Author: Campbell, Bruce

If You're Never Lost, You'll Never Be Found

Recently, I attended a dinner party, and the conversation turned briefly to bluegrass.

“What IS bluegrass music”, one guest asked.

I was about to answer, when another guest spoke up. The fellow who answered is not a bluegrass musician, or a bluegrass fan. He is a trained and capable sound engineer, albeit not a specialist in bluegrass as a genre. He spoke with some haughty authority.

“Bluegrass is a manufactured music”, he declared. “It’s not a traditional art form.”

“It was invented by a guy named Bill Monroe”, he went on. “It has very strict rules and adherents to this music insist that it always be performed in the way that Monroe played it. Any variant from the bluegrass formula that Monroe defined infuriates bluegrass fans.”

Then he took a bite of his dinner.

I was furious, but I let it go. Most of the people at this dinner have heard me perform bluegrass with one band or another, and I know they enjoyed it, whether they’rebluegrass fans or not. No sense contradicting this guy. But honestly, it still rankles to think of this “outsider”, offering smug, ignorant misinformation as fact.

But in a recent volley on the CBA’s Message Board, he was proven right, at least partially. There are people who purport to be bluegrass fans who behave right along the lines this dinner guest outlined. I have no doubt he’s also witnessed someone espousing the close-minded behavior he attributed to bluegrass music, and bluegrass music fans.

I feel VERY passionate about art, whether it is visual or audio in nature. And despite what this pinhead said, bluegrass IS an art form.

Art is freedom – it’s the very definition of freedom of expression. Labels are designed to constrict art, to help narrow minded people avoid challenges. The only thing that destroys an art form is to try and pigeonhole it into a strict set of definitions. Art is inclusive, definitions are exclusive.

The amazing thing about art is, challenges and explorations strengthen the center, not weaken it. If you love bluegrass, let it go where the artists take it. They will take plenty of wrong turns but one out of a hundred of those forays will discover a slightly new wrinkle that will keep the core vital, and vibrant. Art cannot be static, and survive. Those of you who think probing the edges of bluegrass threaten the purity of it, listen carefully to that claim and beware. Who else in history has championed “purity”, and how did that turn out?

I challenge anyone out there to name an art form that disappeared because of innovation.

When you go to an art gallery, do you only look at paintings you know you already like? If so, you are doing yourself, and the artists, a great disservice. Wander into the wings and see what else is there. Some of the stuff you see is awful – you’ll wonder how it ever got into the gallery. But some of the art will surprise you – some artist will expand upon a motif you thought you knew and surprise and delight you. Had you stayed in the main gallery only, you’d have missed it. If the gallery only showed the paintings YOU like, it would shortly go out of business.

Close-mindedness kills art, never innovation. In the long run, fans will vote with their wallets, attention and time, and innovations that aren’t successful will disappear. But experiments that work will be folded into the art and strengthen it. The center will hold, and its quality will be confirmed. What would Bill Monroe say? Was HE closed to new ideas? If you’re a true bluegrass fan, you already know the answer.

Posted:  9/18/2013

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