Roots Watch: Frets and Threats

Barry Mazor | October 10th, 2011


Del McCoury Band with Dierks Bentley. Photo by Barry Mazor.


No, that’s not a suggested name for the next big music magazine; Frets & Threats could have some real breadth and staying power, but I figure the magazine market is too threatened for a launch right now.

I bring this up after a week at IBMA’s “World of Bluegrass,” 2011 edition, which was marked by music as provocative and comforting, enthusiastically homemade and immaculately professional as ever, in a genre that’s both remarkably inclusive and demandingly selective, and which had the push-and-pull of the traditional and the groundbreaking built-in at birth. It was also a week marked by a great deal of heavy public consternation about closely related traditional topics that now seem as Old As the Hills— “Will bluegrass survive, because things are, y’know, changing and all, and some folks keep wanting to muck with it? And “How big is this tent?”

Some of the fretting, (the variety that does not require strings), was reignited by Infamous Stringduster Chris Pandolfi’s pointed keynote address, which included the comment “We need to agree to disagree on the question of what is bluegrass.”  His suggestion, essentially, was that the evolving expanded use (some would say misuse) of the term itself—which is regularly applied to any sort of acoustic, somehow country or folk jam music by many with no particular grounding in the field—be accepted as useful by IBMA and bluegrassers generally, as an opportunity for expansion.  Whatever people think bluegrass is, just say yes. This being 2011, this was taken up in terms of branding, the variety that does not require cattle. There were even suggestions expressed here and there during the business conference part of the Week that a way not to fudge the term “bluegrass” might be renaming the association something like “The International Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Association.”  (I doubt that that’s being seriously entertained.)

Pandolfi’s much-lauded band has chosen to focus on venues, sometimes large ones, friendly to broad younger audiences who often want to dance to the music and drink beer as they do, and they’re basically inclined to keep calling the proficient, Infamous acoustic jamming music they do “bluegrass” in any case. There are those—often, but not always, older participants— within the bluegrass realm to whom the whole atmosphere suggested by the combination is repugnant, mainly on the grounds that this is supposed to be music for attentive listening. And there are plenty who feel the brand of music involved would inevitably dilute the genre, pushing traditional bluegrass aside. The tension was exhibited repeatedly in conference discussions such as “What Bluegrass Can Learn from Jam Bands,” and crowd-sourced sessions in which attendees could pick important topics for discussion.  (One turned out to be “How do we attract younger audiences?” and another “How do we keep older ones if the younger ones show up?”)

It is not surprising that any of us attracted to any variety of roots music, bluegrass very much included, worry that our genre of choice will survive and thrive—and that the “Original Undiluted Version” will continue to be around.  Depth accumulated over time is part of the attraction, and the attraction runs deep. It seems to me that the reason these questions are rising in bluegrass right now, though, is because of the added, and very general, added tension of being in harder times. It’s expensive for people (fans and bands alike) to go to conferences, to regional festivals, or pay for tickets—even in a genre which has been pretty good about keeping ticket prices humane most of the time, which bluegrass has. It’s pretty tough all over; the genre’s challenged along with much else, if not credibly threatened, and those who care, fret.

But there are good reasons not to.  That traditional/newfangled tension really is basic in bluegrass, and probably—to its credit and benefit– everlasting. In a conversation with Jerry Douglas not too long ago, I was reminiscing about bands that were standing outside of newgrass shows in the 1970s with handouts reading, “Don’t go in here; come to our real bluegrass show tonight at xxx…” To which the experienced Mr. Douglas replied, laughing, “Those guys are still there!”  At the International Bluegrass Music Awards this past week, host Sam Bush pointedly noted, in regards to the Bill Monroe 100th birthday celebrations, “By playing his music our way, we take it into the 21st Century.” Sam recalled a young songwriter who showed Monroe a song he’d labored over to make exactly like one the bluegrass founder would have written, and with success, to which Monroe replied “But what can you do on your own?”

The awards saluted such tradition-acknowledging artists as J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams, a band like Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper  (ponder the name!) and for Song of the Year,  “Trains I Missed” from Balsam Range. A train song, folks. Yes there are successful bluegrass bands with walking around microphones that sound like modern country, bands with drums and electric bass, bands that cross the lines into jamband land. But the traditional is also healthy.  Replication of 1946 is no more likely to be the Next Big Thing in bluegrass than medieval and harpsichord are likely to explode in classical (another field being impacted by audience change)—but there are plenty of people playing those and audiences still attending, with centuries gone by.  Bluegrass has held on where so many country sidecar genres have gotten locked in time and withered because it was built capable of evolution, and it’s evolved.  That’s a fundamental strength, not a weakness.  As Del McCoury, an artist repeatedly cited as a traditionalist who’s figured how to take that sound anywhere, noted as he was admitted to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame this past week, “The state of bluegrass is better than it’s ever been.”  Trust Del.


