Friday, November 7, 2008

Some Thoughts on Festivals - What Works

During 2008 we have attended nineteen festivals as well as seven other events with one of each coming between now and the end of the year. They’ve ranged geographically from New Hampshire to Florida and from the east coast to as far west as Nashville. The majority of events have occurred in New England and New York, North Carolina, and Florida with a few others spread out into Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. We’ve been to large, even mega-events as well as quite small ones. We’ve attended extremely successful events and others that hardly even got off the ground. We’ve seen some bands repeatedly and had only brief exposures to others. Attendees at events we took in have ranged from what appeared to be upper middle-class sophisticates to working class lovers of a good time, local bands, and regional culture.

We’ve entered into a period where a niche music like bluegrass is hanging on by its teeth because of the state of the economy. The music clearly emerged when Bill Monroe brought together a group of musicians and created an exciting new sound. He melded together the music he had grown up with in his rural home, black blues, rural white church music, radio-based popular music, and other influences into what soon became known as bluegrass music. Monroe was soon asked to join the Grand Old Opry, the home of Country music, where he became a fixture, even as country music itself was being battered by the influences of rock and roll as they entered the consciousness of American people. Almost since its beginning, what has become known as bluegrass has been devilled by a struggle between traditionalists wishing to keep it “pure” and innovators seeking to change its sound and content. Beginning in the late 1950’s with the emergence of The Country Gentlemen, new influences began coming into bluegrass. This move was accelerated when rock and roll, represented best by the New Grass Revival, began to influence the music. Since the very beginning, what we call “bluegrass” music has been riven by the competing influences of tradition, represented by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers and others and newer influences growing from young people’s exposure to rock, reggae, folk music, jazz, and more. My concern here is not to try to define what “bluegrass” is. Rather, I seek to explore what festival promoters, bands, and fans need to do to assure that acoustic music stay vital and alive in the festival scene, adding new fans while keeping the aging fan base happy. This is no mean trick, but successful festivals currently in existence suggest that it is possible.

The festival environment is more than just about the music. It’s in the name. As my friend Bob Cook likes to say, “People at bluegrass festivals are there having fun.” Their toes tap, there are smiles on their faces. People dance, they make music themselves, they listen, they talk. People come to bluegrass and music festivals to spend a long weekend away from the trials and tribulations of the real world in a festive environment. Many of the festivals we attend are located in a semi-rural setting on a piece of land large enough to serve as a campground as well as a venue for delivering music. People drive in for a three or four day event in campers and RVs of all sizes. Many arrive several days early, set up compounds surrounding a central area where they play music, socialize, and generally have a good time. From time to time these people stroll down to the main stage to take in a band or two before returning to pick some more, play cards and enjoy the “scene.” Unfortunately, the population that can afford the time and money to spend the better part of a week at festivals is an aging one devoted to traditional bluegrass. The future of bluegrass music, including roots, old-time, and aspects of what’s becoming known as Americana lies with attracting a younger, more middle-class, more highly educated population than the current festival scene includes. The signal characteristic of successful large festivals like Merlefest, Grey Fox, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (from what I can see from Mike Melnyk’s wonderful photographs), and others is the diversity of the kinds of music they offer. Better still, there’s diversity in the audience they attract.

Diversity in music can take many forms. In a bluegrass festival it can range from presenting music representing the most traditional bluegrass music, or even old time bluegrass precursors, to progressive bluegrass in the tradition of New Grass Revival and including contemporary groups like The Infamous Stringdusters, Cadillac Sky, or The Punch Brothers. For me, sitting for six or ten hours to hear nothing but Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs covers and style quickly becomes just too much. I prefer a range of styles and forms within my music festivals. The differences keep me interested and open me to new musical ideas. Others, apparently, are perfectly happy to either respond to preconceptions or walk away from the performance area with the comment, “That ain’t bluegrass” whenever a band doesn’t have the conformation and sound of the first generation of performers, especially Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. A look at the age and physical condition of those likely to walk should confirm the inadvisability of programming solely to the traditional audience.

