In class today, John Lawless (co-founder of Bluegrass Today) talked a lot about a divide in bluegrass music. This divide typically looks like argument over what is and what is not true bluegrass. Is it a traditional style after the genre’s founding fathers? Or is it a progressive sound that continues to evolve?
Lawless posed a more important question: does it matter?
To be frank, I don’t think it matters at all. As much as I enjoy listening to bluegrass, defining the genre to certain standards alienates new artists, sounds, and audience. If someone hates on a band I like, I probably won’t want to listen to their opinion on much. That’s not what the music is about. If someone likes playing, and someone else likes listening to their sound, then it’s good music. Plain and simple. And if it’s good music, then it can be better–it can change.
That’s what I’ve seen throughout the music we’ve been studying. People liked Bill Monroe’s sound, they liked Flatt and Scruggs, they liked Country Gentlemen, and they wanted to sound like them. But you can’t play exactly like someone else and expect to make it big. That sound would get really old, really fast.
Basic bluegrass is a foundation. It has survived because people attracted to that classic style heard different ways to change it. Once they get tired of changing it they can go back to the basic sound–it’s a cycle. The argument over what is and isn’t bluegrass resurfaces at the cycle’s peak, when interest in the music expands so rapidly that the sound could permanently change.
It’s important to remember that the same argument exists in any genre. And it doesn’t matter there either. I mean, if it did matter then Taylor Swift would be hiding out somewhere instead of making a killing off her music. So would Iggy Azalea. To be honest I have no idea what their sounds are considered now. But whatever it is, it’s working. They’ve got the success that those dedicated to music want.
To kind of get back to bluegrass, here’s some stuff I like but isn’t “truegrass.” And it really isn’t bluegrass at all. I can see some similarities. But worrying about what kind of music it is takes the fun out of listening to it.
This is Tall Tall Trees. He’s pretty innovative (or weird), if you can’t tell. His name might come from the Alan Jackson/Roger Miller/George Jones song–that’s just my guess. He works with violinist Kishi Bashi some.
This is The Last Bison, from Chesapeake, Virginia. Their sound is more folk but the basic elements of bluegrass are there. They’ve changed a lot by adding electric instruments, but it’s a good change–they’re more popular than ever.
This is Shakey. It would be a stretch to call him bluegrass. I just really like his music, he’s my favorite. He’s a good example of a sound that goes across genres. It would probably take a lot longer to define his music than it would to just listen to it, which is what I’ll be doing the rest of the night.