Bluegrass Festivals: All Kinds of Kinds

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”

Are Bluegrass and Appalachia Synonymous?

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.

Accepting A New Generation

In recent years there has been an immense amount of controversy among the bluegrass music fan-base debating one thing: What is bluegrass? With an increasingly large number of bluegrass and “newgrass” bands and artists rising up, the sound of this genre has been changing. Many bluegrass fans from an earlier generation are dismissing the music coming from newer bands. This may be because they grew up with a certain sounding bluegrass genre with a Scruggs style banjo and high lonesome mountain vocals. It’s perfectly understandable why people who grew up with bluegrass being surrounded by Bill Monroe and a strict set of stylistic rules; it’s nostalgic! This music they grew up with is supposed to sound a certain way, but, come on! I think it’s time people open their minds to these 3rd and 4th generation bluegrass artists.

Bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show, The Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, The Avett Brothers, and countless other new generation musicians have received criticisms from fans who say they are not “real” bluegrass musicians and that they are destroying the genre that they hold so sacred.

Now, I’m no bluegrass expert, but I believe that there is a lot of room for interpretation in bluegrass music. Of course, bluegrass music will always revolve around the original artists such as Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, etc., however I think it is important to allow newer artists to push the envelope and test the boundaries of the genre.

These newer generation bluegrass or “newgrass” bands aren’t limiting themselves by the sounds originating from their predecessors. They are exploring their genre and taking the structure of bluegrass music to new levels by incorporating different instruments, unconventional lyrics, and different styles of playing. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that these new bluegrass artists should be held in the same category as original bluegrass musicians, however, I think that they should be accepted in the bluegrass community. I strongly believe that when older generations reject these new artists they are hindering the growth of the bluegrass community and eventually the genre will dwindle.

Bluegrass should be a community that accepts both new and old generation artists. It is important for not only new artists, while exploring new style, to stay true to their roots, but also for older generation fans to keep an open mind when forming opinions on the direction of bluegrass music today.

Doyle Lawson Biography

Tennessee native, Doyle Lawson, was born on April 20th in 1944 to parents: Leonard and Minnie Lawson. He grew up in a place called Ford Town with his two brothers and sister listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio. This radio show allowed him to become exposed to a major influence in his life: Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. “[Monroe’s] music was different, more intense. High lonesome is the term we used for it. I could hardly wait for Saturday nights to arrive so I could listen. I decided early on that I wanted to play that kind of music.” Said Lawson. The Lawson family sang gospel music together which inspired Doyle’s interest in singing in groups. This is shown by the fact that he has a band backing him up throughout his performances. His group is called “Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver”.

Doyle Lawson first learned to play the mandolin, by listening to others play via radio shows and records, however he soon realized that he could increase his musical diversity by learning to play other instruments. This would help him become a more flexible and interesting artist in the bluegrass community. He learned to play the guitar and the banjo on top of his already impressive mandolin skills and singing abilities.

In 1963, Lawson got his first legitimate gig as a banjo and guitar player with Jimmy Martin. He also worked with other artists including JD Crowe and the Country Gentleman band in 1971. Lawson gained a lot of band experience (over 10 years’ worth!) by 1979. It was around this time that Doyle Lawson decided he needed to break away from these bands that had already procured their style and sound in order to create his own. He then formed a band by the name of “Doyle Lawson and Foxfire” which had to be changed to “Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver” after realizing the foxfire name had been taken.

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have taken traditional bluegrass music and combined it with gospel music into a quartet-like sound to create an original sounding band in the bluegrass community. The band also incorporates traditional bluegrass instruments with the sound of an electric bass which separates them from most of the other bands associated with this genre.

Although Gospel music and religious lyrics are a big part of Doyle Lawson’s musical style, the band released several secular records before releasing a gospel album, Heavenly Treasures. He then continued to incorporate the gospel lyrics with a bluegrass sound throughout his career, even including an acapella gospel album.

The above video is a music video created by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver called “Country Store”.

Radio Influence and Hillbilly Music

In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, I learned many things about how the music industry played a big role in bringing “hillbilly music” to life in the early 20th century. Cantwell begins by introducing Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, and reviewing his start as a boy in rural Kentucky who travelled to Whiting in order to make a better living. Monroe is known as a traditional bluegrass artist. Most would agree that it doesn’t get any more bluegrass than Monroe, who was influenced by music he heard growing up around a musical family in Kentucky. This reading narrated his journey into fame in which the radio played a major role. If it weren’t for a WLS radio station agent approaching the Monroe brothers during a show, Bill, Birch, and Charlie would have probably been playing at local scenes for their entire career. It was the power of the radio that exposed the talent of these musicians to the world.

