This past week, my class was given an amazing opportunity to sit down and talk with John Lawless, Co-founder and chief editor of Bluegrass Today. Not only that, but we got to hear him play us a tune on his banjo.
It really meant a lot to me personally to have someone as busy as he is to come and have a real conversation with us. It was nice to listen to someone who grew up in my own neck of the woods Norfolk, VA. What was so nice is that he and I share more than roots, but also views on bluegrass as a whole.
There was a point in the class when he said that as long as a band has a banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and a guitar, it is bluegrass music so long as he likes it… Now that point in and of its self makes a world of difference that never really occurred as a thought to me until he mentioned it.
If you do not like the sound, chances are you won’t like the band. True enough right? but how about if you do not like the context in which you listen to the music (say at a bad time in your day or the such)? No matter how good the band, chances are you won’t like the song or the band for that matter.
Now, this concept had me wondering if this could be a huge hindrance to the genre as a whole. When I say this, I mean the debates over what is bluegrass and what is not… This is something that can make or break a band, and more often than not it comes from people not jiving with the sound. Maybe it’s too far and gone from Bill Monroe’s style or maybe they use electric instruments. Whatever may be the case, it is a clear issue for many.
Something Mr. Lawless said really stuck out and surprised me, was along the lines of he really wished there was less to this issue and that people would either like the music or not like the music, but not fight over what is real or not. I can not really say that I oppose that stance either. The fact that this genre was self grown and self promoted should open up the idea, that if someone wants to add onto the gift of Mr. Monroe, then let that be their contribution to bluegrass. I mean, if they did not share an interest in the music that everyone else shares, then they probably would not try to call themselves a bluegrass band at all.
Does the instrumentation matter enough to call a band not real bluegrass, or does their message mean something a bit more? Is it the sound of a single mandolin or a banjo, or is it the sound of everyone coming together without any rests in the beat that keeps people slapping their hands in unison? At the end of the day, I personally agree in line with what Mr. Lawless said at the beginning of his visit. If it has the right kind of sound and I like it, and it makes me say, “that’s bluegrass,” then that is bluegrass to me. At the end of the day that’s all that matters, and that’s what will always keep the genre going past the old hollars and hills where it started.