Author: Lehmann, Ted

The Roving Community

On any given weekend at almost any time of year, the moving bluegrass community re-creates itself in fields and campgrounds around the country. Like an amoeba, it swells, changes shape, splits and re-creates itself anew somewhere down the road. It has a life and shape of its own, dedicated to finding the music it loves and celebrating that music in the field and in front of the stage as well as by supporting vendors, attending workshops, cooking and eating together, and sometimes worshiping together, too. It looks and feels like a living, breathing thing with a will and purpose of its own. Each week it's always the same, and yet every stop has its own character and identity.

Our bluegrass seasons begin with our trip to Florida for much of the winter before migrating north with Spring. Just now, in north Florida, there are signs of early spring with some of the trees beginning to bud out and perk up a bit, but I haven't seen any signs of the pine pollen that fell all over our truck last week about 200 miles further south at Lake Kissimmee State Park. Generally speaking, we'll follow the pine pollen and later the azaleas north as spring progresses. Our route will take us to North Carolina in early April for about a month,culminating at Merlefest, followed by a jag southward to work at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw in Conway, SC. Then we head back to New England by mid-May. Summer will see us in our home region for a series of festivals with a week-long trip to Columbus, OH for Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, which is too good an event not to go 1500 miles out of our way to attend. In the Fall, we journey once again to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky for two months, the highlight of which is IBMA in Nashville and end our fall tour by leaving our trailer in storage at Myrtle Beach. All told, we've chased and enmeshed ourselves in the bluegrass community in thirteen states making friends wherever we've gone.

It's easy for some people to stereotype the members of this community, but anyone doing so is making a big mistake. While the music they love has many of its roots along the Blue Ridge, it was created in the southern diaspora to mid-western urban manufacturing centers clustered around the Great Lakes and came to its first maturity and popularity on a country music radio program that spread over a large portion of the central portion of the country. Some adherents say that only those who come from the South and grew up on farms or near coal mines along the Blue Ridge can truly love, perform, or create this music. I doubt that...a lot.

Maybe looking at how they travel would yield a clue. They arrive at festival sites in million dollar Prevost bus conversions, large fifth wheel trailers, travel trailers, pop-up campers, vans, and tents. Many of those attending stay in these rigs, but others drive in daily from the surrounding area or stay in local hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. The license plates here are from nearly every state from Maine to Florida and west to Mississippi, Iowa, and California as well as north to Alaska. Some people live in their RV's year round, while others use them only to attend bluegrass events. That's all not very much help in determining who these people are.

Let's see what visual clues we can get from looking at bluegrassers. First, at least here in the east, it's clear that most of them are white, which is somewhat strange considering that the banjo came from Africa and that Bill Monroe's most influential music teacher was a black man named Arnold Schultz. Jazz, America's only other native music, was largely created by African-Americans and has always had an influence on bluegrass. Bluegrass fans tend to wear jeans and overhauls while the ladies may dress up a little more. But don't let their dress fool you. Bluegrass folks aren't much for dressing up and neither are Rvers, and what someone does (or did) for a living doesn't carry too much weight either. Furthermore, its hard to tell anything about a person's means from the rig they drive in. Bluegrassers tend to come from the great middle of American culture, but there are plenty of professionals out there as well as working class people. You're as likely to be sitting next to a high school dropout as a college professor. One of my favorite bluegrass buddies is a family physician who plays mandolin with the best of them, plays golf almost every Wednesday, and writes one of the most literate blogs around. ( And thank goodness for the lawyers among us! Also, we have more than our fair share of computer jockeys. At the same time, to dismiss the wisdom of someone you meet because of accent or grammar rewards you with the most limited view of this world possible. So you can't count on finding a whole lot about what makes this community based on education, background, or income.

What about their politics? I'd say center-right, like most of the rest of us, but among the people we've met are some of the most conservative I can imagine and a fair sprinkling of genuine liberals. I'm inclined to think that the bomb throwers from either side of the political spectrum are either not greatly in evidence or not here. Bluegrassers tend to be pretty honest. It's generally seen as safe to leave your some of your belongings at your seat or not to lock the doors of your rig. It's part of the bluegrass ethic that if you're not sitting in your seat it's fair game for someone else to use until you return. I've almost never seen anyone complain when asked to make way for a seat's rightful owner. Although people's musical instruments are often worth thousands of dollars, theft is rare enough to make big news when it happens, and stolen instruments are found more frequently than you might imagine as they show up at pawn shops and are recognized by their well-advertised serial numbers.

So it turns out that the people who make and follow bluegrass are pretty much united by their love of the music. While they may differ on exactly what bluegrass is anyway (WIBA), they tend to respect, or even revere, the contributions of the earliest pioneers in the music with a special place in their hearts for the likes of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and others. Most bands, no matter how contemporary their sound will include some songs by these pioneers in their set, if only to prove that they know how. Another unifying aspect of bluegrass followers may be their increasing age, and this is of some concern to those who worry about the future of bluegrass, but Dudley Connell (who should know) assures me that there will always be young people who hear the music of the first generation, are entranced by its energy and seek to emulate and reproduce it out of both respect and admiration. These same young people will inevitably find new and interesting ways to interpret the music to the enjoyment of many and the disdain of some, which is just people being people...much like bluegrass music.

Posted:  2/19/2010

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