Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Prediction and Some Thoughts for Promoters

First, the PREDICTION: This will be one of the busiest years in the history of Goldwing Express.

Why would I say that? Regular readers of this blog know I don’t think much of this band. In fact, my opinion has only gone down further. Way back in February at a festival, we were standing at a band’s merchandise table to the side of the performance area. Next to us was Goldwing Express’ table where two of the boys were standing chatting with a couple of fans. The fans wore red, white, and blue clothing and one had on an eagle cap. True patriots! As we stood there, Sonya Isaacs broke into her truly inspiring version of The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem. The solemnity and grandeur of the moment brought the crowd to its feet, hats and hands to hearts, tears to many eyes, and goose bumps to people’s skin. It was truly an inspired moment. Next to us, the brothers and their fans continued to chat throughout the entire song and their hats stayed firmly on their heads.

I’ve used the words cynical and manipulative to describe Goldwing Express’ concluding extravaganza, but I think I’ve avoided hypocritical until now. In this bit, lasting perhaps fifteen minutes and often reaching into the next band’s time, the band begins with a tear jerking description of their mother’s death, morphs into “love of flag, country, and God” mantra followed by a playing of the various service hymns while veterans of each service are called on to stand. It could be stirring if it weren’t so obvious. Now, having seen what we saw, it can only be described as insultingly hypocritical. There’s only one problem here. The crowds love it, and Goldwing Express brings in the crowds. Thus, my prediction.

Thoughts for Promoters: 2008 and 2009 are proving to be difficult years for promoters. The price of gasoline and assorted other price increases are nearly impossible to predict making it extremely difficult for promoters to make decisions about what to pay bands, how much to charge fans, how to balance their lineup, and how to encourage people to attend. We are in the midst of planning our fall trip to festivals and events in the mid-south and the beginning of planning our winter tour. What we think we’re noticing is that promoters are taking the safe approach to booking their events. They’re bringing in bands they can absolutely count on to deliver fans to the gate. Thus, bands like Goldwing Express, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, The Daily-Vincent Band, and Nothin’ Fancy seem to be appearing everywhere. Now, perhaps we notice this because we’re lucky enough to get to lots of festivals and therefore we’ve seen all these bands a lot. Nevertheless, promoters have a choice, and I think they’re going in the wrong direction.

In stretching their budgets to bring in bands calculated to enhance the gate, promoters seem to be focusing on the present while ignoring the future of our music. While the big touring bands are going from venue to venue, worthy local and regional bands are too expensive for the promoters to use to fill out their programs and emerging younger touring bands are being squeezed out of existence. There isn’t enough money to go around and the bulk of it is going to too few bands. Furthermore, for people who attend multiple events, their similarity begins to become too pervasive, and fans start looking elsewhere.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget what a musical revolution the first generation bluegrassers wrought. Led by Bill Monroe, and assisted by Flatt & Scruggs, the Osbornes, Reno and Smiley, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and many more, the first generation of bluegrass stars borrowed from a range of imported and American musics to synthesize a sound that has had great appeal to people across social and economic lines in America and around the world. It’s useful to remember that the pioneers experimented with alternative instruments including harmonicas, accordions, and even the dreaded drums. Today, Randy Kohrs has begun appearing with a snare drum in his newly renamed band. Sam Bush has had a full drum kit on stage for years. Other bands continue to achieve the percussive effect with traditional bluegrass instruments. Groups like The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, whose work is now seen as standard, were greeted with scorn when they incorporated rock songs into their bluegrass shows. Today, groups like Cadillac Sky, The Steel Drivers, and The Infamous Stringdusters push the limits of bluegrass while continuing to recognize their debt to the founders. Meanwhile Grasstowne, The Gibson Brothers, and Steep Canyon Rangers have found a comfortable middle ground between the traditional and progressive wings moving the music along all the time.

It’s distressing to attend a bluegrass festival and see attendees get up and leave during a set muttering, “That ain’t bluegrass,” when it doesn’t sound just like Bill Monroe. Nevertheless, promoters owe it to fans and to the music to provide both education and entertainment. Perhaps more important, though, they need to keep attracting new audiences of younger fans to the music if it’s to stay vital and alive into the future. Bluegrass promoters would be wise to keep two factors in mind as they build their lineups. First, there’s a deep well-spring of talent in local and regional bands which will never have an audience if promoters don’t hire them to fill out their programs. Second, bluegrass music has within it the capacity to contain a range of kinds of music while still remaining bluegrass. One of the great joys of bluegrass is experiencing the breadth of musical understanding the form is capable of satisfying. During the difficult times to come, bluegrass can continue to attract an interested and enthusiastic audience if promoters continue to offer diversity as well as continuity.