Monday, May 21, 2007

What I Learned on the Bluegrass Trail - Winter 2007

Our 2007 Bluegrass Odyssey: Irene and I left home in New Hampshire on January 15th and returned on May 18th. During that time we drove 8300 miles and attended nine three or four day festivals, five concerts, and one camp. We practiced our own instruments on most days. Mostly we camped, living in our 21 foot travel trailer, which we pull with a Toyota Tacoma. At one festival we worked as volunteers, and Irene also covered the merchandise table for Grasstowne on several occasions. I photographed all the events we attended, sent DVDs of my pictures to promoters and CDs to many bands. I also maintained this blog, finding Wi-Fi hot spots in campgrounds, coffee shops, public libraries, and motel parking lots. We spent a few nights in motels. We travel with two cats who live inside our trailer and never go out. We arrived home tired, but having enjoyed ourselves immensely and immediately began planning our fall and winter trips. We already have a schedule for the summer. What follows is an exploration of what I think I learned during the past four months. It is tentative and will be revised from time to time.

It’s still hard to define bluegrass: In Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg provides a number of definitions to bluegrass. They sort of boil down to these criteria: acoustic, banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and sometimes Dobro. The music is primarily a show music often played at high speed and using traditional rural themes. Much of its content comes from old time mountain music, and so-on. The only trouble is that even the first generation bands experimented with drums on stage, alternative instruments, different ways to present the music, and much more. When folks get up and walk away at a bluegrass event saying, “That ain’t bluegrass,” they’re really saying that the music isn’t exactly what Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, the Stanleys and others played in the forties and fifties. The audience is more conservative than the musicians. But the music is more enduring than the fans.

There’s a deep well of fine bands: Wherever we go we hear local and regional bands we haven’t heard before who make really good music. Some of them are cover bands playing the music of the first generation as well as that of more recent bands. Other groups play singer/songwriter material. These bands spring from a deep well of bluegrass instruments and sounds. They represent the past and the future of the music. As long as new bands emerge who revere the originators while they create new approaches to making and performing bluegrass, the music has a future.

The audience retards the advance of the music: The musicians are more innovative, creative, and accepting than their audience. Bands seek to create a unique sound, a sound that listeners will instantly recognize as theirs. This was as true of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Osborne brothers as it is of Mountain Heart, Blue Highway, and the Avett Brothers. When the audience insists on the former and rejects the latter they refuse to recognize that in stagnation lies death. The Country Gentlemen brought a whole new sound to bluegrass music when they emerged in the early sixties. Imagine how many bluegrass standards would be missing from today’s music if these pieces had not entered the genre. When fans revere and maintain the originals while accepting the best of the new, they assure that bluegrass music will continue to thrive, grow, and spread.

The big jam is missing from the stage: In the early days of bluegrass festivals, a staple of each event was the massed jam in which former and present members of The Blue Grass Boys played Bill Monroe’s music as a culmination to the festival. The economics of bluegrass may be the reason this wonderful tradition has disappeared. Bands, in order to make a living, must arrive, perform their two sets, and get back on the bus to travel to the next event. If possible, they may play in two or even three events during a single four day weekend. The jam looks to the past, the present and the future. When skilled musicians take the stage and play together, often performing music they’re hearing for the first time, the show their skill and create music on the fly. Such jams happen in the field, back stage, and in parking lots. Usually they don’t happen on stage, but when they do, magic happens. At Merlefest this year Sam Bush led a jam, several new bands (The Duhks, Crooked Still, Donna the Buffalo and others) participated in one, and Pete Wernick combines with members of the Waybacks for a set. Such wonderful events create new traditions for performers and audience alike. If festival organizers can put together such events on stage, a tradition will be preserved and enriched.

It pays to hear a band more than once: Familiarity breeds knowledge and understanding. During the winter I heard several bands for the first time and others for the second or third. Some, like Crooked Still and New Found Road, I found wanting for some reason. I didn’t like Crooked Still because their sound seemed odd and the use of a cello played by an affected young man seemed phony. On hearing them a second and third time, their music grew on me and I began to see and feel how they fit into the long line that is becoming bluegrass music. Another, much more traditional band’s allure also passed me by at first. But when I saw New Found Road in a different setting, they sounded wonderful to me and I began to look forward to and cherish their music. I have yet to have the same experience with, for instance, Cadillac Sky, but I look forward to seeing them again. I don’t expect to come to like every band, and some I think I’ll never enjoy (Carl Shifflet, Gold Wing Express), but that’s just fine with me. On the other hand, there are other people who love the bands I don’t care for. What I hope I’ll develop is an ability to appreciate bands for what they are and to cherish what they contribute. I also hope that I’ll get better at allowing myself to be pleasantly surprised by groups which I discover offer more than I had expected.

People come to festivals and other events for a range of reasons: When we first started attending festivals, we couldn’t understand why so many people paid for tickets, including camping, and then came to see and hear so few of the bands. Over time we’ve come to see that people come to a festival for a variety of reasons – listening to music, jamming, socializing, inexpensive camping with music. Each of these reasons is legitimate. Since the first festival, a large attraction has been to allow non-professional musicians to meet informally to play the music they love. At many festivals, the professional musicians circulate among the jammers, joining them to pick and sing. Some fans come to see favorite bands and do not seek to broaden their experience by staying to see others. Thus, a band like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage or Goldwing Express might fill the tent to overflowing. As soon as their performance is over, people get up and return to their campers or go to shop and eat in the vending area. Still others tune into the camp-wide FM programming of the festival often provided and prefer to sit under their awnings, chatting and enjoying each other’s company. More power to them.

Bluegrass will profit from staying in touch with its roots and allowing itself to develop: Country Music seems to have forgotten its roots. Years ago, when country awards were given, the programs were sure to honor the pioneers of the music. In recent years, they seem more interested in showcasing country rock performers seeking to cross over into pop or rock. Bluegrass music should be sure to maintain its allegiance to its roots in the music of the mountains, in Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and the other first generation performers. But fans should also be encouraged to remember that bluegrass has been fluid since the beginning. The Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, The Dillards and other groups began expanding the scope of the music before it was even well established. Such changes continue and the material and styles developed in recent years will work their way into the bluegrass pantheon as well. This may happen slowly, but it will happen.

There are a lot of great people in bluegrass: Everywhere we went we met people who were warm, welcoming, and friendly. From people who stopped by our campsite to listen or pick with us to big names in bluegrass who took time to chat, we met a bunch of great folks. Musicians shared their time, even when we weren’t purchasing merchandise. Fellow fans wanted to talk about their favorite festivals or places they went to hear music. We were invited to the home of one musician and felt enfolded in his family and environment leading us to a deeper understanding of the roots of this wonderful music. We were teased (playfully) as Yankees and welcomed almost everywhere. The people are one of the great assets of bluegrass music.

All in all, we had a wonderful winter in bluegrass and travel. We’re still learning about the music, which turns out to be a lifelong process. Even though we started late, we like to think we’re catching up.