass scene the result of the “long hairs” hijacking the music of the “short hairs” in the 60’s and 70’s?
(Drive out to Floyd county in July for a visit to Floydfest to see what I mean.)
Pandolfi reminds us of this odd imbalance in his piece:
“Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound. But the bluegrass world is tough, and there’s just no solid mutual respect. Unfortunately, bluegrass needs these bands… way more than they need bluegrass.”
Which is exactly why this debate matters for the genre. It’s an ideological war to define the past for control of the future of bluegrass.
If the community decides to accept the likes of the genre-bending Punch Brothers or (heaven forbid) Railroad Earth with their flashy lights and area-rock stages, will it spell the end of the genre as we know it? Or, like Pandolfi suggests, will it usher in a new era of bluegrass where
“This amazing, deeply historical music could really get its due, and we would all have something to celebrate together.”
I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure.