Author: Campbell, Bruce

Rules....No Rules....

A good friend and I have been debating (amicably) the appropriate tactics to ensure a bluegrass open mic we host will in fact, focus on bluegrass.

Open mic events being, well, open, they sometimes attract some folks who don’t really understand bluegrass or maybe even ignore the name of the event. How can we fix this? Do we need to fix this? Can we, should we, institute rules on what people can play?

One of my issues with rules is, well, art shouldn’t have rules. The house band always plays “real” bluegrass, and nearly every night, so do most of the other acts taking their turns. There’s also a question of logistics - how could we ensure that only bluegrass is being played? Do we pre-approve songlists? Deny stage access if the list doesn’t pass muster? I can foresee lots of hurt feelings, and lots of people who might come around to being bluegrass fans being turned off

Remember the book “Hawaii” by James Michener? In it, the missionary Abner Hale tried,
and failed to win over the hearts and minds of the native Hawaiians to Christianity. Part of the problem, as his wife points out at one point, is Abner is too caught up in punishing the Hawaiians for breaking the laws of his religion, when, as his wife says “”

When I first began playing bluegrass, I wasn’t well versed in the biuegrass idiom. I know I called songs at jams that caused at least some mental eyerolls, if not real ones. (I probably still do!). One time, a player turned to me and said “I don’t know what is, but it isn’t bluegrass.” It hurt my feelings, and demonstrated the darker side of dogmatic orthodoxy. Luckily, I’m stubborn and kept at it, but a lot of musicians might just hang up their instruments and decide that bluegrassers are just too mean.

I think I’d rather tell the person whose three songs didn’t contain bluegrass, “Good job!”, make sure they have a Bluegrass Breakdown at their table and hope that the other acts playing bluegrass will ignite a fire in their hearts, and move them to learn some bluegrass songs for next month’s open mic.

Those of us in the house band always try and help fledgling bluegrass players feel comfortable, bolstering the rhythm and providing harmony vocals. There’s nothing like watching someone feel a good band lift them up for the first time. We’ve been doing the event for about 3 years, and it’s become increasingly popular. Being an “open” mic event, there will always be nights where the talent level or compliance with the stated musical genre is a bit off. But more often, there is a parade of enthusiastic bluegrass pickers and singers, and I have to hope it’s contagious!

Posted:  5/28/2014

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