Author: Lehmann, Ted

Writing Criticism
There’s been a thread running on Bluegrass-L about the role of criticism writing within bluegrass. It began with a discussion of the imminent demise of the online version of Bluegrass Now magazine, which had switched from print to electronic publication last spring. Someone commented that CD reviews in BN, and later, by extension, the music press, tended to be bland, supporting bands almost without regard to whether the music was any good. Some people involved in the conversation held that the bluegrass press was unnecessarily kind to CD releases, not criticizing them sufficiently. Another current ran suggesting that writers present their material so that thoughtful readers reading between the lines could see lack of huge enthusiasm on the part of the reviewer. Ron Block, with his usual restraint and wisdom, commented: “We must do our best to understand a recording - its purpose and intention - and give it several listens before making judgment calls. It's the only way to deal with reviewing something justly. Expectations must also be put aside. Many reviews, especially on Amazon, are like this: "I expected A. The artist did C, D, and E. Therefore I'm giving it two stars, because it isn't what I wanted the artist to do." There are other reviews which are simply variations on this theme - the reviewer's likes and dislikes running the show.” Lynwood Lunsford chimed in that reviews are just someone’s opinion, and it’s up to the review’s reader to decide how much credence to give the comments or commentator. Several issues grow from this discussion.

In 2008 I wrote 35 book reviews, 7 CD reviews, and 83 festival commentaries, including both previews and reviews, out of 130 blog entries so far. There may be some overlap in these categories. I received or bought a number of CDs I have not yet written about, partly because I find writing good reviews (as distinct from positive ones) to be the most difficult task I face in blogging. Earlier in the year a group called Woodpecker and billing itself as Indie, Punk, Bluegrass sent me a CD titled “f-hole.” This title, or course, referred only to the sound hole on an f-style mandolin. I listened to the music and lyrics several times through, finding its content quite scatological and the music abrupt and generally devoid of melody. Our son listened to the CD and remarked that it sounded like pretty good Punk music to him. In the end, based on the sexual content of much of the lyrics and my lack of any background in punk music to which I could compare this work, I decided not to review it. In doing so, I made a less obvious decision not to pan it. This raises the question of whether I’ve been untrue to my critical muse by not writing a bad review.

A quick look at any mass market or special interest magazine easily reveals that they depend for a significant portion of their income on advertising. Whether it’s “Vanity Fair,” “The New Yorker,” “Field and Stream,” “TV Guide,” or even “Bluegrass Unlimited,” magazines rely on advertising. In these days of changing economic and technological relationships, advertising support becomes even more important. In a bluegrass magazine, advertisements from instrument manufacturers, festivals and other events, and recording companies constitute the bulk of advertisers. Publishers take on these people to their peril. Media outlets must always balance their editorial independence against the risk of lost revenue. Even little bloggers like me must consider their comments before publishing material too critical of the organizations on which they depend. While I don’t accept advertising (yet) and insist on paying for tickets to all events we attend (still), my ability to do my job well depends on my developing and maintaining good relationships with artists and promoters. I’ve developed a reputation among members of bands for not divulging information they’re unwilling to go public with. This enables me to know and understand events in the bluegrass world in ways that some others may not be able to. Nevertheless, it behooves me to maintain good relations with performers, promoters, record publishers, and so-on.

I’m not without opinions about what I see and hear, but I’ve become increasingly reluctant to express negative ones on first exposure, especially where it concerns bands. I can think of several instances when I’ve been unimpressed with bands on first hearing them and then found them growing on me as I became increasingly familiar with their work. One good example is the very good Tennessee band Blue Moon Rising. On first hearing them at a festival, I thought they were pretty good, but unspectacular. They played and sang well, but exhibited little stage presence or showmanship and their singing didn’t set them apart from the many other good regional groups out there. Over a period of something more than a year, we encountered them at several festivals, and with each hearing they seemed to me to have gained along every front. Furthermore, Chris West and Keith Garrett’s song writing was excellent as was the group’s presentation of these very good songs. Garrett’s baritone voice is truly excellent. Harold Nixon on bass has added a new vibrancy to the group. I see them now as truly excellent. The question is: Has their work improved or has my ear and attention? It may be both, but I’m certain I approach their performance with a greater willingness to see the excellence that may have been there all along. I’ve learned to allow my opinions of a group to mature, especially when my first impression tends towards the negative.

Thoughtful criticism is hard work, and I like to think I work hard at it. But it’s also clear to me that good criticism is not just “one person’s opinion.” A critique becomes increasingly reliable based on a body of experience attained with an open mind and heart for the spirit of what’s being offered. In many ways, Earl Scruggs’ standards to tone, taste, and timing govern bands, CDs and even festivals. Bands who allow bad taste to dominate their performance can perhaps bring in fans for a while, but ultimately they’ll lose their audience. Attention to audience is crucial to both bands and promoters, and to critics, I might add. Carefully thought out criticism can illuminate the strengths and weaknesses in performance. A critic has a responsibility to his audience as well as to his critical stance. I try to be very consistent in my pleas for a large tent approach to bluegrass and to bluegrass promoters for their responsibility to educate their audience to a broader version of bluegrass. I seek to apply the tone, taste, and timing criteria to assessing bluegrass performances, both live and on disk. I also try to place a band’s performance within the context of their goals as a band. I don’t want to judge a traditional band by a standard saying they’re not progressive enough, for instance. Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy writing about my experiences in bluegrass and giving thanks for the new and exciting opportunities it has offered me so late in life.
Posted:  12/19/2008

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