First, let’s get a few things straight. I own every CD that’s been put into my iTunes program and resides on my iPod. When I listen to the iPod, it’s a convenience I use to keep from having to cart roughly 300 CD’s around in our trailer or car. My iPod also plays the songs I’ve chosen to put into my playlist in a more or less random pattern, providing me with programming of my own choice. There’s more breadth on my iPod than there is on any individual channel on my satellite radio, and if I don’t want to listen to a particular cut, I just push a button.
Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald aren’t on my iPod, even though our CD collection includes pretty big gobs of their marvelous work. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Mary Chapin Carpenter aren’t there either. There’s no classical music on my iPod even though our collection of the classics includes a pretty good basic library of music from the baroque period through the great classical masters to the late nineteenth century. No Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, or Nat King Cole. No Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, or David Allan Coe. It’s not that I no longer like these people or value their contributions to music in general or my musical taste in particular. Rather, they don’t fit into my current taste. It’s also not that there’s no room on my iPod, either. I’ve only used about a third of the space. I have one major playlist. I call it “Bluegrass.”
How did my current taste develop? Our first music festival was that huge event held each spring in Wilkesboro, NC called Merlefest. We attended our first Merlefest in 2003. We thought it was a bluegrass festival. Early bands making a huge impression on me were Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, and, always and forever, Doc Watson and his friends. At that first Merlefest, we also heard Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent. We drank in Vassar Clements, EmmyLou Harris, Norman Blake, and Tim O’Brien. We imbibed The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Asleep at the Wheel as well as Donna the Buffalo. We very much liked lots of what we saw, learned from other performances, and broadened our musical horizons. Bela Fleck was new and different to us, as was Peter Rowan. The former is prodigiously talented and hard to listen to while we found the latter a poseur who left us flat. Through all that, as far as we were concerned, we were at a bluegrass festival and we had a wonderful time. We didn’t stop to categorize; we didn’t label; we liked some and didn’t like some.
Since that time, we’ve come to understand much more of the history of this relatively new form of music we call bluegrass, as well the controversies surrounding it. While we never saw Bill Monroe except on television, we’ve learned about his pioneering creations. We’ve seen and heard Earl Scruggs, but never at the top of his game. We’ve listened to the great concert at Carnegie Hall as well as other noted examples of his body of work. We know the influence these two giants, Monroe and Scruggs, had on the development of bluegrass music and appreciate its genius and creativity. We’ve learned that electric basses are frowned upon, electric guitars – forbidden. Percussion is necessary, but not if it comes from anything that looks like a drum. The cajon, a wooden box with holes in it, may represent a break in the wall. In the end, for some, if Bill Monroe didn’t have it in his band, in his words, it“ ain’t no part o’ nothin’.”
Then there are the widely accepted exceptions to the rules. Doc Watson is bluegrass, even though he often plays rockabilly on his Gallagher and even sings Gershwin. Peter Rowan was once a bluegrass boy playing with Bill Monroe. Apparently, anything he plays these days is acceptable to bluegrass fans. If a song is played with acoustic instruments, especially the hallowed combination of banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, and, maybe fiddle or resonator guitar, it’s OK. That makes grassed rock and roll just fine, while if it’s amplified…no,no.no. Unusual instrument combinations, even when they sound great, as in Pete Wernick’s band Flexigrass, don’t count. Now there’s new grass, progressive, traditional, Nashville grass, and others I can’t even keep up with. Jackson, Cordle, and Salley, as great a trio of bluegrass songwriters as can be put together today, can have a drum on their CD, but not on their stage at a bluegrass festival. And I’ll save the almost total absence of African Americans from the bluegrass stage and audience, despite their absolute necessity as part of the history, for another blog entry.
So who’s there? In iPod order from Aaron McDaris to The Wilson Family. The greats are there: Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Seldom Scene, The Country Gentlemen, The New Grass Revival. Top current bands have lots of representation: IIIrd Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Lonesome River Band, Del McCoury. New break out bands are there: The Infamous Stringdusters, Cadillac Sky, The Greencards. There are bands that might seem obscure: The Atkinson Family, Big Spike, The New England Bluegrass Band, Adrienne Young, Rick Hayes. I can’t name the all, but you get the idea. My iPod contains dozens of artists, hundreds of disks, and thousands of songs. They add up to a collection I call bluegrass.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce wrote, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her own farrow.” Bluegrass adherents fit this description to a T. In subdividing our music into acceptable and unacceptable niches, we seek to destroy it altogether. Recently, the forum Bluegrass Rules has featured a discussion, no…argument, about whether people walked out of a recent Randy Kohrs’ performance at MACC, how many walked, and whether they came back. Really!
Darrell Scott’s “Old Joe Clark,” especially the version by Sam Bush, the old fiddle tune we all pick or at least know, pictures a young healthy slave emerging from the hellish bowels of a slave ship with his gourd banjo clutched in his hand. His spirit floats down the Mississippi River, arrives in New Orleans, infuses the spirit of Dixieland Jazz and eventually infects Bill Monroe with part of the sound that became bluegrass music. As in the old union song Joe Hill, wherever people sing the music and play what’s emerged from it, you’ll find Bill and Charlie Monroe, the Carter Family, Lester and Earl, the Osborne Brothers and the Louvins, and all the others who helped develop the music. Their spirit is in there, and if the spirit is there, then it’s bluegrass, and no amount of grumpy assertions “that ain’t bluegrass” will ever make it not true.