Monday, March 29, 2010

Family Bands and Bluegrass Prodigies

The essay below was originally posted as my column on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association, which usually appears on the third Friday of each month.  I like it well enough to repost it here for my own audience.

Is the family band a rich source of talent for the bluegrass music world, a way to keep families together in an increasingly fractured society, an exploitation of child labor, or a meal ticket used by cynical parents manipulating their children?  I suspect it’s all of the above.  Recently, we were at a bluegrass festival where there was a seven (nine?) year old boy who played on the stage with several major bands as well as with the youth band of this event.  He was a whiz on the mandolin. I couldn’t help noticing, however, the worried looks he kept shooting at his handlers (parents and grandparents) who were ever in evidence. The effect of parents on their performing children can be deep and pervasive, resulting in happy success or deep and continuing sadness.

Part of what I do is walk around festivals and other events trying to capture the scene in photographs.  A couple of years ago, I noticed a small family band playing in front of their RV on a sunny, summer morning.  The little girl was sawing away on her fiddle with Dad on the bass and Mom playing guitar. (Why do Dads so often play bass?)  As I pointed my camera toward them, hoping for a candid shot, the father thrust his daughter into a position where she would be prominent in any picture I might take, not trusting the camera (or me) to do its natural thing and show the situation. I lowered my camera and walked on.  Later, when I heard her sing, I noticed she had no idea where a tune might be found, yet her parents continue to push her forward as the front of a family band to this day.
The list of family bands is long and their contributions to bluegrass music are incontrovertible.  No matter how many names I include in this post, my readers will no doubt be able to point out to me ones I’ve missed.  But think of the impact that multi-generational family bands have had on bluegrass music – The Carter Family, The Lewis Family, brothers without end, Skaggs, Brock, Cherryholmes, Doerful…. The list goes on.  Oh, and don’t forget little Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose father had him touring soon after he could walk.  All this raises the question: Where would we be if parents had not introduced their kids to an instrument and got them out performing?  How would bluegrass music be doing today had not Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Michael Cleveland, Chris Thile, and Marty Stuart not wowed the crowds when they were quite young?

The Lewis Family has been touring as a bluegrass gospel band for more than fifty years.  When Little Roy Lewis speaks about Pop from the stage, it is always with the deepest love and respect.  The family’s song, “One Rose,” a love song to their departed parents, is eagerly awaited and appreciated by their faithful audiences.  Recently, age and infirmity have forced this storied family band to dissolve, while the youngest sibling has continued to tour, perhaps knowing no other life.  The sad decline of the three sisters had been on display for all to see for several years as have some other corrosive family dynamics.  Nevertheless, this band had an enormous impact on people, particularly those who love southern gospel music, for several generations.  Staying together as a family provided them with a core for their popularity. My respect and affection for Little Roy has grown from puzzled bewilderment when I first saw them perform, to a deeper understanding and appreciation for his art and the place of the character he created in the history of bluegrass music. The end of this band as a touring group represents the end of an important era.

Kids grow up and family bands come and go.  Ricky Skaggs has continued to grow musically and within the industry and has become a major force in the bluegrass and country music, the winner of fourteen Grammy Awards, in addition to Country Music Association and IBMA recognitions galore.  Alison Krauss has won twenty-seven Grammy awards, the most of any woman.  Where would these people be if their parents had not put them out to perform at an early age?  And what has their success cost them…and others?

A good analogy lies in the world of big time sports. Think of the arms that have been ruined, the careers cut short or never born, the happy lives left un-led because so many kids were unable to live up to their parents’ unreasonable expectations or to fulfill the self-image developed by parental worship and drive. Even when hall-of-fame success ensued, how many lives have been effectively destroyed.  One only has to think of what appears to me to have been the tortured life of basketball hall of famer Pete Maravich to find an example, and there are many more. One of our own sons might have become an excellent and joyful tennis player, had we not sent him to a high-powered tennis camp and then put him out on the junior tour way before he ever became interested on his own.
Where does motivation to perform come from?  How is a virtuoso performer born and developed?  What are the costs and benefits, particularly psychologically, for the drive, single-mindedness, perhaps even monomania, that lead to greatness in any field of endeavor? Think of Bobby Fisher! Do prodigies develop without the support, encouragement, and drive of their parents?  What’s the difference between these three qualities and cynical exploitation?

In recent years we’ve become close friends with a family band who live in the southeast.  When I first saw them, my reaction was, “Oh, no…here we go again.”  But as we’ve watched them closely, been visitors in their home and been taken into their lives, we’ve discovered that making music together and performing as a family provides the glue for a rich and lively existence. The key, it seems to me, is the parents’ insistence on keeping their values clear to themselves and to their children.  The kids attend(ed) public school and, when the time came, the older one has gone  to college.  The family priorities have clearly remained God, family, school, music, and performing, in that order.  It’s clear to both parents that the kids will grow up and create their own independent lives.  It’s quite certain that music will remain a part of the kids’ lives, although whether that’s as professional musicians is pretty much up in the air.  It’s also clear to me that this is a happy and well-adjusted group of people.

I have no idea how many kids’ lives have been ruined or made full and happy by their association with making music and performing. Some find themselves in it, and others lose their souls chasing it.  Parents seeking to encourage their children to find pleasure in music need to examine themselves as a part of the equation.  Nevertheless, families and music, for good or ill, will continue to go together, to the dismay and pleasure of those who get to see them perform.