Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Content & Context - Essay

The essay below is a lightly edited version of a column I published on the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page yesterday.  The CBA is an important promoter of bluegrass music whose reach extends beyond its California location.  Check it out.
And so the battle rages on. For some weeks now an on-line argument has centered around some changes being designed by IBMA to help fans, musicians, sales and service organizations focused on the music industry, broadcasters, and the entire range of people involved in making, promoting, and selling bluegrass music feel supported by and encouraged by their professional trade organization.. Significant issues involved in this lively discussion surround the ever-present WIBA (What is Bluegrass Anyway?) argument, the big tent – small tent discussion, the roles of various kinds of bluegrass music, and each individual's desire to have a comfortable place in it. The argument has led some people to misread and misinterpret the writings of others. It has been filled with fear, anger, a shrillness. But there are sane voices expressing clearly thought out ideas.

A look at almost any festival audience, especially on Thursday or early Friday, suggests parts of the problem facing bluegrass. The core of the traditional bluegrass audience relies heavily on retired people or those who are free to take a couple of days off to travel to a fairly remote site to attend a multi-day festival held in a campground or, often, a large field devoid of or providing limited services. Typically the audience travels a hundred miles or less, sets up for a weekend of camping, visiting, jamming, and listening to local, regional, and national bands perform. While the moveable bluegrass community provides the core audience, promoters rely on the drive-in Friday evening and Saturday crowd to create the possibility of making a profit. These events are often held in remote areas far from urban and suburban population centers. Huge pressure to hold prices down is exerted by people who attend festivals in order to make their own music and to socialize rather than to hear name bands on the stage. Such pressure, of course, limits the ability of promoters to offer premier bands to those attending festivals. In order for bands to prosper and musicians to be able to make a living, other audiences must be found.

Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for The Infamous Stringdusters, has written a thoughtful article on his web site discussing the Stringdusters' decision-making process as they sought to change their brand to reach out to new and younger audiences. ( Pandolfi's manifesto describes how the Stringdusters analyzed their desired audience in relation to the nature of their music and decided to associate themselves with the extremely successful bluegrass influenced jam bands like the Avett Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Old Crow Medicine Show rather than rely on bluegrass festivals as the chief source of their income. At the same time, IBMA began the roll-out of its plan to coordinate, facilitate, and reach out to the entire larger bluegrass community through what it's calling Bluegrass Nation. Meanwhile, the endless WIBA (What is Bluegrass Anyway?) conversation continues in the forums and list servs. What emerges is the same eagerness for and fear of change we find dividing our larger society as people harden into fixed positions and become less willing to listen to each other. This often manifests itself as anger and frustration with the directions bluegrass seems to be taking.

About thirty years ago, bluegrass festivals seemed to be increasingly dominated by counter-cultural elements that have been inaccurately characterized as “hippie” influences. Long hair, pot smoking, drinking, and rowdy behavior was becoming all too prevalent and many, more conservative people, were justly repelled, feeling they didn't wish to have their children influenced by or they themselves subjected to such behavior. My understanding is that it was at the Doyle Lawson Festivals in Denton, NC that Milton Harkey (now promoter of Bluegrass First Class and the Cherokee Festival, both in North Carolina) established a no public drinking and no drugs standard that drove out the negative element, turning bluegrass festivals back into family events. Since then, the word “family” has been integral to drive-in bluegrass festivals. Parents feel free to allow their children to wander freely around the venue, activities are designed for young people, kids academies teach bluegrass picking to kids, and there is a generally family oriented, wholesome environment. The question remains, however, is this crowd, part retired senior and part young families showing up on Friday and Saturday sufficient to support the continuance and development of bluegrass as a genre?

A number of bands have been exploring an expanded range of venues and performing approaches to introduce bluegrass to new audiences and expand the bluegrass world while increasing their earning capacity. Dailey & Vincent have taken their show to the world of southern gospel as well as into performing arts centers. Jamie Dailey told me the other day that he often asks how many people are seeing D&V for the first time. He reckons as many as ninety percent of the audience raise their hands. Eric Gibson relates a very similar experience with performances in the Midwest and Texas before large, enthusiastic, and new audiences at subscription performing arts venues. The Del McCoury Band has attracted exceptionally enthusiastic audiences at alternative venues like Bonaroo and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco. His current limited tour supporting a CD his band made with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is garnering rave reviews in places not necessarily connected to bluegrass. Despite the agonized cries of true believers, Doyle Lawson has added a tasteful and unobtrusive snare drum and kick bass drum to his mix, increasing its drive without compromising his sound. He argues the long history of drums in main stream bluegrass and denies that he's doing anything revolutionary. Meanwhile, the Infamous Stringdusters are taking their show to rock clubs and larger venues with light shows and fog machines used to complement their sound, which has changed little, if at all, from what they were doing as a progressive bluegrass band at festivals.

All this suggests that the content of bluegrass music has changed little. It remains string band music, always amplified in some way when played from the stage. The electric bass has long been standard for many bands, and guitars can finally be heard because they're plugged in. Great flat picking really developed when the subtleties of the guitar could be heard. Bluegrass festivals and local jams continue to be a mainstay for those wishing to make and hear traditional bluegrass music as well as those seeking to expand their listening horizons. For the more adventurous, a large range of bluegrass and bluegrass influenced music can be heard in new venues which encourage the coveted and free-spending demographic of eighteen to thirty-nine year olds to attend and enjoy. Such venues often sell alcohol while permitting (encouraging) dancing in front of the stage. They provide the environment that demographic largely seeks out. So the context in which the music is presented has expanded, inviting new audiences to experience bluegrass music. As with many other forms of music, people who come to hear will stay to listen and to discover the roots from which such music comes. They'll hear the names – Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse, The Osbornes, and others and be moved to discover the music these great innovators created. They'll learn to play and continue the musical evolution created by these musicians nearly seventy years ago. And so the legacy and the development of what will still be called bluegrass will continue.