The Debate of Constant Sorrow

On Wednesday February 25, John Lawless (founder of Bluegrass Today) came to visit our Bluegrass class at Virginia Tech. After reading Chris Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto, I was able to link concepts between it and Mr. Lawless’ talk. Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto focuses on the transition from traditional to progressive Bluegrass and the acceptance of the newer artists by the older community. Mr. Lawless spoke on Wednesday about his views surrounding this debate, saying he doesn’t really care much about what is called Bluegrass and what isn’t. He quotes,

“If it has a banjo, fiddle and mandolin in it and I like it, then it’s Bluegrass.”

bluegrass today

Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, dives a little deeper into this issue in his Bluegrass Manifesto. He explains how, as the Infamous Stringdusters were getting started, they were faced with the question of what type of music they played.  This is an important question that he says every young band has to confront as they are getting started because “the ‘genre’ that [they] choose for [themselves] often sits atop the marketing plan” (Pandolfi). Initially for the Infamous Stringdusters, the answer to this question was Bluegrass.

infamous stringdusters

As the Infamous Stringdusters became more of an established group, they began to rethink their own marketing strategies. Pandolfi states, “The most obvious questions (how many shows a year? what types of venues?) led to more significant ones (what type of experience do we want to create? what types of people do we want to play for? what types of people are we?).” They even began to question whether they should label themselves as “Bluegrass” because the genre wasn’t taking them where they wanted to be. They dreamt of bigger shows, larger venues and more fans, but the traditional Bluegrass genre was hindering them from acquiring their goals since it is “synonymous with a tiny sliver of the music business, small-time bands and relatively modest shows/income… Bluegrass is pure musical integrity, heavy on history and culture, but light on business savvy/stature” (Pandolfi).

The group ultimately decided that, although they may lose some fans, the ones who really mattered were the ones who would change along with them. Pandolfi states that “’Bluegrass’ is whatever someone says it is. That’s all it takes, one person,” closely resembling Mr. Lawless’ views seen in his quote (above). Fans of traditional Bluegrass, however, would disagree—which is where the debate surrounding Bluegrass arises. According to Pandolfi and Mr. Lawless alike, the extreme debate about the definition of Bluegrass has “literally come to define the core traditional community… Stiff opinions breed an atmosphere of exclusivity, and often negativity” (Pandolfi).  Due to this dilemma, progressive Bluegrass bands and other genres swaying from the traditional “definition” are pushed to the side and not welcomed by the Bluegrass community.

Pandolfi states, however, that he is “not sure traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music… They have utmost respect for the quality of the music, and no misconceptions about where they stand. For the most part they are humble, appreciative, and probably willing to get involved… Acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound.”

ralph stanleymumford and sons

Chris Pandolfi concludes his Manifesto by talking about how there has to be a mutual respect between traditional and progressive Bluegrass if the genre is to continue to grow, stating that,

“It’s time to ease up on our opinions, open the doors, enjoy some new tunes and share the wealth.”

Personally, the class readings this week and the visit from John Lawless were extremely refreshing. It is nice to move into learning about the progressive stage of Bluegrass and how it could reach and become popular with young people in today’s society. I would love to have a lot of friends who enjoyed listening to Bluegrass with me, even if it wasn’t necessarily Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley (although it would be nice if they liked “Man of Constant Sorrow” as much as I do).



Personal (Class) Interview with John Lawless, Feb. 25, 2015

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