Monday, October 25, 2010

Heresy - An Essay

The following essay is a lightly edited version of an essay of mine that ran a week or so ago on the Welcome page of CBA OntheWeb, the on line presence of the California Bluegrass Association.

For a few days in mid-October we visited in one of the birthplace regions of old time, bluegrass, and country music.  As a kid in high school, I heard and read about the poverty and coal dust of Appalachia.  Pete Seeger sang union songs that I learned and sang.  John F. Kennedy went to West Virginia to argue he was not a pawn of the Pope and got himself elected President.  The civil rights movement spread through the south, and I watched much of it on television.  But a place and a culture don't come alive until you get a chance to visit it, talk with some of the people who live there, sample the air.  The United Mine Workers are a weakened and ineffective organization, and twenty-nine people were killed in a mine explosion in West Virginia last year.  Every day in this corner where western Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky come together at Cumberland Gap, the coal trains still run up spur lines, get filled with coal coming from both strip and deep mines, and return to power plants where our electricity is produced. Local politicians, as we head for the election, argue about whether cap-and-trade will help or hurt the region.  And here, some of the best and most evocative music at the core of our American character was born and thrived in the last century.  The list is too long to compile, but here's a link to a list of Appalachian, bluegrass, and old-time musicians that would keep any afficianado clicking for weeks. 

Our visit to The Crooked Road included an evening at the Carter Fold where we saw Adam Steffey's new band, The Boxcars, perform while dozens of cloggers filled the floor in front of the stage with joyful (and noisy) dancing.  We drove up The Crooked Road to Clintwood, VA where the Ralph Stanley Museum has been established and then followed up by driving further north and west to The Breaks Interstate Park overlooking a thousand foot deep gorge cut by the Russell Forks River and now called The Grand Canyon of the South.  We also journeyed west through the mountains to Cumberland Gap, pioneered by Daniel Boone, to visit Steve Gulley and then through a mile-long tunnel to Pineville, where we spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley in her home town where she and Gulley are putting together The Cumberland River Academy of Bluegrass and Appalachian Music in a town that was underwater and nearly destroyed by a flood in 1977.  From this rich environment musicians like Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Carter Family, The Osborne Brothers, Chet Atkins, Uncle Dave Macon, and too many more to name were born and nurtured.  Like so many people from rural areas, they had to move to places where music was produced and people lived to thrive, but the country never left their souls or their music.

When I was a child and on into my teens and young adulthood, I wasn't nurtured on this music.  I grew up listening to classical music, Gilbert & Sullivan, the now almost forgotten Alamanac Singers (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell), Josh White, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.  I found Pete Seeger and the Weavers in college. Add to these people the smoother versions of folk music like The Kingston Trio, The Chad Mitchel Trio, and the Limelighters, and you have a sense of how my own taste developed.  Somehow, most of roots music and bluegrass passed me by until about eight years ago.  That means that the music we follow, listen to, photograph, and write about is a relatively recent addition to my awareness.  I've grown to love much contemporary bluegrass and to admire and revere the founders.

So here comes the heresy.  I'm not a huge fan of listening to the founders in the original versions and often find the many local and regional clones who describe themselves as “hard-driving” bluegrass bands, but which are truly cover bands of material done better by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne's, Jimmy Martin and others, to be nothing more than tiresome.  My personal taste runs much more towards bands such as The Gibson Brothers, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Balsam Range, The Sam Bush Band, The New Grass Revival, IIIrd Tyme Out, The Country Gentlemen, Grasstowne, and The Seldom Scene as well as many others who are performing their own original music or contemporary interpretations of older music. Contemporary bands with a traditional sound like Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass have made new contributions to traditional sounds.  On the other hand, my respect for the contributions of the founding generation of bluegrass musicians knows no bounds.  I believe we would lose significant elements in our musical culture if we allowed the work of these pioneers to die, as contemporary country music has done with its pioneers.  The divisions within country music make me sad.  Of course everything I hear isn't to my taste, but I try to listen to what's played and take away what I can from approaches and sounds which are new to me.  My taste changes gradually, but some bands, because of their originality, unique sound, lyrical power, outstanding musicianship and some factor I've called “It” in my writing have penetrated me consciousness and made an enduring impact on it.

I learned about traditional bluegrass by moving backwards from Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.  Many others will learn, too, if exposed to the full range of acoustic music often called Americana, but in my mind they are  all forms of bluegrass.  Sam Bush never fails to acknowledge his debt to Bill Monroe.  Other bands often include a few numbers from the first generation in their performance.  This is as it should be.  We can't know where the music is headed, and only time will tell.  Meanwhile, each generation of musician and fan coming along should be encouraged to follow the muse that led to the music they're making and listening to.  Some will live on and time will tell which and whose. Meanwhile, it's worth taking time to understand and embrace your own musical history as well as remain open to what it is becoming as new musical influences penetrate it.


  1. Burn him!

    Just kidding, Ted. A good read as always.

  2. Fine essay, Ted---but I did NOT read any heresy, just your personal tastes, and the evolution thereof, in a variety of musical genres. I'm not aware of ANYTHING unusual or heretical in that. Most folks, as the mature, move around, and are otherwise exposed to new composers, artists, genres, etc., grow to like some, and not others. I've always liked "traditional" (and I guess that includes "traditional sounding") folk music---but I include in that "genre" bluegrass---which is NOT all that traditional, given its American roots only a few decades ago---as well as polka, Breton, and Alpine dance music, yodeling (Alpine preferred---Franzl Lang is most definitely the king of all yodelers). I also grew up on classical music, but now listen mostly to early music (up until Mozart---much later than that and I categorize it equivalent to rap music--and I'm not being facetious!). Individual tastes are just that---doesn't mean there's anything wrong with another's tastes, and it certainly is not heretical.


