Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Myth of the Great Local Bluegrass Band - Essay

The essay below is an unedited re-posting of my monthly column at the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page from yesterday. I look forward to your comments and the ensuing discussion.

Wherever we go in bluegrass we hear from local people about a band (or bands) that are every bit as good as most touring bands and that we just must hear them. At festivals on showcase stages or in the field or parking lots (mostly a term of art these days), in performance at local events, in jam sessions in shops or in people's homes, and in the hallways at IBMA or indoor festivals we are introduced to fine people who love bluegrass music, pick regularly, and make important contributions to keeping the music alive by spreading it to the next generation, but we don't hear great bands. The bands we hear do a competent job of covering a rather short list of bluegrass classics as well as playing a lot of “classic country music,” which they love and which is easier to play than bluegrass, but they aren't great bands.

Criteria for being a great band are few and not easily achieved. It starts with fine musicians, not necessarily great virtuosos, but one or two really fine musicians helps. More important, however, is their willingness to sublimate their own play for the creation of a distinctive band sound. A band sound is such that after the first few notes a knowledgeable listener can identify the band by name. Such a sound is difficult to achieve and only emerges after a significant period of playing together to develop that sound or through the creative imagination of a leader who knows precisely the sound he or she wishes to achieve. Another criterion is the selection of excellent original material. Such material may be chosen from the work of song writers or emerge from song writing within the band. The emergence of the singer/songwriter has made the latter increasingly important, but not totally necessary. Finally, the band has to burnish its sound through the kind of extensive familiarity that probably only emerges after a lengthy period of touring, leading toward a musical melding (often called tightness) that helps create the aforementioned band sound. Achieving this goal is enhanced through relatively stable personnel within the band, although there are important touring bands which change personnel often.

There are plenty of good reasons why local bands don't achieve these goals. Perhaps the most important one lies in the history and nature of bluegrass music. Because the music emerged from the traditional songs and sounds of the rural Appalachian mountains, its practitioners have always come primarily through the informal route of back porch (an image more than a reality) and church singing,emerging as professional bands through a long winnowing process. Think of Bill Monroe laboring away on local radio stations with his brother Charlie as he sought to create a new and characteristic sound only to finally achieve it on the stage of the Grand Old Opry when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined him. His imagination concerning what that sound entailed developed organically as he played incessantly and obsessively on radio and in local venues. This pattern may be changing as academic programs in traditional, roots, and bluegrass music spread across the country. Established musicians are recruited to teach in music departments at both regional and national institutions, drawing ambitious young pickers to their programs and formalizing their knowledge beyond the traditional reliance on the ear, but constant play remains an essential.

Many wonderful musicians join bands and tour for a while, but are drawn away from this pursuit by the rational call of home, family, and security. Increasingly, as our society has changed, these people have joined the professions, and we find more “hobby” musicians who are lawyers, doctors, teachers, and accountants than was previously the case. The nature of these professions generally precludes extensive touring. It's extremely difficult to maintain a schedule of working five days a week, touring on the weekends while meeting the demands of a home and family. Making a living as a full time musician requires a commitment to hours of teaching (made easier by using Skype for online lessons), session work in studios (now spreading more widely as the computer allows people to mail in their contributions to a recorded project), playing corporate gigs with other kinds of music, and continuing to work in the band. Bluegrass music also is such a niche music that only a few obvious names can rely on their performances to provide support for themselves and their bandsmen.

Local bands are important culturally, but not musically. They don't, generally, serve to expand either the repertoire of songs moving into the jam world or to expand the concept of what bluegrass music is. They serve as an essentially conservative element, preserving the historic songs and traditions upon which bluegrass music is based. We generally hear two kinds of local bands. One kind is the older group of people who can be found in jam circles singing the great music that has emerged through the years. Recently, in a campground in Dillard, GA we heard the Gibson Brothers “Callie's Reel” floating across from a few sites away. We knew that if their music was reaching into jam groups, it was becoming part of the standard repertoire. Often, one or more members of such a group has a thick loose-leaf notebook filled with the lyrics for hundreds of songs from which they choose to put material into the jam. Another kind of band we hear is composed of young pickers who are seeking to establish themselves regionally or to reach out to national touring status. These bands are also playing lots of covers, but, interestingly, they are choosing to cover the Lonesome River Band, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Balsam Range, IIIrd Tyme Out, and Blue Highway...more contemporary bands that have emerged in the past three decades. These bands begin to really make their mark when they also include songs written by band members. One particularly thinks of emerging bands like Balsam Range, Monroeville, the Hillbenders, and Breaking Grass among others in this category. These bands are creating the standards for the next generation and emerging as truly national bands.

Thus, while the great local band is largely a myth, it is an important element of the larger bluegrass world, helping to keep alive the memory of our traditions while nurturing future musicians who will emerge as members of national touring and recording groups. Such local bands both encourage our youth and keep our traditions alive. Meanwhile, the young will continue to incorporate the music they hear in the air into the bluegrass format. This vast body of sounds drawn from folk, rock, and even hip hop expands the bluegrass universe while revering the work of those who have come before. Some of what they do will become part of the repertoire, while most will fade into obscurity as has so much of what was produced in imitation of earlier greats. After all, there's only so many Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms's around, just as there are only so many Monroes, Flatt & Scruggs, and Stanley Brothers. Greatness will emerge and thrive, while most will pass on. The local band remains an important element of this process.