Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Traditional Bluegrass: Can it Be? - Essay

There's been a good deal of discussion going around recently about the size of the tent we play and listen in and some sort of conflict between “traditional” bluegrass music and not-traditional, with some emphasis placed on what varieties of bluegrass are called. I thought it might be interesting to spend a few minutes looking at what traditional means as well as how we come to identify ourselves with a particular form or era of what we call bluegrass. It's always interesting to start with the dictionary and thesaurus.

Traditional means “handing down from generation to generation ...especially by word of mouth or practice.” A generation is generally thought to be about thirty years, so bluegrass is, by my estimate a little over two generations old, since the generally accepted date of its invention by Bill Monroe is thought to coincide with the first appearances of Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs at the Grand Ol' Opry in 1946. The music soon to be called “bluegrass” was generally seen to be a fast-paced acoustic string band performance using mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle, and banjo in a highly syncopated style pioneered (but not quite invented) by Earl Scruggs) based on Scotts-Irish ballads, blues, western swing, and other forms popular at the time of Bill Monroe's greatest creative efforts, let's say from the late thirties into the mid-fifties. While it took Monroe quite some time to start calling this music bluegrass, others latched onto the name because of the name of Monroe's band.

For the sake of argument, I'll posit that two and a little more generations aren't enough time for an invented musical form to become traditional, even though its roots are deeply entwined in the traditions of American musical and social culture, particularly the rural parts of same. I'd be much more comfortable with the word “conventional,” which, although listed as a synonym of “traditional” carries a good deal different set of shades of meaning. Convention refers to “conforming or adhering to accepted standards, as of conduct or taste” as well as “ordinary rather than different or original.” The conventions of the music invented by Monroe and developed by many other band leaders characterized as first generation pioneers include the speed, individual instrumental solos (called breaks), solo and trio singing in close harmony, a high lonesome vocal sound, and a fairly simple chord pattern among others, except when it doesn't include one or more of these elements. It is still the music moderately, and even highly, skilled musicians prefer to play in jam sessions, while others prefer it coming from the stage performed by professional touring musicians as well. Many others who enjoy jamming revert to country music, which is considerably easier to play and sing and also a part of many bluegrass fans' musical DNA.

Louisa Branscomb, no mean song writer or scholar herself, recently wrote of bluegrass as “folk” music. To my mind it doesn't conform to the first definition of folk music: “music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition.” although it comes quite close to the second, “music by known composers that has become part of the folk tradition of a country or region.” Since much of bluegrass music grew from the rural diaspora caused by the depression and the industrial expansion during World War II, during which millions of rural southerners moved north to industrial jobs, particularly along the Great Lakes. The music incorporates rural and traditional values and yearnings while reflecting reactions to urban and suburban living. By today, the children and grandchildren of those caught up in this movement have become suburbanized, educated, and financially secure to a degree not imagined by their elders, and the music has become increasingly nostalgic, not reflecting real memories, but ones more imagined in the shadows of time. Many cling to these atavistic memories as a connection to a past they never truly knew and which probably never existed for most rural people, many of whom lived in deep poverty.

Many of today's bluegrass adherents who consider themselves to be traditionalists actually don't remember hearing bluegrass from the first generation pioneers. Their first exposure to so-called “traditional” bluegrass music may, in fact, have come from the music of two great bands which sought to interpret the original music to an audience which had become, essentially, unaware of the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, The Stanley Brothers, and others. Rather, the bands they first heard and that caught their imaginations were The Bluegrass Album Band and The Johnson Mountain Boys. Both of these excellent bands arose in the 1980's desiring to re-introduce fans to the music on which their current music was based.

All the members of the Bluegrass Album Band were recognized, at the time of their first recording, as progressive musicians, but the album emerged as a showcase for the members' traditional roots. However, can any band featuring a player of Tony Rice's inimitable flat picking truly be said to be traditional? No guitarist up to Rice's emergence had ever demonstrated the skill and speed he apparently achieved with little effort. Because of Rice's innovations, highly figured guitar breaks have become traditional, especially for those who can actually approach playing some of them. An entire generation of today's great guitarists grew up in the Rice mold and have built on his work. Similarly, Jerry Douglas playing the Dobro introduced a sound and musical sensibility never heard in the founders. This suggests that even though much of the music may carry a traditional label, it truly progressed through Rice's innovations. Similarly, J.D. Crowe advanced and built upon the work of Scruggs.

Dudley Connell's rich high baritone voice dominates the sound of the Johnson Mountain Boys and has contributed hugely to singing styles over the past generation. As Pete Wernick says, “Bluegrass music is all about the song” in both the lyrics and the instrumentals. A typical bluegrass set will feature one or two instrumental pieces and a dozen songs with lyrics. Has any single performer had more influence in bluegrass than Dudley Connell with his work in two distinctly different bands, one relying on music from an earlier era while the other changed the sound of bluegrass forever? I'd argue that most of the people who call themselves traditionalists owe more to these two bands than to the founders.

There seems to be pretty broad agreement about what the original bluegrass music sounded like and acceptance of the variations made in it by other early proponents like The Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin, Reno & Smiley and others. The driving sounds made by J.D. Crowe & the New South, while representing a departure, still fit well. Perhaps the earliest breaking off points came from The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene, both of which introduced materials from the folk revival and bluegrassed versions of rock & roll songs, although Monroe is now recognized as an innovator in rock music through his membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The other major branching point focused on the New Grass Revival at about the same time. Certainly the catalogs of at least two of these three groups have become main stream over time. No-one knows what form of what we call bluegrass will still be practiced in another generation in the form we know it now. But I suggest that elements of the best of all the strands of bluegrass and bluegrass related music will still be around; listened to and practiced among professionals and hobbyists. I'm convinced that many people who hear nearly any form of what's called bluegrass will be inspired to return to the roots of the music, keeping the founders alive and well from the stage and in the field. Meanwhile, our entire musical heritage will continue to be enriched.