Author: Poling, Chuck

Getting In Touch with Your Inner Ponytail

I have spent my entire working life employed in some aspect of advertising, marketing, or publishing. I’ve been an account executive, a project manager, a print production manager, a studio manager, a copywriter (my current focus), and a creative director, among other things.

In a world that is starkly divided between the “Suits” (account execs, product and brand managers) and the “Ponytails” (copywriters, graphics designers, art directors) I have managed to work both sides and have developed an appreciation for the challenges each side faces.

The Suits are driven to distraction by the seeming disconnect from reality from which many Ponytails suffer. Knowing full well that the project budget is $100,000 and the delivery date is six weeks away, creative will come back with a design that costs three times as much and takes twice as long to execute. It’s really cool and may even win some awards, but it’s not what the client needs, wants, or can afford to pay for.

Creatives are notoriously bad about keeping track of billable hours and resent the Suits’ preoccupation with budgets and timetables. They feel that the Suits don’t appreciate what goes into design. All too often an account exec requests a “quick little change” that actually requires an extensive redesign. As one artist explained to me, it’s like you’ve built a house of cards and somebody wants to change just one itty-bitty little card – right in the middle of the house.

I was recently musing about the quirks of creative people and the creative process when I made the connection back to bluegrass. A good song doesn’t happen by accident. There’s a craft to songwriting that requires all the parts of the song – the verses, the chorus, the instrumental breaks, etc. – to work together. Likewise, the type and graphics of a good poster are arranged in a particular way to attract the audience and convey information.

In both cases, a creative person is making subjective decisions about both the form and the function of the “product” (a song or a poster). These decisions are based on past experience and knowledge of their craft, and both the graphic designer and the songwriter should be able to explain why they used a certain font or added a minor chord in the chorus. Sometimes, there’s no explanation other than “it looked good” or “it sounded right,” but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s not a random process and that little things matter.

To casual listeners, the subtle nuances of songwriting or performing may just go completely over their heads. They won’t recognize that the song is crooked (has an odd number of beats in measure) or that the banjo is in a modal tuning. But they may get the vibe of the song. Crooked tunes create a certain tension by moving the chord changes to unexpected places, and modal tunings have an eerie, haunting quality that sets a dark mood, especially appropriate for songs about murder, mining, and moonshine.

Little things matter. Here’s a test: try playing Clinch Mountain Backstep without the extra beat. It totally steals the song’s thunder. Play “Coo-coo Bird” with a banjo tuned to standard G instead of G-modal (sawmill) tuning. It’s just not very interesting.

To the layman, all of this is just gobbledy-gook, but a musician recognizes how changing one note can change an entire song. Bluegrass is unique in that so many of its fans are also practitioners of the music and appreciate the finer points of style and content. At any decent-sized festival, you’re likely to find dozens of amateur songwriters and hundreds of amateur performers. And each of them has a little Ponytail inside of them, whether they know it or not.

The bluegrass community has the luxury of not worrying about budgets and timetables, since the vast majority of us play just for fun or, at the most, use gig money to offset the cost of our fabulous instruments and festival tickets. So getting out to play bluegrass is a way of unleashing that inner Ponytail. Luckily for festival-goers, the only Suits they’ll see are the emcees and Del McCoury.

Posted:  7/23/2012

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email