Bluegrass is a term that differs in definition depending on who you ask. “To some, it’s a diverse, growing style that’s attracting younger crowds; to others, it’s an endangered species whose more progressive descendants are not worthy of the name” (Pandolfi, 2017).
Since its creation in the 1930s and 1940s, bluegrass music has come to have certain qualities that knowledgeable audiences have come to recognize and expect. In the past 60-70 years, bluegrass has been changed and adapted many times over. Many people in the older generations of bluegrass musicians and fans alike expect their bluegrass to be just like those early pioneers of the music – Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, even the Bluegrass Album Band in later years. These bands, just to name a few examples, became the faces and sounds of traditional bluegrass. But as the years go on, the music continues to be changed, and younger generations are taking the traditional sounds of bluegrass and adding their own style and flair, sometimes to the disgruntlement of the older audiences.
This year, leading up to IBMA, the organization had posted some promotional videos of some of the artists that would be showcasing throughout the week. While most of the music fit the standards at least closely enough to be considered bluegrass, there were some artists that pushed the boundaries. Comments from viewers on these more eclectic bands tended to be much more negative than positive, and the common grumbling from the older folks typing their complaints in all caps was that their ears weren’t hearing bluegrass.
What are the “standards” of bluegrass, when it comes to sound and repertoire?
-“instruments typical of old-time string band music” (fiddle, banjo, upright acoustic bass, mandolin, and steel string flattop guitar) (Kalra 2008, 24).
-“rousing up tempo tunes” (Kalra 2008, 25).
-“alternating between lead and accompaniment roles, often switching functions after four or two measures” (Kalra 2008, 25).
-songs about lost love, death, despair, cabins, mountains, the “home place”
-simple chord progressions
-again, there MUST be a banjo, right?
And what are some differing qualities in these more progressive groups?
-Covering songs outside of the bluegrass genre, on bluegrass instruments and sometimes in the bluegrass style
-songs with multiple tempos or meters
-“bro-grass breakdowns” (Cicero, 2017) in the middle of a song, often energetic and wandering solos straying from the song’s melody and played for several minutes throughout band members
-possibly more ambiguous or politically themes in songs
So, where am I going with this?
Then, during IBMA, I live-streamed the awards show on their Facebook page. During some of the performances that didn’t speak the language with a heavy bluegrass dialect (such as Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn and Front Country), the negative comments were coming in as fast as the mad-face emojis. (I looked and tried to find some quotes in the video comments, but combing through some 2,600 comments got the best of me.)
This got me thinking. I started to wonder if these folks who were upset to see groups that weren’t straight-ahead, hard-driving bluegrass were valid in their complaints. More of me wondered why these people were getting so upset, but I wanted to see if this was a universal thing, or perhaps just happened to be specific to the IBMA Facebook page (probably not the most reliable source).
First, a hypothesis…
Had I more time (or perhaps in the future, if I continue to research peoples’ views on this subject), I would have liked to speak with a bluegrass musician and/or fan that is perhaps a bit older or holds a more “traditionalist” view towards what the music should sound like. But for now, I will hypothesize what the issue is here for some people.
Like many issues we run across in the bluegrass, it has to do with one very important, but rarely critiqued concept: authenticity. I assume (which I know, I shouldn’t do) the older generations and/or the people who have a stricter, more traditional view of how bluegrass should be made to sound, and that doing it unlike the pioneers of the music will cause the tradition to eventually diminish.
Here’s my problem with that: if bluegrass doesn’t continually change, there will be no future. It’s time we welcome, embrace, and support bands doing new things.
Time for an Interview! (Or two…)
I had the great fortune to speak with not one, but two insightful and helpful musicians that were able to help me better understand how audiences are taking the shift in the bluegrass world from traditional to progressive. I was able to speak with both Joe Cicero of Fireside Collective and Melody Walker of Front Country. These groups are both busy on the bluegrass scene, and are both known to be on the progressive side. I asked these two similar questions about their repertoire and how their audiences respond to what they’re playing.
