Thursday, December 28, 2006

Drums in Bluegrass

A few days ago I posted the following at Banjo Hangout ( “This morning the clear tenor voice of Mac Wiseman came through loud and clear from my iPod through the FM radio sitting beside my chair. He was singing a gospel song called “The Preacher and the Bear.” And guess what – there was a drum providing an oh so solid beat right alongside the bass. Later the drummer tapped out a rhythm on the drum rim. As nearly as I understand these things, Mac Wiseman is an icon of bluegrass music, one of the first generation greats. I noticed a few days ago a Flatt & Scruggs song with a strong solid drum line. I understand the Osborne Brothers put drums on the stage at one time. This all suggests to me that drums have a pretty good pedigree as part of bluegrass history. My question is: How come the drum has become a forbidden instrument among true believers of traditional bluegrass?”. I have been surprised at the number of responses to this question, because it strikes to the essence of what bluegrass is. It is not infrequent that people at bluegrass festivals sit back in their seats or even get up and leave when certain bands take the stage, saying something like, “That ain’t bluegrass.” I’ve seen it happen with supergroups like Mountain Heart. In their case, the audience seemed to object to the sound they generated. The topic “Drums” is merely a symbol for this disagreement within the ranks of bluegrass fans.

One respondent wrote, “That’s the real beauty of it..."bluegrass" and "gospel" weren't handed down from Mt.. Sinai along with anything else so there are no rules carved in stone...I hate to see any art form elevate itself to the point to where it takes on a "my way or the highway" elitism because then it's painted itself into a corner with nowhere to go.” Another posted this, “that is why I am a music fan not bluegrass fan. I believe if it sounds good it is good . The "just say no to drums crowd " is missing the boat . It is primal for music to have a strong pulse , just because Mr. Monroe didn't have doesn't mean it is bad music . I witnessed Tim O’Brien start his set a Merlefest with a song called "Turn the Page." It had a snare drum on stage a great pulse to the song , people were moving to the music but that would not be allowed at a bluegrass show. It makes no sense to me. People rave about a bass player that can create drum like slaps and percussive sounds but have distain for a snare drum. I can like Blue Highway or a band that makes me pat my foot if it has a drum in it. I can't figure this one out. I just like good music no rules just good music.”

A guy with the screen name of Unplugged chimed in, “…It's a matter of individual tastes, of course. What sets me off is when it comes across as the Voice of Authenticity. I just encountered a mando player who railed about the presence of a (pretty good) harmonica player (puffer?) at a recent jam. All I could do is just tell him that it worked for me - and that the harmonica had as much right to be at a BG jam as anyone (even a mando player who chops). As long as the basic etiquette and musical structures and strictures are followed (even by banjo pickers) [its all right with me]. This keeps reminding me of just how narrow a view of history (and of music, in general) so many other-wise knowledgeable people seem to have.

Of course, not everyone agreed with these posts. Billy H wrote, “I love playing drums, have for a long time. I play drums in a 70's rock and blues band and it’s a blast. New Grass Revival had some drums, so did J.D. Crowe, if I recall, but for me, I like my bluegrass without the drums. That’s what the bass, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo are for. While the bass holds on to things, one of the other 3 is chopping a backbeat. It sounds a lot like a kick drum and snare to me. To me, it’s what makes your toes go to tapping. I like the boom chick boom chick in bluegrass, just not with drums.

Stanger, a long-time member of Banjo Hangout contributed this explanation of the prejudice many bluegrass fans hold against drums, “Scruggs' version of Home Sweet Home and Groundspeed both have a snare drum in the mix. A little tasteful drumming doesn't hurt the music any, for sure. I think Monroe had the most to do with the lack of drums in the music. He didn't like them, and thought the mandolin was just fine for the purpose, and he was very adamant about his opinions. [Since Bill Monroe was a Grand Ol’ Opry member] any bluegrass band had to pass through his gate to gain the stage.” So maybe it all goes back to Bill Monroe and his churlish temper.

My concern lies in the fact that the traditional bluegrass audience is old and may be dying off. While groups started innovating in the sound and shape of bluegrass as early as the seventies, the traditional style pioneered by Bill Monroe is viewed by many as the gold standard. They view music offered by groups like The New Grass Revival, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, The Sam Bush Band and many others as not following in the tradition pioneered by Monroe. However, it’s quite clear that Monroe created a synthesized music comprised of many influences including traditional mountain and church music, rock, jazz, and swing. These newer bands have added newer and more progressive strands and continued the development of the music. Without the continued growth and development of these new bands and their acceptance from the center of bluegrass fandom, the music risks becoming a museum piece and dieing with its aging adherents.