  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece. The more I listen, the more I'm convinced that it's the arrangement of a given tune that matters: the addition of colorful chords, the alteration of rhythm, the variation in instrumentation. When these and other variables are handled in a clever way,whether on a war horse or a new tune, the results sound fresh. On the other hand, when the arrangement is strictly by the numbers, even a brand new composition will sound canned.

  4. I am a believer. Good, honest post you've written here Ted. :-)

  5. The comment below comes from a reader who prefers to remain anonymous. He has give permission to reprint most of his note to me:

    Hi, Ted: I see that you are an early morning riser these days. I often wonder how much blogging there would really be if everyone slept a full eight hours.

    I found your essay interesting but not particularly heretical, in fact fairly typical of latter-day intellectual interest in bluegrass and allied musical forms. Those who love the music tend to forget a few salient points. First, outside the cultural-geographic regions of the upland south, the audience for this music is drawn largely from a more highly educated and (ironically) more romantic portion of the population. Even within that region, most blue collar listeners are attracted to pop or the variations of country music. There persists an academic romance with older music forms, or the image of older music forms, and also the same thing within the upper economic strata with the upland south region, the music of those who have economically escaped and can now nostalgically romanticize their past.

    Having said all that, this still represents a very small portion of the music listening or buying public.

    The other element is continuing influence of the federal government in our view of this music and its history. Especially since WW1, but most strongly since 1929, federal agencies have created and propagandized a particular view of the culture of areas with a day's drive south and west of Washington DC. Compare, for example the number of recordings, films, festivals, books, grants, tv programs, magazine articles about musicians and craftsmen from the areas south of D.C. with, for example, the same sorts of materials about polka music in the upper mid-west, a far larger population and performance base. Look at the number of federal agencies that promote OT and BG music: several divisions of the Smithsonian, NEA, NEH, Library of Congress, and even such things as National Institutes of Health, Dept. of Agriculture, Dept of Education, National Park Service and on and on. If one-tenth of that interest had been applied to the musical cultures of any part of the USA our view of this music would be very different. (I wonder why the Tea Party folks don't complain about THAT gov't intrusion.)

    The other irony is that so much of this gov't interest came as result of bitter labor disputes between the far edges of both right and left, the right represented by the anti-Semitic ravings of Henry Ford, and the left by wacky "new workers music" that no one, even the performers or composers could really understand. Ford promoted square dancing and the fiddle contest as a counter to East European unionizing. Ripples in the pond, both of these ideals get swept into the New Deal documenting agencies.

    I used to tell my students, everything you see around you has a history of cause and effect, stress and response, ideals and ideology, romance and retreat.

    You and I are of a similar age, and some of our musical experiences influences overlap (not Frank Sinatra!) though I think I started much earlier in learning these older forms (late 1940's) and in a semi-professional performance commitment (bands since 1962), and in my academic interest (grad school at Indiana).

  6. Ted:
    I have always appreciated traditional bluegrass music, but like you, I prefer the newgrass sound. I respect and support many artists on both sides of the debate (and even some with drummers! HA) but I think that good music is good music, period. I was raised listening to Bill Monroe and Dr. Ralph, but I prefer John Cowan. It's no disrespect to the elder statesmen, it's my own personal preference. Someone might prefer Buddy Holly over Elvis, it doesn't mean they both weren't rock-n-roll legends...I feel the same way about this beautiful, moving music we call bluegrass! Thanks for stepping out on the limb, buddy, I'll be standing beside you!

  7. I find I like the original innovators rather more than the immitators. I think most people are more likely to prefer specific songs rather than specific artists. I find few artists that produce music I like 100% of the time. Two of my favorite songs are by Crash Test Dummies and Lyle Lovett, but I would not call myself a fan of either artist. I was listing favorite songs for a bio request for a profile piece that's being done on me. If was odd how few of my favorite songs were by artists that are represented by more than one CD or record in my collection. That's one of the things I love about festivals - the opportunity to discover new songs I like. I ran across "She's In Love With the Boy" at the Kerrville Folk Festival - not by Trisha Yearwood, but by the author, Jon Ims. I like his version better. It's more heart, less Nashville. I'm afraid if I'd pursued musicology instead of communications, I'd have been run out of the musicology business as a heretic. I think, for instance, that Bob Dylan had some good songs in him, but wasn't the genius people gave him credit for being. Leonard Cohen's a heck of a poet, but way too full of himself to stand to listen too - which is why I'd rather hear someone else do his songs. Earl Scruggs on the other hand is a decent, generous man and musician and he makes me smile to watch him play, especially when he's working with others. He makes them forget themselves and be better musicians. And then there's John Denver who tried so hard to be the second coming of Frank Sinatra toward the end of his career and always wound up being a country boy and something of an innocent. His duet with Placido Domingo was a brilliant contrast between the razor perfect opera singer and the gentle country tenor. Willy Nelson did a duet once with Joni Mitchell on "Cool Water" that blew me completely away. If it weren't for such musical heresies, the world would be a poorer place indeed.