Appalachian Music

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.

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