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.


  1. Ted, you make some wrong assumptions and then build upon those.

    First, "Tradition" does NOT mean handed down from generation to generation. It means the way it was done originally. There is a significant difference between these two.

    I would say that that most of the original foundation of bluegrass were traditional but, most certainly, not everything they performed was or could be considered bluegrass.

    Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, and Bill Monroe all were traditional. So were hundreds of front porch bands that never performed at their level.

    The music they performed was traditional in that it had a unique sound, presence and soul that is rarely found in todays music. Today, they have taken the front porch out of the music. There is too much spit, shine and polish and the music has lost its soul.

    Most certainly Dailey & Vincent have lost it. Rhonda never had it. Del has the ability but rarely does anymore. Grascals definitely don't have it but Larry Sparks does....

    The point is that it isn't the notes that are played that make a song traditional, it is the way they are played that does.

    There's very little traditional left in today's bluegrass

  2. You're confusing traditional with some elements of "soulful" or influenced by musical traditions, both of which I agree with heartily. But neither of these qualities can reasonably be defined as "traditional" when applied to what Bill Monroe did when he originated bluegrass music. A better questions would be to assess whether the songs and approach pioneered by Monroe has become traditional.

  3. Dear Ted,

    I read your blog & think I could shed a little light on the subject.

    In 1966, in Savannah, Georgia, I started a collecting project which in 1968 became my Masters thesis. I collected 9 hours of edited music from 12 blind Itinerant street musicians. There were about 25 of the genre at the time. The thesis traces the transition of traditional Appalachian folk music (Child ballads) into the modern age of radio & recordings starting in the early ‘20’s. It follows through the early days of Hillbilly recordings with Riley Puckett & Victor’s Vernon Dalhart, & continues with the youngest of the group (mid 40’s) doing Bobby Bare’s hit Detroit City. The paper is fully documented, both annotation & discography. I would be glad to share it.

    I am out of the country right now and the thesis is not in electronic form. I will try to get a copy to you when I return, 7/15/11 or sooner. Toby Mountain digitized the old reel to reel tapes & has the masters. I also have a set. The older I get, the more relevant this old stuff seems to get.

    David Wright

  4. I find your statements about traditional bluegrass in relation to the Bluegrass Album Band interesting. I certainly can't agree with them. I believe if an individual were to ask each individual performer of the BGAB about the songs they have recorded as a band, they would reference that individual back to the original recordings of those songs laid down by the masters. The members of the BGAB all have a love of real traditional bluegrass they just reached beyond what they already had as influences to create their own style with their voices and instruments. Whether that was an advancement of Bluegrass as a whole is up to the individual listener.

    Many of today's popular artists would do good to go back and listen to the less than adequate (to their ears), non-pitch corrected recordings to learn about real heart and soul. If they want to hear heart and soul and drive (among other positive attributes) a good place to start is the early to mid 1950's recordings of Bill Monroe that include Jimmy Martin. If there was a bluegrass dictionary entry for heart, soul and drive Bill's recording of "On and On" would be the perfect example, at least to my ears.

    I agree with the first anonymous post. There is too much spit and polish with today's Bluegrass, even that labeled as traditional.

    I'm hearing musicians pounding their instruments for all they are worth mistaking that wall of sound for drive. Today's bluegrass doesn't breath. The pioneers didn't compete against each other in the band, they tried to complement each other.

    I'm also hearing some decent bands on a national level that have some potential to a traditionalists ear, but they have watered the music down so much that it all starts sounding the same after just a few songs.

    There is still some good traditional bluegrass left. Some on a national level and quite a bit on the regional level. Those of us that love it just have to search harder to find the real thing.

  5. Thought provoking article, Ted. Thanks for taking time to write and post it. I had to look up 'atavistic'..

    The word 'traditional' sure provokes reaction. I'm a clawhammer banjo player and when I hear Ralph Stanley play Clinch Mountain Backstep, I can't help but hear the much earlier fiddle tune Lonesome John. I like not drawing a line in the sand in 1946 with respect to the the word 'Bluegrass' although I understand why it's normally done that way. When I listen to early bluegrass I tend to hear a through-line from much earlier 'traditional' fiddle tunes.

    Also, I have to agree that the soul of this relatively early music seems to be missing from much of what seems to be coming out of Nashville these days. I think that you're right about todays bluegrass music not being linked emotionally to real life events.

    Early fiddle tunes were often written solely as reactions to daily observations and happenings. I think while we don't re-live the real life events that spawned some of these tunes, we can still imbibe much of the flavor and intention by studying early source recordings and writings about the the social, economic and political life and times that birthed this great American music.

  6. Pretty sure that "traditional" doesn't mean the way it was done originally. It means handed down. In some styles, there are a lot of old tunes around with hints of a 800-year or more history, but not even notation exists until the 1700s-1800s. No one knows the way it was done originally, but how can that be anything but tradition?

    We're barely over a century into the era of recorded music. If Bill Monroe had made the same music even 50 years earlier, likely no one now would know how he originally did it or even know him by name. But there would still be echoes of it in a handed-down tradition.

    Got to agree that the current polished stuff is pretty weak beer for a bluegrass fan though. Sounds more like 1970s radio country than any kind of bluegrass. I guess there's a market among the fans who miss the way that the pop country music genre sounded when they were kids, but that's no reason to call it bluegrass.

  7. I must say, Anonymous is(are) a pretty smart fella(s). I would wholeheartedly agree with all of their points, especially regarding Monroe/Martin/Rudy Lyle version of "On and On". It simply does not and will never get any better than that as far as I am concerned. My criteria for what is Bluegrass is, does it "move" you and/or your emotions. Does it make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Does it make you get a lump in your throat? The grand masters all had the ability to pour their heart and soul into every note, every word, and make you take notice. Having said that, it does not have to be from the first generation to be "good", but it has to have those same elements. I think the Gibson Brothers are a fine example of "new" music that "moves" you. Unfortunately, it seems to be found less and less in today's Bluegrass music. As the great Jimmy Martin said, "You've really got to hunt for the good life". The hunt seems to get harder and harder with each passing year.