By the way:  An early warning of excellent incoming —namely a driving new band I caught at a Lower Broad bar during IBMA, Della Mae— a quintet of young women that includes National Fiddle Champion Kimber Ludiker, Courtney Hartman, a flatpicker out of the Berklee College of Music, and, the startling part, a lead singer-songwriter, Celia Woodsmith, who steps forward with a sexy, bluesy alto that leads the totality to surprising, very good places.  Imagine this as an accomplished all-female SteelDrivers, or a new equivalent of, say, Tracy Nelson with a hot string band and back-up harmonies.  I’m told that Della Mae will have a CD out on Rounder within weeks. Watch for it.

  1. Rick
    October 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Great article Barry, but your lack of any reference to airheads was a bit disappointing! (jk-lol)

    The main reason bluegrass music will continue to thrive in its many forms is its blessed lack of a direct link to any mainstream media corporate system. Mainstream, mass market genres like Top 40 Country live and die by widespread radio airplay and have become part of the pop culture realm. The TV broadcast of the Top 40 country awards shows is a perfect example of how mainstream contemporary country music has become. In such a system the mass market oriented media outlets become the gate keepers and taste makers that ultimately control the direction of the music they play, putting commercial concerns far ahead of artistic integrity. The fact Top 40 country radio grew weary of traditional forms of country music is why that genre is in the doldrums today seemingly on its way to commercial extinction, much as cowboy music and western swing before it. Mass market media cater to being hip and on the cutting edge, forever looking for the next big thing or newest trend and look askance at tradition as being fuddy duddy. Thank goodness bluegrass is not overshadowed by such malevolent influences!

    Just as all types of country and roots related music that is considered unsuitable for Top 40 country radio has been unceremoniously dumped into the Americana realm, such seems to be happening with acoustic music in the bluegrass realm to a lesser degree. If the IBMA doesn’t wish to include clearly non-bluegrass acoustic music under its umbrella, maybe they should start the IAMA to cover all of the peripheral acts currently considered fringe elements of the bluegrass genre. They could still include both in their annual joint festival but have separate awards shows and presentations to help keep the bluegrass genre more “pure” and undiluted while recognizing innovators with real talent in the IAMA area.

    It may well be that it isn’t a good idea to include too wide of variety of types of artists and music under the tent labelled “bluegrass”. The pop-rock dilution of what passes as mainstream country music today shows where that can lead. On the other hand that doesn’t mean there can’t be another tent right next door that covers most everything else in the acoustic realm that wants to be associated with bluegrass but isn’t.

    My biggest beef with the whole bluegrass movement is that we don’t get near enough of it in any form out here in Southern California! There needs to be a good festival within 60 miles of downtown LA, not way off in Victorville or up in Santa Barbara. Argh!

  2. Jon
    October 12, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Nice piece, but I will say that I think both Barry and Rick are wrong in one respect. Bluegrass has survived and even (intermittently) prospered because, for specific historical reasons – including a dynamic relationship with the “mainstream media corporate system” – a semi-self-sufficient industry was built around it, encompassing venues, broadcast outlets, publications, record labels, retail operations, etc.

  3. Barry Mazor
    October 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Well, that’s {also} absolutely right, Jon..and I’ve written and spoken about those bluegrass advantages, those structural reasons, before–in a couple of cases in answer to those who found the fats-changing technologies the next threat. I walked through the things you’re raising there as reasons the bluegrass community was very well positioned to thrive in this new tech world, too.. (Which I believe it can and will.)

    Obviously, I also think the things raised above (i.e.; this column’s topic) are also true. Genres that continue are both defined and elastic..and there will very likely be more experimental and more traditionalist aspects to them.

  4. Michael
    January 17, 2012 at 10:15 am

    hmmm if not for Bill Monroe’s innovation of the popular string band and country-folk of his day, there wouldn’t be bluegrass. and i heard when Monroe started it, it wasnt being welcomed by some hardcore purists

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