Friday, March 11, 2011

Music Awards Voting - Towards a Set of Critical Criteria - Essay

The following essay is a lightly edited version of a piece I wrote for the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association that appeared on Tuesday.  As usual, with these essays, it's intended as a preliminary statement, and I look forward to your comments either here or in the forums. - Ted

The Academy Awards took place a few weeks ago, the Grammies and CMA were before that, and award season is in full swing. As the bluegrass year begins to heat up into festival season, the year 2010 comes to an end on March 31st with respect to the nominations for IBMA awards. Each year, when I look at awards, whether they're the big ones, or those I actually care about, like awards for bluegrass performers, I feel a certain lack of surprise at the choices, a sense that people are making easy decisions and often relying on past winners. It also seems to me that winners often reflect an averaged choice slipping between two others who might have split the more adventuresome selections. Meanwhile, I've been writing more CD reviews as well as book reviews on my blog and thinking about how I approach listening to a CD in order to try to make critical judgments about its quality. I thought, in order to help me write more helpful reviews, I'd try to develop a set of evaluative criteria to apply to writing my reviews or making selections for the upcoming IBMA awards process.

The first element capturing my attention is originality, including both vocal material and instrumental sound. In bluegrass, being original takes place within the context created by the first generation of bluegrass musicians. They, Bill Monroe first among them, established a general format and identified the melodic and lyrical interests based on the times they were nurtured in. For Monroe and the others, it was mountain songs of Scots/Irish origin, blues and jazz from mostly black origins, swing, old-time and other influences in the air at the time. The content featured longing for the simpler life of rural America left behind by the southern diaspora to northern industrial cities caused by the depression and, perhaps, looking back toward the Civil War. Lost love, trains, murder ballads, the love or rural lifestyle, fundamentalist religious experience with special emphasis on the riches to be found in heaven, and other similar themes dominated. Today, the influences young musicians grow up with cannot exclude changes in our society and the music that surrounds them. Thus, the music they produce will have new sounds and themes added to it that none of the founders could or would have anticipated. Changes in socio-economic status, educational attainment, and the move from rural to urban and suburban environments all have affected both the music and the lyrics. Contemporary bluegrass music must bow, or at least nod, to the originators while finding interesting and new ways to communicate with modern audiences living in the twenty-first century.

Bands and performers, in order to be considered for awards, should demonstrate uniquely recognizable sounds. What is it about the voices of singers like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Charley Waller, Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Eric and Leigh Gibson, Junior Sisk, Russell Moore and a few others that makes them jump out at us from the player? How is it that Earl Scruggs' banjo, Alan Bibey's mandolin, Doc Watson's guitar, or Jerry Douglas' Dobro have their names immediately come to mind when we hear them? Each of the performers mentioned, and many more, stand out for a quality knowledgeable listeners can identify. Meanwhile, many more performers, try as they might, provide cookie cutter performances requiring a look at the XM radio screen or the iPod to assure a listener of their identities. People voting on awards should be able to identify, and even specify their names, on hearing these performances.

Being recognizable and original doesn't mean denying ones origins. In producing a CD or preparing a set list for live performance, a bluegrass band is well-advised to acknowledge the first generation by recording or playing one or two covers of early bluegrass tunes. This can either be done as an entire song or as an introduction with variations. Sam Bush always includes a Bill Monroe tune in his set, often followed by jamming on it in his own distinctive style. In name and performance, the Minnesota band Monroe Crossing always plays a Monroe song before covering a much wider range of styles and approaches in their shows. Junior Sisk loves and reveres The Stanley Brothers, playing their material often, while the originals in his canon, often written by his dad Harry or his cousin Timmy Massey have an old-fashioned sound, but are distinctly original, too. This ability to acknowledge one's musical heritage while crafting a distinctive voice is essential to move away from the pack.

The subject matter of songs counts. We live in the age of singer/songwriters, for better or worse. At the same time, there have never been so many talented writers laboring in the fields of bluegrass and country music. Think about the names: Carl Jackson, Louisa Branscomb, Pam Gadd, Clint Wilson, Ronnie Bowman, Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Brandon Rickman, Eric and Leigh Gibson, Donna Ulisse, Chris West, Tim O'Brien, Paula Breedlove, Jon Weissberger, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, and so many more are writing wonderful songs. Many perform the songs themselves and often write in sufficient volume to have their songs recorded by others as originals. It's not necessary for members of bands to write their own original material, but its nice to have this work. Some bands have been very successful at translating music from other genres (Pop, Country, Song Standards, and Jazz) into bluegrassed versions. I particularly like Special Consensus's version of “Over the Rainbow” as well as their Wizard of Oz medley. It is necessary, and often sufficient, for bands to seek out and perform original material that refers to the music's background while simultaneously forging into new ground. One band pioneering in this kind of effort is The Infamous Stringdusters. Their work consistently remains bluegrass while forging into new territory in subject matter and musicality. It's even better when the lyrics make you think and are well-integrated with the musical content. Ronnie Bowman and Shawn Lane's“Here I Am” or Tim Stafford's wonderful “Two Soldiers” stand as great examples of achieving both these goals. The Gibson Brothers consistently achieve this goal.

Bluegrass music has always emphasized ensemble sound combined with individual instrumental virtuosity. Why don't opera singers do well in a bluegrass band? (Has one ever tried?) One reason is that their vocal training is focused on having them stand out. Playing in a bluegrass band requires being able to be a member of the choir while being able to be an outstanding soloist in the same piece. Musicians must be able to sing three part harmony, take an instrumental break, and complement the song with inventive and helpful backup play. Many bands these days have three, or even four, members capable of singing vocal solos as well as contributing to harmony singing in trios and acapella gospel quartets. That's asking a good deal, but, despite the difficulty, seen from many first rate bluegrass bands. Too often, we encounter bands where one or more instruments don't contribute to melding into a unified whole. Rather, each person attacks the song as if it were an opportunity for him alone to shine. It's clear to good listeners when all members of a band serve the song, rather than seeking for opportunities to shine on their own instrument.

Please view this piece as a preliminary statement. I welcome hearing suggestions for additional ways to approach thinking about music and musicians worthy of awards as the IBMA awards nomination process starts in a few months.