(Sam Winter, Paul Wotring, Chris Youngs, Molly Hilt, and our fearless leader, Jordan Laney)
This weekend, four students from our class had the privilege of presenting our research at the Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture Undergraduate Research Day! With food, speakers, and excellent presentations all around (check out the lineup below), the event was a great opportunity to share our work and get feedback on our research from the community.
(Wow, I feel so official!)
After the keynote and a brief break, Ms. Laney introduced us and we were off! Four quick presentations (Chris, Paul, and Molly knocked it out of the park!) followed by a Q&A session that covered everything from authenticity and bluegrass in other languages to geographically rooted music and the desire to claim ownership of a sound.
Below is my presentation (A.K.A. a brief overview of the reason I haven’t posted anything on this blog for several weeks). Enjoy, and look out for the first few sections of my Annotated Mix-tape in the following days!
Thanks, Chris. Hello, I’m Sam, and thank you all for coming out here today.
Traditionally speaking, to become a bluegrass musician, you need inspiration and influences. A big part of bluegrass culture is this idea of roots and the acknowledgement of one’s musical lineage. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had Arnold Shultz and, of course, his Uncle Pen in the dance hall circuit of rural Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, pioneer of the now standard Scruggs-style banjo technique, had Bill Monroe, and the music-loving community of Flint-Hill where he grew up. So sure, you need musicians and mentors to emulate and learn from, but there also has to be a surrounding culture that exists to nurture and support musicians as they grow into their musical maturity. To make it big as a musician, there has to be an audience, and when you are starting off, that audience often takes the form of your hometown.
(The bold text represents slide transitions. I’ll include some pictures and captions here. This one is the only known photo of Arnold Shultz, Bill Monroe’s mentor and friend.)
So when I started looking into a path of research within bluegrass music, I immediately went back to my own roots, back to my hometown, which, fortunately for me, has an incredibly rich and diverse bluegrass history. I’m speaking, of course, of Southern California. More specifically, San Diego County.
(I was going for the shock value here. “Just LOOK how far away San Diego is from Kentucky!”)
Yep, San Diego. With it’s white beaches and surfer culture, its yoga studios and urban sprawl, it’s about as far away from the rural hills of Appalachia, the locale most commonly associated with bluegrass music, as you can get.
(My hometown: Encinitas, CA. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)
What’s great about the studies conducted in the department of religion and culture, is that they encourage the mapping of commonly held conceptions and stereotypes before turning right around and tearing them down to get a little closer to the real story. Here, in the first bluegrass class to run in the history of Virginia Tech, we do this sort of thing everyday. So far, I’ve learned that bluegrass music started outside the boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains, that it has more in common with contemporary jazz than it does with contemporary country, and that the “High Lonesome Sound,” the primeval music of the Scotch-Irish settlers, is in fact younger than Mick Jagger.
(Roy Acuff, Grand Ole Opry, 1939. Bluegrass was commercial from the start.)
(I may have made some enemies with this Florida Georgia Line jab, but it was worth it ! >:D )
So what does San Diego have to offer in terms of bluegrass? Well for starters, it’s had a thriving bluegrass community since the late 1950’s (right around the time people started using the word bluegrass to describe the sound), and been home to a broad range of country and folk venues as well as festivals. It has not one, but two bluegrass associations in the county, and has giving rise to the likes of bluegrass legend and pioneer of the country rock genre Chris Hillman, and more recently, the members of the Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek. The fact that so many bluegrass artists have come out of San Diego and the surrounding areas is testament that such a culture exists.
(Chris Hillman and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, San Diego, CA)
This semester, I’ve researched this culture to put together an annotated mixtape that explores the key components that made a bluegrass scene possible. Briefly (because you’ll soon be able to read and listen to the whole mixtape on my section of the class blog), those components involve a steady stream of immigrants (Okies, Navy families, college students, etc), the existence of public musical spaces, and the success of local musicians.
(The Encinitas Ranch Hands, 1930. Photo Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)
So what do you gain when you look for bluegrass, and find it, in a place you’d least expect? Well when you start looking at a place, when you really start digging, it’s amazing what begins to emerge. What you find is a more complicated and nuanced picture of what that place really is. I found such a picture coming here to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, through this class, through Appalachian Studies, and through my own experiences in the region. Out west, I found a story of displaced people that all wound up in California for one reason or another. It’s story of people connecting over a music that brings them closer to home, dipping into feelings of longing and nostalgia, loss and loneliness. I found stories of underground scenes and hole-in-the-wall venues that played host to a wealth of local artists and even the likes of Bill Monroe himself. Talented musicians and festival organizers, basement newsletter publicists, record store owners and folk record collectors. All these people, and more, working to build a community around a music that somehow manages to find an audience no matter where it travels.
(NCBFC Today’s Pizza Jam, Encinitas, California)
I would like to leave you all with a quote by San Diego Troubadour columnist, Dwight Worden:
“If bluegrass grows on your heart, then this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego.”