First, let’s hear some examples of what the groups are doing. Both bands are known to write their own songs, some obviously with a heavy bluegrass influence.
Here’s a couple FroCo examples. Let’s listen to a sample of the original versions of these songs, and then a sample of what they have to say:
*Wait for after the intro vocals to make your assumptions on this one
*The differences between these two are much more drastic!
Now that you have a taste of Front Country, let’s take a listen to some Fireside Collective. Where FroCo is well known for their likelihood to play their own, edgy spin on older, traditional tunes, Fireside is known to do covers of songs that were not traditionally bluegrass (a trait of progressive bluegrass bands I mentioned earlier), and they have come to do some really interesting and inventive ways to put their bluegrass stamp on those songs.
Here’s Fireside covering Paul Simon…
…and playing an original with a very progressive feel to it.
I wanted to find out how people were responding to bands playing this progressive style of bluegrass music, especially at different venues. I assumed (there I go again) response would be different at a bluegrass festival versus a standing-only concert hall with drinks-a-plenty.
Turns out, in talking to both Joe and Melody, I found out geography was more of a factor of how people perceived their music, rather than venue. I can’t say this is surprising, as we can all recognize the differences and variations of bluegrass music in different parts of the country (and even the world). There is a different expectation of what “bluegrass” will sound like no matter where you go.
Joe says Fireside labels the band as “bluegrass” if they’re outside the South/Appalachian region, especially up in the northeast. However, when they are in this area, they’re labeled “progressive folk.” Joe says “That’s what we go by down here, because people are actually versed in bluegrass” and that they will have a certain, specific definition of what that means. He says “we usually don’t deliver that expectation.” At the same time, Joe mentioned his band hasn’t played many traditionally traditional festivals, such as Bean Blossom, for example. He said no matter what, their repertoire is always “bluegrass heavy,” whether that be in influence, style, or execution.
Interestingly, Melody had a little different perspective. She mentioned that Front Country labels themselves as “rootspop” and that they’re still “figuring out whatever that is.” She said that many people know they aren’t a bluegrass band, but play eclectic music on bluegrass instruments. Front Country has traveled abroad a few times now (most recently to Tibet and the UK), and Melody says it’s often a problem when they are billed as “bluegrass.” She mentioned that sometimes, people are familiar with bluegrass music because of bands like Flatt and Scruggs, for example, and when they hear the term “bluegrass,” that’s what they’re wanting to hear. Front Country is seldom ever labeled as “bluegrass,” however.
Generally, it seems bands on the progressive side of bluegrass have more positive responses than negative, I found out, after talking to these folks who are prime ambassadors for the music.
It seems that no matter where you go, whether it’s out west to by for the “dready hippies” who are there to “vibe out, dance around and they want you to jam and ‘get out there,'” up in the northeast where the audiences are split and appreciating of both sides of the spectrum, in the Appalachians, where there is a traditional influence and the hope to keep it that way, or across the world, people dig bluegrass in all its forms.
“You can find the traditional guys in Colorado, too, and you can find the traditional cats in New York.” (Cicero, 2017)
The Bottom Line
Genre-ally speaking, music has no rules, and bluegrass is no exception. Perhaps audiences aren’t as negative towards progressive bluegrass as I originally thought. This project affirmed my original feeling towards expanding on the traditional sounds and “rules” of bluegrass, which leads me to say: if the music moves you and your fans are digging it, play your own unique style of bluegrass any way you want. If someone hears something they like, dive in and learn more, and discover the traditional bluegrass, you’ve done a favor to bluegrass music. And the curmudgeonly old man behind his Facebook screen can’t be mad about that!
Cicero, Joe. Personal Interview. November 8, 2017.
Kalra, Ajay. “Bluegrass: The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 12.” JSTOR, University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Pandolfi, Chris. “Two Worlds of Bluegrass Music.” No Depression. 31 May 2017.
Walker, Melody. Personal Interview. November 1, 2017.