Sunday, December 31, 2006

Brain Science and Bluegrass

On December 7th Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, an extremely wide ranging radio discussion originated at WGBH public radio in Boston, invited Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession to discuss his book. (You can listen to the complete discussion or download it to your iPod at: Why are this book and the later discussion important to bluegrass fans?

Levitin suggests at one point that people form a life-long attachment to a particular music at about age thirteen. This age is associated with all the hormone rages that accompany human movement into adolescence. It also means that guitar players get all the girls. This number suggests to me that a great number of today’s current bluegrass fans who are deeply devoted to traditional bluegrass are in the age range from 73 – 50. This suggests that the main fan base for bluegrass music is, at best, aging and, at worst, dying. People who were around age 13 during the emergence and popularity of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, and other first generation pioneers are the fans who support the music most strongly at festivals, concerts, local bluegrass societies, and jams. Their demographic suggests they won’t be able to continue to support this music forever. The next generation will want to hear and play a different kind of music, a music that more nearly reflects music permeating their environment.

If bluegrass music is to stay alive and vital, it is essential that fans give up their tendency to label elements of bluegrass as either “is” or “ain’t.” This destructive willingness to dismiss newer elements in the music as not belonging can only harm the long-term viability of the music. We certainly don’t want bluegrass to end up as a dusty memory in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. It is therefore necessary for those of us who prefer the more progressive forms of bluegrass to show appropriate respect to the first generation players. Equally important is that the traditionalists make room in their minds and hearts for the places where newer and younger players are taking the music. After all, isn’t that what Bill Monroe did when he synthesized all those musical forms into bluegrass?