After reading Robert Owen Gardner’s The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life I have learned a lot about how Bluegrass festivals display a sense of community formed of an unlikely mix. In his article, Gardner discussed the meaning of community and how that is reflected in the Bluegrass festival scene. Community is a very vague term. For some, community is a neighborhood or the small town they live in. For others, community is a group bonded by a similar characteristic or interest. Gardner showed a bias towards the idea of Gemeinshaft relations. Gemeinshaft is a German term meaning a “communal grouping of individuals defined in opposition to self-serving individualism”. I think this term is appropriate when discussing Bluegrass festivals, or even music festivals in general. If you’ve ever been to a Bluegrass music festival, you know that there is a diverse variety of people ranging from the “long-haired hippie” type to a more conservative-looking people.
Bluegrass music festivals are composed of many different types of people; all kinds of kinds! This is a great representation of Gardner’s “portable community” idea. These festivals create a space for people to embrace their individualism while also connecting with others who share their love for this music. Although not geographically rooted, this community can call itself such because it is a network revolving around a culture of bluegrass. Festivals present an opportunity for this unconventional community to come together, united through a love for music and culture.
^Above is a website listing some of the many upcoming bluegrass music festivals
Robert Owen Gardner’s “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life”
Bluegrass and the Appalachian region have always had a strong connection to one another, however the question raised when discussing the two is this: Are bluegrass music and Appalachia synonymous? It is widely concluded that bluegrass music began with Bill Monroe who was born in Rosine, Kentucky. But wait! Rosine, Kentucky isn’t Appalachia! This might be true, however, it is in my opinion that while there is a lot of bluegrass music played and rooted in the Appalachian region, the music is not linked to the region necessarily by being solely played there. I think that what connects bluegrass music to Appalachia is not only the physical region, but the concepts and identity as well.
Just like in other genres of music, many people can connect to a certain song or genre. For example, someone who listens to country music songs about farming, trucks, fishing and hunting, and beer may not directly relate to these subjects, however they can relate to the emotion that is emitted from the music. The same goes for bluegrass music. While much of this type of music is written about coal mines, lost love, mountains, family/community, and other subjects pertaining to Appalachia, there are musicians and listeners across the country who relate to this genre; even across the world! There are bluegrass music festivals all over in places such as California and bluegrass styles appreciated all the way in China; for example, Abigail Washburn.
this video is of Abigail Washburn, showing how bluegrass music style can be appreciated all over the world.
Although bluegrass music is made and appreciated all over the world, its strongest ties reside in the Appalachian community. I think this is because of the importance of identity. Bluegrass music strongly identifies with the scene of Appalachia; the people, the lifestyle, etc. The music creates an identity of a culture that is associated with the Appalachian region.
When discussing bluegrass music, many of us immediately hear the twangy pickin’ of the banjo, the beautiful siren like sounds of a mandolin, strummin’ and pickin’ of the guitar, a fiddle, and the high lonesome sound of the musicians. However, we don’t often take into consideration all of the hard work that goes into the music on the business side of the spectrum. This goes for all music in general when I say, it would not be possible for music to preserve a place in an industry without a foundation of smart, decision-making, business men and women who work in many different fields of the music business industry to make it possible for music to be heard and enjoyed all around the world. For example, in chapter 51 of Thomas Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader, he mentions the bluegrass trade show put together by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). This event was ideal for the professional musicians of bluegrass music and also for fans to not only watch their favorite bands perform, but also get a chance to perform themselves with the FanFest concerts. This trade show/concert series embodied both the musical aspect of bluegrass and the business-oriented side of bluegrass. The business-oriented portion of the event came into play with the many seminars they held that discussed very important behind-the-scenes aspects of music.
In order for music to become “legitimate” or made professional, a musician or band needs to have certain things. For one thing, the musicians need music to present to a record label who will then decide if they think signing them/giving them a contract would be a profitable decision for the label. There are many factors that play into to this process such as considering whether or not the music will sell, if the artist(s) are a good fit to the brand of the label, and so on. If the label decides to sign the musician(s) then a contract must be built to establish the rights of the artist and the record label company. This stage involves lawyers and other business officials to decide how to get the most profit while still being fair to their artist. The artist(s) can negotiate their contract and once that is settled, they start to build up a name for themselves in the community they are looking to reach. Marketing plays a huge role in popularizing music. The marketing team of a record label company must figure out which audience they want to speak to and promote the musician(s) in a specific way that speaks to that audience. For example, some bands might want to attract a younger generation and therefore may change their sound slightly depending on what the audience wants to hear. This is not true for all bands of course, some have no interest in changing their music to appeal to certain audiences but rather let those who enjoy their music come to them. This brings me to another good point made by Ben Ratliff in chapter 53 of The Bluegrass Reader.
In chapter 53 of The Bluegrass Reader, Ratliff focuses on the idea that music should be heard as music and not as a person with an instrument. I somewhat agree with this statement. I think it’s safe to say that some music becomes great because the artist puts his or her identity into the music whereas other music stands out because the musicians create a fully integrated sound that makes it difficult to pick out one player from the other.
In conclusion, it is important to appreciate all of the hard work that goes behind the music making it possible for us to hear it on the radio, a live venue, or through other technology. Without the business-oriented side of the music industry there would most likely be no industry at all.