Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hats and Shades - Essay

The essay before is a lightly edited version of my California Bluegrass Association Welcome Page column which appears on the second Tuesday of each month. The CBA is the largest bluegrass association in the country, and their web site often carries material of interest to the larger bluegrass community.

I know. Bill Monroe wore a Stetson hat looking something like a cowboy hat as did Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The Johnson Mountain Boys all wore cowboy hats. They're traditional apparel for bluegrass bands. Of course, Monroe wore jodhpurs, too, in early photographs of the Blue Grass Boys, and I don't see very many people putting them on these days. Matter of fact, the picture of him and The Bluegrass Boys in hats and jodhpurs reminds me as much of what he might have imagined a plantation overseer to wear, but I'll leave that one for another day. I gather the reason Earl Scruggs wore his banjo over one shoulder is that doing so allowed him to remove his banjo without having to take off his hat. Nevertheless, generations of banjo players have allowed the weight of their banjos to damage their necks and backs thinking some of the secret of Earl's genius must lie, at least partly, in not looping his banjo strap across his back. Irene points out to me that many people may wear hats in order to keep their bald pates from glaring out too much in the lights. I'll give her that one, but a little powder might achieve the same purpose. Sunglasses also appear as part of the stage persona of some performers. They wear these, even when the sun isn't glaring directly in their eyes in the later afternoon, which is probably the only good excuse for wearing shades.

Recently we've attended several indoor events held in darkened settings with only stage lighting. A young banjo player tilted a fashionable black pork-pie over her head, creating a shadow completely hiding her face. She exacerbated the effect by keeping her head down through almost all of her performance. A brilliant, prize-winning guitarist in a top touring band insists on wearing a ball cap pulled down over his face, creating a deep shadow hiding his perfectly acceptable face. Combine that with the beard he's wearing these days, and he practically disappears. Hats and caps, you might say, are a legitimate part of a performers costume, accessories that help to establish a stage personality setting people apart, giving them a recognizable persona. But I don't think I'm the only person in an audience that understands how these items of apparel cut off a musician from making contact with members of the audience.  Performers must connect with their audience. Doing so is more than a matter of “just the music.” It requires being seen, and being seen means eye contact above all.

Given the state of much of the stage lighting performers get on many of the stages where they ply their trade, making contact becomes an even more important issue. Many stages are lit with an inadequate bank of stage lights just above, even directly over, the performers, creating shadows in the best of circumstances. Few sound people also have a solid understanding of stage lighting, and who'd really expect them to. The recent advent of LED lighting, a harsh and unforgiving light at best, adds the necessity of a light board as well as a sound board to the technical part of setting a stage. Furthermore, very few stages provide any light coming from in front and below the performers. There are no foot lights, which would help eliminate much of the shadowing caused by hats. Microphones and monitors are seldom placed on stage with an awareness of the placement of lighting. And even where there are adequate stage lights provided, few understand the damage that too much red or blue, let alone the dreaded green and yellow, can create. Light flesh colored gels can help immensely. “Cmon, Lehmann,” you say, “You're just a cranky photographer asking other people to do your work for you. Quit nit-picking.” Yet dozens of people at most events we attend are taking pictures only to arrive home and not understand why their photos just don't look quite right. We recently attended an event where the right side of the stage was red, the center a pleasant white, and the left a jaundice-colored yellow, making it impossible to take a picture of a whole band and difficult to make individual shots, too.

I hear a lot from audience members complaining about the dress of bluegrass artists. They object to jeans, especially when they have holes in them. They want band members to tuck their shirts in, even if they scratch the back of their instruments. They're incensed by holes in the jeans, even expensive tears put their by the clothing designers themselves. Remember when jeans were being sold in New York department stores with holes created in them by placing the trousers on piles of dirt and blasting them with shotguns? I think they sold for over $100 a pair. Some fans aren't happy unless bands come on stage wearing jackets and ties. Yet I'm convinced that bands make conscious decisions about how what they wear coordinates with their perception of how they want to be musically accepted. They don't just get on stage wearing anything, they're putting on costumes to express a perception of themselves they want to project. So wearing hats and shades says, “I want to hide myself from people who want to connect with me.” With the rare exception of the person with highly sensitive eyes, what else can those shades mean?

One of the distinguishing and endearing characteristics of bluegrass music lies in the accessibility of musicians to their audiences. Mystery and distance are not qualities bluegrassers want to encourage. There's little they can do to change the quality of lighting they get from venue to venue. Therefore, it only makes sense for musicians to shed their hats and shades and open themselves to their public.