Bluegrass Today and John Lawless

This past Wednesday our Bluegrass Class had the chance to listen to Bluegrass Today author and editor John Lawless. He shared his stories and insights from his time working with the Bluegrass Blog, which would eventually become Bluegrass Today. One of the biggest questions that always seems to come up from discussions like this is “is it Bluegrass?”. John offered a very interesting take on this question. He pointed out that “Anyone who has come up through the roots of bluegrass” such as Mumford and Sons, could be considered part of the genre. He offered a more personal view that “If it has a banjo, fiddle, and a mandolin in it and I like, then it’s Bluegrass.” I enjoyed this simplistic idea of the Bluegrass genre and it was refreshing to see a very open mindset. John mentioned that he has been battling this question of “is it Bluegrass?” for quite some time. In fact, he jokingly mentioned that had registered the domain name just in case he ever needed it in the future. Many of the most famous musicians who had their beginnings in Bluegrass are often not viewed as part of the genre anymore. John mentioned that the general perception in Bluegrass is that “anybody that makes a lot of money in Bluegrass usually isn’t Bluegrass anymore.”

Another thing that John brought up that really resonated with me was his thoughts on live performances. More recently, music festivals that feature Bluegrass performances and other roots style artists have become increasingly popular. This is where a lot of the increasing popularity in the genre has stemmed from in my opinion. John shared with us that “Most people fall in love with a certain type of music when they see it live”. The way I see it, Bluegrass has a certain magic about it when performed live. It tells a story that other genres can never come close to.



3 comments for “Bluegrass Today and John Lawless

  1. jllaney
    March 2, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    “Many of the most famous musicians who had their beginnings in Bluegrass are often not viewed as part of the genre anymore. John mentioned that the general perception in Bluegrass is that “anybody that makes a lot of money in Bluegrass usually isn’t Bluegrass anymore.”

    This is a very important point that I am glad you picked up on. What is the relationship between labor and entertainment? What is to be said for the proverbial starving artist? Is bluegrass still seen as a way to make a living? These are all important questions I am excited to explore with you all.

  2. ecropp
    April 4, 2015 at 3:56 am

    Every once in a while I seem to have some difficulty with posting. I’ve tried to make a new post several times but cannot find a “publish” button…only “preview” and “submit for review.” I have no idea why it’s like this now. I just wanted to make sure I got my blog post on here somewhere though…

    Genre-specific Identities in Music

    Our class discussion about the appropriation of cultures or musical genres raises many interesting considerations. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the points and questions raised only encompass identity based on lyrical content and artist behaviors. I feel that addressing the topic by considering that these sub-genres are products of interwoven styles, based on sound and arrangement, may lead to a different opinion of identity.

    Many of us fall victim to a narrow mindset regarding artist identity, which simply recalls upon the familiar. Why do we not contest a white man playing the banjo, which originated in Africa, but find the relationship between black performers and “Bluegrass” instruments puzzling?

    Through my reading of various articles related to the inter-relationships between music, identity, and genres, I have encountered ideas that speak to a troublesome approach that we often take in categorizing music and judging performers. A major problem rests in the fact that we, too often, categorize and identify artists regardless of the “type,” “style,” or “genre” of music that they play. We identity performers based on race, ethnicity, geographic background, economic status, and more. The result is numerous generalizations and limitations. Rather than identifying these individuals based on the music that they perform, we anticipate a certain product based on our preconceived notions about what they “should” associate with and produce. This idea is conveyed in the following quote:

    “All these acts of labelling suggest the process of standing outside a group and looking in to see what sort of music is to be found. Suppose the group is really the product of its musical activities and the cultural values bound to them? What if excessive concern with the musical text deflects one from seeing the formation of diverse groups and music histories.”

    These words bring to mind the many sub-genres that we discussed in class. When we limit artists to genres based on their human traits, we subsequently confine people to certain possibilities and dictate what performers should and should not do.

    Attributed to the idea that identity is “a process not a thing, a becoming not a being,” the author argues that “what makes [music] special for identity…is that it defines a space without boundaries (a game without frontiers). Music is thus the cultural form best able both to cross borders-sounds carry across fences and walls and oceans, across classes, races and nations-and to define places…we are only where the music takes us.” When we look at genres as non-race, culture, etc.-specific, then we will no longer reduce artists to stagnant identities that cannot be altered.


    • jllaney
      April 4, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Thanks, Ellen! And hurrah! for digging into Firth! This is wonderful and I hope you continue to address instrumentation and style in discussions of identity.

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