There’s been a good deal of discussion during the past week on Bluegrass-L (the bluegrass mailing list for IBMA members and some others) about the dress of bluegrass bands and what this says about both bands and fans. In essence, the discussion has revolved around two pretty polar positions. One says that bands owe it to themselves and to their audience to dress, at a minimum, in clean, neat attire sometimes approaching a uniform or costume in order to communicate their seriousness to an audience and to show their respect for it. The other position suggests that it doesn’t matter much what bands play because, in the long run, it’s the music that counts and thoughtful listeners will be able to transcend appearance for the sake of the music.
Part of the argument revolves around the word “respect.” Respect is a funny word, denoting giving due deference to a person on account of position, title, age, expertise, or some other quality worthy or recognition. Respect can be given, granted, or earned but never commanded or expected. It always flows from the respector to the respectee without regard to the desire of the one to be respected. The warnings to “respect your elders,” for instance don’t actually call for respect but rather for a show of respect deemed appropriate to the person. Making the expected appearance of respectful behavior has little to do with having feelings of actual respect. Thus, young people were once urged to stand when their elders entered a room in order to present a show of respect. Gentlemen removed their hats to a lady. Men entering a church removed their hats while women covered their hair, and so-on. Children called their elders “sir” or “ma’am” as a show of respect. People dressed in certain respectful ways for certain events. None of these behaviors, however, actually showed respect, rather they indicated adherence to a social norm.
But who hasn’t heard a person say, “Yes, sir!” in the most annoying and disrespectful fashion? It seems that understanding respect revolves around determining the difference between the appearance of respect and its substance. The appearance of respect involves demonstrating the forms in terms of dress and behavior which satisfy a social demand to behave appropriately where what’s appropriate is determined by the person seeking to command or be respected. This means many people go through the motions of respecting without having the underlying feeling that true respect engenders. The essence of respect, then, grows from a feeling or attitude given rather than an outward behavior as an appearance unaccompanied by true respect.
Standards in our society change. We no longer speak, or in some cases even understand, the language of Shakespeare. (It’s interesting, as a side comment, to note that the Bard often needed to invent words to express the idea he wished to convey.) In the nineteenth century, proper gentlemen wore white tie and tails to dinner. Women corseted themselves with whalebone instruments of torture to adjust their shapes to a social ideal. The stories of dress and fashion are endless and, probably, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Let’s take a look at appropriate garb for church attendance these days. In my memory it was unthinkable to show up for church not wearing a jacket and tie. Sometime in the past few decades, many churches decided it was more important to bring people through the doors than that they be dressed to a particular standard. I should think removing clothing barriers has opened church going to people who might not otherwise have attended and made it more desirable for those who have been regular attendees anyway. Do you suppose God cares about what a person who comes humbly to church to hear His word and offer formal prayer has on? Have changes in standards of dress changed the nature of worship? Or have changes in worship opened the way to spiritual understanding to a new and needy population?
In bluegrass, what constitutes respect? First, let’s look at the element of ways that bands show respect to the music and to the audience. Of the two, respect for the music is the more important. In performance, this means seeking to uphold the traditions of the music while contributing something new, innovative, or thought provoking. I call this a band’s Value Added. Bands show abiding respect for the music when, in some way, they echo or reflect contributions of the first generation masters. When a band plays a Bill Monroe song or a Flatt & Scruggs number, they show respect. When they take an early work and interpret it in terms of new approaches to music, they also honor it. Years ago a professional mentor of mine, in talking about abstract art, commented, “I’d have a much easier time with Picasso’s abstract art if he first showed me he knew how to draw a banana?” I think we, as audiences, have a right to ask bands to draw bananas. But, at the same time, they need to be more than clones of the first generation greats. There are dozens of bands that can emulate, with greater or lesser success, the music of the first generation. What’s important is that they then step out and add something to the music to set themselves apart and to distinguish themselves. By doing so, they create and extend the music we love. They do this in the show they give as well as in the music they play. Their choice of dress is an expression of this as well as the music they perform. It’s their choice.
How do we, as an audience, respect the musicians? First, and foremost, we sit through the music and give it a fair hearing. Too often, I’ve seen people get up and leave, and heard them say, “That ain’t bluegrass.” Where’s the respect for the efforts the bands make to add value to bluegrass music? Use of words like “trashy” to describe the dress of a band expresses a social and political view unrelated to the music the bands play. They deserve better from us. Thus, the dress choices bands make reflect their effort to present themselves and their music. Good audiences, at a minimum, allow the music itself to speak.