Cantwell notes that “radio…made excellent advertising, and they used it to attract audiences to their personal appearances.”. This shows how the radio was important in not only exposing great music to those who would not be able to hear it otherwise, but also advertising live performances that would allow listeners to see their favorite musicians in person. The radio also allowed musicians to influence listeners with their lyrics socially, politically, and in many other ways. It had the “power to transmit its message over geographical and cultural boundaries.”.

It is possible that without radio, this so called “hillbilly music” may have never been heard by anyone outside of the Appalachian region. Author and historian, Bill C. Malone, suggested that the beginning of “hillbilly music” on the radio could be credited to WBAP’s square dance program in 1923. As radio shows such as this and others such as the Grand Ole Opry became increasingly popular, more attention was brought to bluegrass and “hillbilly music”. These musicians were also provided with the opportunity to hear other music, especially Jazz, which became an influence for bluegrass artists such as Bill Monroe. With the rise in New Orleans Jazz, the bluesy sounds were emanated throughout bluegrass.

One thing that really stood out to me while reading Robert Cantwell’s chapter was the idea of bluegrass being traditional Appalachian music. This had me questioning whether or not “traditional’ music loses its validity when it is exploited commercially. So, I have composed two questions regarding this:

1) Traditional Appalachian music is thought to be music passed down through generations from family and friends. Is it possible to commercialize true traditional Appalachian music? Or does commercializing this traditional sound contradict its identity?

2) Many bluegrass fanatics and musicians have a strong opinion on the definition of bluegrass music. Does changing one aspect of traditional bluegrass music to incorporate a musician’s personal style change the genre of that song?

Who is Buell Kazee?

     In the 1920s, folk music had made its introduction and was on the rise in the Appalachian region of the United States. Buell Kazee, being born in Burton Fork, Kentucky in 1900 was bound to become apart of this scene as a result of the strong presence of music in this region. He grew up with not only the musical influence of his town and family, but also his church. Buell began pickin’ the banjo at the age of five in his church and later went on to study English, Greek, and Latin.

     Buell was taught traditional folk music, which he later looked to contemporize while still maintaining the history and importance that tradition plays in this music. He was asked to record songs for Brunswick in 1927 in New York. His “high lonesome” mountain sound appealed to the new infatuation many had with bluegrass/folk music.

     A major influence in his music was religion. As a teenager, Buell prepared for the clergy. In songs such as My Christian Friends, Bread of Heaven, and Eternity, there is a strong presence of Christian influence that shaped his identity as both a musician and minister. He put his music aside in the 1930s to focus on his ministry in Kentucky.

     As folk music once again began to boom in the late 1960s, Buell returned to the music scene with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. He continued singing, playing, and preaching until his death in 1976.

Defining Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass music can be defined in a couple of ways, including technical dictionary definitions along with the opinionated perspectives of many individuals who consider themselves lovers of the genre. Most dictionaries will define bluegrass music as a traditional American style of music played with string instruments. It’s easy to argue that this is true considering many bluegrass artists compose their bands of musicians equipped with banjos, fiddles, mandolins, guitars, Dobros, and other stringed, acoustic instruments. However, to many people, bluegrass is so much more than this technical aspect of the genre. It is a way of life! It’s the twang infused sound of a Sunday morning and the rowdy upbeats of a barn dance on a Saturday night. Bluegrass music ties together stories of family, community, religion, emotion, and home.

According to the film: High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, this genre is most likely to be heard throughout the Appalachian region in places such as North Carolina , Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia. It was said to have been brought about by Scotch-Irish settlers in the early 1800s and with the introduction of the banjo from Africa in the 1870s. Bluegrass music has a strong influence of place and the idea of home. Many bluegrass artists came from small rural Appalachian areas that have influenced the style in which they sing. For example, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, was born in Rosine, Kentucky. This probably was a major influence for songs such as Rocky Road Blues, Kentucky Waltz, and many others.

While for some, bluegrass music is about sticking with the traditional old-time sound that has been passed down through generations, there are many who accept newer more modern versions of this type of music. In my personal opinion, it is unfair to associate bluegrass music to only tunes from the early bluegrass day. Like all music, it grows and develops due to outside influences. New technology and opportunity allows for this music to get more exposure and be exposed to influence. I believe there is no clear-cut definition of bluegrass music but rather that it has a foundation of style that can be open to interpretation for those who listen and play bluegrass music.