Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finding the Seam: Bluegrass and Country

 This essay is a reposting, with slight editing, of my monthly column for the California Bluegrass Association's online Welcome Column which appears daily here.  It's well worth a look.

Finding the Seam

“How many of you like classic country?  Would you like to hear a song by Hank Williams (Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, Hank Snow, George Jones)?” The voice from the stage at your favorite bluegrass festival asks the question.  How many times have you heard a cry from the audience, “No, play more Bill Monroe?”  Now, let's take a walk out through the field where all the pickers are parked.  Drift around through the camp sites and listen to the music the field pickers are playing.  Much of it is material from the world of classic country. You hear songs by all of the singers listed above at least as frequently as you hear the classic bluegrass songs of the first generation. Why do we find this at a bluegrass festival?  I submit there are two reasons.  First, it's familiar.  Second, it's easier to play country songs than bluegrass.  Hence, from both a listening point of view and a playing one, many people at bluegrass festivals like to hear plenty of what's called “classic country.”

When Bill Monroe joined the Grand Ol' Opry in 1939 there appears not to have been any distinction drawn between various forms of country music.  It was often called hillbilly music, but included elements of country and old time from various regions.  With the addition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to his Blue Grass Boys an emerging sound drew huge responses, but it was still country music.  It was only later in his career when Monroe began accepting the name “bluegrass” that had been attached to it that he became increasingly interested (not to say obsessed) in cultivating his legacy.  Nevertheless, the advent of rock and roll and the Nashville approach to it seems to have knocked traditional sounding music for a loop.  And with the dramatic difference that has developed there seems to be little chance of finding an accepatable accomodation.  But maybe all isn't lost.

Recently a number of country performers have made bluegrass projects.  Kathy Mattea, Michael Martin Murphy, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, and, of course, Patty Loveless and Vince Gill are all presently or formerly well-established country performers who have recently cut bluegrass albums. Now, there are a couple of ways of looking at this. One way would be to cynically hold that as their country allure fades, these performers see moving to bluegrass as a way to prolong their careers.  “After all,” the cynics might say, “bluegrass represents a less expensive show to produce than today's massive, electric acts 'enhanced' by fireworks than traveling with a bluegrass band to festivals and auditoriums.”  In this view, bluegrass is merely a way to create more longevity with an older and more nostalgic audience.  This appears to be the response that many dedicated bluegrass fans have taken.  Another posture would be to suggest that these performers, nurtured in hearing country music on the radio and watching it on TV grew up in an era when mainstream country maintained a close relationship to its rural, more simple roots.  These people cherish the value of a song and a melody supported by acoustic instruments and presented with simplicity and grace they experienced in their homes and churches or heard on radio and records.

The trick seems to lie in finding a comfortable, not too clearly defined, seam between classic country and bluegrass to provide entertainment, authenticity, nostalgia, and comfort.  Falling within this category can be found another, younger, crowd of emerging and established bluegrass performers, many of whom claim roots in both bluegrass and country.  These include, but are not limited to, people like Donna Ulisse, The Gibson Brothers,  Alecia Nugent, Carrie Hasler, Melonie Cannon, Jerry Butler, Steve Gulley, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, and others I haven't mentioned, who either first came out as country singers or whose careers have included country music within their performing arena.  There's also a group of singer/songwriters who are comfortable both in country music and in bluegrass. They write songs that would work in either genre and translate easily between genres based solely on the choice of instrumentation and rhythmic pattern. These include Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Ronnie Bowman, Brandon Rickman, Chris Stapleton, Pam Gadd, Louisa Branscomb, and many more.
This seam creates a comfortable place for many bluegrass fans. It has also been nourished by the programming on XM/Sirius radio.  One of the admirable elements of finding and inhabiting this seam is that is pays due attention to the pioneers of bluegrass as well as to the icons of classic country music.  Many bluegrass albums, even those produced by accomplished singer/songwriters, contain at least one or two bows to first generation bluegrass performers.  Most festival performances contain at least one or two songs by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, or the Stanley Brothers, among others.  Many bands seek out more obscure examples from these great performers to maintain variety and interest in their festival sets or on their CD's.  Meanwhile, these same performers are keeping their eyes and ears out for classic country songs that fit together with their style and sound. Even the Steep Canyon Rangers, a group that aggressively features songs by its own members, has a song by country legend Merle Haggard and one by folk icon Hudie Leadbetter (Leadbelly) in its latest album. It's interesting to note that many bands, particularly ones containing performers capable of creating the sound, also include fiddle songs and old time music featuring claw hammer banjo as part of their performances. 

In the past, groups have toured as a means to create demand for their recorded product.  As the recording industry faces revolutionary changes in distribution patterns, it appears that CD sales and digital downloads are serving to drive people to attend live performances and festivals, which have become the money making end of the business.  Large, diverse festivals seem to be the ones achieving the greatest success. Maintaining a commitment to genre purity may be a recipe for declining audiences and reduced receipts. Finding the seam, the place where genres intersect and complement each other can offer a way to increase interest in live performance events and help the music to continue to keep cross pollinating itself. In the end, there's something in this music that touches the hearts and minds of those who listen to it and play it for their own pleasure. Keeping that emotional response alive and flourishing can only result in good outcomes.