Wednesday, October 12, 2011

IBMA 2011 - Three Keynote Addresses

The essay below is an unedited version of an account I posted on the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page yesterday. I've added photos of the presenters and embedded the actual presentations from Chris Pandolfi and Craig Havighurst's interview of Yonder Mountain String Band's Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston for those who wish to take the time to view the entire presentations.

Ronnie Reno
Keynote Speaker

At the recently concluded IBMA World of Bluegrass meetings in Nashville, three keynote addresses were scheduled to set the tone. Together, the three speeches described a bluegrass arc from our blugrass past to several ideas about what our future could and might look like, as a musical form, as a business, and as a broader force in music. On Monday morning, Ronnie Reno, whose career spans much of the history of bluegrass music spoke about his life as a young musician with his father, banjo innovator, bluegrass boy, and band leader Don Reno. Ronnie Reno also spent several years as a member of the Osborne Brothers band and toured with Merle Haggard both as opening act and a sideman in Haggard's band. He's now a principle in Blue Highways TV as well as maintining his band Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition. Ronnie spoke about the early days of bluegrass. His speech was folksy and homey, expressing confidence in the power of bluegrass music to last despite, or perhaps because of, all the influences touching upon it and changing it through the years. He described Bill Monroe as a musical revolutionary who, as his vision of his own work matured in later years, applauded the efforts of others to forge their own way while protecting his own invention jealously. He also showed the crusty side of Monroe his friends and followers knew and treasure. A highlight of his presentation was showing a couple of previously unknown pieces of film featuring Bill Monroe in performance at a festival and presenting an interview he had recorded in Monroe's later years. Ronnie Reno, now in his mid-sixties himself, shared bright and knowledgeable memories of the founder of bluegrass music from the days when he was at the top of his game. Ronnie Reno's presentation was filled with affection for Bill Monroe and optimism for the future of bluegrass music. 

Chris Pandolfi
Keynote Speaker
Chris Pandolfi's keynote address was one of the long awaited and eagerly anticipated events of this year's World of Bluegrass. Chris, a graduate of Dartmouth College and the first banjo player to major in his instrument at Berklee College of Music, is a founding member of the ground breaking progressive bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters, winners of IBMA Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Emerging Artist of the Year in 2007. Recently, in an essay on his blog, Chris had described how this very fine bluegrass band is finding its way into the world of large and enthusiastic audiences more associated with rock bands and jam bands. Speaking to a standing room audience on Tuesday morning, Chris emphasized the strength of the creative urge among musicians which will take all music in new and interesting directions. Chris spoke with passion and conviction saying that the exclusiveness of those who would limit the expansion of bluegrass music is discouraging. He commented, “Nobody feels comfortable in a world that consistently questions your validity.” He noted that all members of the Stringdusters have come to where they are out of the bluegrass world and feel a deep kinship to it. 

He went on to point out that changes in the culture and the economy suggest that change is inevitable. Rather than there being a decline in the popularity of bluegrass, there's a revolution going on in string band music that has grown out of the ongoing development of bluegrass music since its very beginning, giving bluegrass and the bluegrass derived bands great national visibility and broader national coverage. (Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers' later win of Entertainer of the Year and the subsequent national attention this event garnered only served to punctuate Chris's comments.) He particularly spoke about The Stringdusters recent sold out concert, in which they opened for Yonder Mountain String Band at Red Rocks outside Denver, asserting such appearances can do nothing but good for bluegrass. He particularly used The Del McCoury Band as a referent for this, citing the huge enthusiasm for the Del McCoury Band at events like Bonnaroo and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as well as the recent successful CD in which the McCoury Band performs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans. Concerning the endless WIBA (What is Bluegrass Anyway?) discussion, Pandolfi argues we should agree to disagree and stop having the discussion. Bluegrass will take care of itself. 

Meanwhile, the bluegrass related and derived bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers and others have the capacity to help bluegrass. By opening venues like NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the NFL, Rock and Country Music arenas and others to a wider musical constituency, the jam bands interest potential listeners in the music from which they are derived – bluegrass. Pandolfi emphasized that great musicians will inevitably find each other, that their creativity cannot be stifled by the intransigence of some fans, that there's always an audience somewhere or else the music they create won't continue. He says one almost never finds an accomplished musician who's not interested in connecting with other musicians in different genres. Musicians want to take their music to more people. He emphasized that music is art, and art changes. One only has to look at the history of graphic art to see the movement from strict rules regarding composition and the attempt to capture reality in a visual format through impressionism to cubism and on into abstraction to see the truth of Pandolfi's remark. And through it all, there's always been a market for realism, too. So, too, will there always be a market for traditional bluegrass within the larger world of bluegrass derived and related music. 

