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,
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
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
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.
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.