Author: Evans, Bill

Bluegrass Music: What’s To Like?

If you love bluegrass music and you like to hang around other folks who love it too, you’ve no doubt at one time or another been drawn into the “Why isn’t bluegrass music more popular?” conversation. This is one of those topics of such enduring interest to bluegrass musicians, fans and promoters that there’s never quite enough to say about it. We’ve talked through this issue for years and we will no doubt continue to talk about it until…well, I don’t want to think about that day, because maybe by then bluegrass music will have ceased to exist (no doubt because we didn’t talk about it thoroughly enough or express our opinions without the proper amount of moral conviction).

I’ve been a part of this on-going discussion in a variety of places over many years, whether it’s around the IBMA or IBMM board table or during a break in a band rehearsal, or as part of a rambling discussion taking place at 3 a.m. in a van rolling down the road through a snow storm, on its way to the next show.

Often in the course of this discussion, after many aspects of this question have already been thoroughly debated, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, perhaps with a sigh of resignation, “Well, if everyone just had the opportunity to hear bluegrass music, they all would like it.” Usually, everyone in the room (or in the van) will reflexively agree with this statement, possibly without thinking too deeply about it.

With this thought in mind, I remember the feeling of shock at the 2000 IBMA Leadership Bluegrass conference in Nashville when John Hartford, in one of the shortest keynote speeches of all time, proclaimed to all gathered that it might be better if bluegrass music didn’t become any more popular. Hartford asserted that in its current state (and this was before O Brother Where Art Thou?), the bluegrass community was like a family where everyone knew each other well: we were comfortable around our small table and accepting of each other’s mutual eccentricities and foibles (I remember immediately thinking about Jimmy Martin at that point and wondering how accepting I really was). With popularity, continued Hartford, would come an influx to people who “we” don’t know well and who, through their money and power, would change the nature of the music and in the process destroy it, perhaps inadvertently.

That’s an easier position to take when you’ve written one of the most popular songs of all time (John composed “Gentle On My Mind”) and your income stream is fairly secure. It’s a harder reality to accept if you’re a professional sideman who can’t come close to meeting the monthly bills on the income earned from playing bluegrass in a nationally prominent band. You hope for larger audiences in order to put bread on the table.

It’s interesting to note that while there was very little actual bluegrass music content in the movie O Brother Where Are Thou?, the professional bluegrass community, lead by the IBMA, enthusiastically embraced the connection that an unknowing public made between the movie and bluegrass music. For those of us who choose membership in the core community of bluegrass lovers, we have to accept the fact that we often have little control over how our music is consumed, portrayed or understood by those who, in Hartford’s words, aren’t part of “our” family. But, as Sonny Osborne once told me, we have to be ready to walk through the door when it’s opened for us, for whatever reason, by the larger world.

Is it really the case that for bluegrass music to become more popular, all that has to be done is to allow more people to hear it? Well, yes…and no. There’s no question that exposing more people to the music is one logical way to build an audience. This is especially true with younger people, who are subsequently going to use the music in ways that can strike fear and dread into the hearts of some in the core community. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone and everyone who hears bluegrass and old-time music is going to like it. Quite the contrary.

As a student in ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I read a great deal about music, identity and ethnicity. I learned that people have to see something of themselves in the music that they love and that becoming a fan of any kind of music isn’t only the result of loving the sound of the music itself but also the result of identifying with or connecting to the cultural meanings inherent in the context of music making. Music – all music - carries with it a host of cultural meanings that aren’t directly connected to the actual sounds being made and heard.

With this in mind, in terms of successfully reaching out to new audiences, bluegrass music has a lot going for it but also a few things going against it. I hope to discuss some of these factors in next month’s column. Until then, keep on picking!

All the best,

Bill Evans
Posted:  4/23/2010

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