Chris Pandolfi's Keynote at IBMA - Video

Chris Pandolfi IBMA Keynote 2011 from Chris Pandolfi on Vimeo.
Pandolfi concluded by emphasizing the need for each band to establish its own brand, to define itself within the genres where it works. To do so, they must defy strict categorization. For IBMA, the implication is that every effort should be made to welcome bands whose music derives from and is related to bluegrass into the World of Bluegrass. Not to do so would relegate bluegrass into an increasingly narrow niche. One of the strongest elements of Chris Pandolfi's presentation was the level of respect and love he expressed for his own bluegrass roots, an area which he continues to explore while branching out to accept new creative challenges. His keynote presentation was greeted by the assembled IBMA membership with standing applause. 

Keynote Interview 
Ben Kaufmann, Dave Johnston, Craig Havighurst

The third IBMA keynote presentation was made in the form of an interview of Yonder Mountain String Band's Ben Kaufmann and Dave Johnston conducted by IBMA Board member Craig Havighurst. Yonder Mountain is one of the most wildly successful of the bluegrass derived jam bands. The band, based in Boulder, CO and consisting of the four traditional bluegrass instruments, plays to audiences at sold out venues around the country. Their music, strongly influenced by Del McCoury, the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and Bill Monroe as well as a other influences like punk and alternative rock, is uniquely their own. Some years ago Yonder Mountain had played at IBMA's World of Bluegrass to a nearly empty room and said up front they had never felt embraced by the bluegrass community. This saddens them because they revere the bluegrass traditions from which they come, knowing and understanding the greats of our genre. However, they hold that not having been accepted has served to open a world of creativity to them and led to much of their success as they found and developed new audiences.

Ben Kaufmann

Dave Johnston

Yonder Mountain String Band's music is noted for its volume and the physical responses of its audience through dance and movement. Ben Kaufmann pointed out that while they are said to be loud, part of their appeal is the very clear and well-articulated sound they produce thanks to the huge skills of their sound man. He asserted that, while they seem extremely loud, they actually achieve the effects at a lower decibel level than many of the rock bands they appear with due to the precision of their sound. Nevertheless, volume remains a part of the mix which evokes the rabid responses they achieve. He pointed out that the audiences at their appearances are wide open to everything Yonder Mountain does to make them sing, dance, and move. 

Yonder Mountain String Band 
Keynote Interview by Craig Havighurst - Video


Kaufmann and Johnston maintain that their band's experience has much to offer the bluegrass community in terms of widening its audience and reaching out to new and younger fans. They quoted Ralph Stanley as having said, “I don't play for musicians, I play for fans” and plenty of those have found the music of Yonder Mountain String Band. Every Yonder Mountain performance in the eleven year history except two is available for free download on line. They say they don't sell albums, they sell tickets. Meanwhile, they carefully manage and control the access to YMSB paraphernalia, something the Grateful Dean also excelled at as well as higher quality recordings. Their primary audience falls into the 18 – 35 year old demographic, but they mentioned that the audience when they share a venue with Del McCoury ranges from 3 – 95. Kaufmann said age doesn't matter to him, but he values open-mindedness. One comment he made has stuck with me over the past week or so. He emphasized that bluegrass doesn't need curators, it needs creators. By this he meant the music will take care of itself. It's too good and too true to require people to continually defend and hold it in stasis. Through creativity, the oldest and best will survive and thrive while new approaches and outlets will continue to be found.

I came away from the three keynote addresses filled with optimism and hope for the future of bluegrass music. My own experience has been that I learned backwards towards an appreciation for the contributions of the founders. With the help of people like Larry Stephenson, liking the Grascals has brought me to a new awareness for the carefully wrought sound of the Osborne Brothers, for instance. Similarly, yearly tutorials from Pete Wernick at his jam camps has strengthened my loyalty to Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and, yes, even Jimmy Martin. I listen to these people with new ears now. I'm confident that the new electronic world we find ourselves in has plenty of room for the jam bands and the traditionalists, and the more they find and appreciate each other, the stronger all will be. And we never can predict what the next step will be. We can know, however, that the music which is good and true, which appeals to people's hearts and minds will survive and thrive.