There are at least two ways for bluegrass festivals and performers to preserve the traditional while seeking to make their own imprint on the music. I think I’ve told this story before in print, but it bears repeating. Years ago, in another life, I was chatting with a colleague about modern art. In discussing the work of Pablo Picasso, he commented, “I’d be much more willing to explore and accept cubism if Picasso would show me he knows how to draw a banana.” Even the most progressive bands can benefit from showing their audience they know how to draw a banana by paying tribute to the originators of bluegrass music. Think about how certain bands manage this. Sam Bush always plays “Uncle Pen” early in his sets. He starts it straight and then plays a variety of riffs on the theme. Cadillac Sky has a very good rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love” in their set. Unfortunately, they often wait to play it until after they’ve lost much of their audience. The Infamous Stringdusters use several traditional bluegrass songs in many of their sets. These gestures offer more than a mere nod to tradition; they acknowledge the huge debt contemporary performers owe to the founders. In a recent conversation, Ron Block emphasized the years he had spent studying Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, and Don Reno along the way to developing his own style. Chris Pandolfi, one of the young Turks in contemporary bluegrass music, started in the progressive vein, but says, in the October issue of Banjo News Letter that he’s been soaking up the genius of Earl Scruggs. Musicians playing bluegrass need to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of the founders. Meanwhile, fans need to recognize the revolution wrought by Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, Reno & Smiley and the others while admitting that without continual development, the music will become a museum piece or disappear.

Recently, several of the bluegrass events we’ve attended have included a wide variety of acoustic music under the rubric of bluegrass, although some of the festivals are now calling themselves “Music” festivals, advertising that they transcend narrow classifications. Some of these events are multi-day festivals, while others last for only a day. Many festivals include bands which play a proportion of “classic” country in bluegrass style or using bluegrass instruments. Songs by Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, and others are staple fare of bluegrass bands, as well as others by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and more. Since the emergence of The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, these additions have become more than welcome, even now being seen as traditional. At the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, NC this fall, Sam Bush with drums and electric instruments galore played on the same bill as the Cherryholmes and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Later this month, in Lebanon, NH at the Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival, Rhonda Vincent and Jerry Douglas share Friday night. This kind of creative programming sold out in Brevard (2100 people) and will fill the Lebanon Opera House.

The bluegrass audience is essentially small-c conservative. Fans have accepted multiple microphones, limited use of electric basses, although still preferring the standup variety, and guitars with pickups. On the other hand, drums on stage and keyboards are still off limits. Except…gospel bands with keyboards seem acceptable even in quite traditional settings. Last winter I needled Norman Adams, whose festivals are models of traditional music, about the Isaacs appearing with a percussionist playing the cajon, an Afro-Peruvian percussion instrument. He grumbled something about its not being a drum, only a box. Nevertheless, the argument about “what is bluegrass” will continue, no matter how irrelevant it may be. Many successful festivals work around the problem by calling their music “Americana,” “World Music,” or simply “Music” festivals. By doing so, they label themselves as more diverse and inclusive, attracting a younger and more affluent audience.

Meanwhile, other festivals, often smaller or more marginal, seem to be making a series of mistakes that hurt rather than help. We’ve been to several festivals in the past year that appear to be betting the farm by using too large a portion of their budget to hire what they consider to be a top draw. Bands like Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, The Del McCoury Band, Dan Tyminski, and IIIrd Tyme Out are showcased, sometimes in weak positions, in order to try to draw a crowd. One festival made attendees sit through seven hours of local and regional bluegrass bands, several pretty mediocre, in order to get to four back to back sets by the Gibson Brothers and IIIrd Tyme Out. Another festival opened with Rhonda Vincent on Thursday and offered a money wasting fireworks festival on Saturday night. Still another just couldn’t meet its advertised obligations and ended up not attracting fans and presenting a mostly mediocre lineup. I’ll have more to say about using technology effectively to attract and hold an audience in a few weeks. Meanwhile, festivals programming for a balance between headliners, other national bands, a good selection of quality local and regional bands as well as showcases for unknowns provides good programming and seems to attract customers.

Festivals, in order to succeed, need to reach out to a wider and more diverse audience. Varying the kinds of music, even within the label bluegrass, will help to create a more welcoming and interesting environment. Reaching out to a younger and more culturally diverse audience will increase the size and enthusiasm of audiences. Establishing clear guidelines for audiences in terms of smoking, drinking, dancing, and other behaviors and then ENFORCING them will pay off big time. Much of the festival environment is still attractive and will continue to entertain a wide variety of visitors. Camping, field picking, visiting with old friends, a range of vendors, exciting music, and a festive atmosphere all yield a good time. Thoughtful promoters will find ways to continue the traditional elements making up successful festivals while attracting new audiences through creatively altering their programs and formats.