Author: Evans, Bill

Seeing Yourself In Bluegrass Music

Let me be the first to wish everyone a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend! This month, I’d like to continue with some of the issues I raised last month regarding the big question of “Why isn’t bluegrass music more popular?” I closed my April column by writing that it’s not just the sound of the music that brings in fans but that people have to see something of themselves in the music and in the community in order to make a lasting commitment to bluegrass.

Most of us who have been involved with the music for a while know well the many unique strengths of our art form. The participatory nature of bluegrass (virtually everyone is a picker or wants to become one!), the performance context of the weekend-long bluegrass festival, the relative accessibility of the music’s performers, the virtuosic requirements of the music and the family-friendly atmosphere of bluegrass events are just a few aspects of our musical community that should always be cherished and nurtured. Add to this the connection you make to an international community of like-minded music lovers and there are a lot of reasons to become a fan of bluegrass music.

Another of our strengths is that bluegrass is a flexible enough art form to attract fans from a wide variety other musical genres. While bluegrass shares an obvious historical and geographic connection to country music, let’s not forget that the urban folk revival of the late 1950’s and 1960’s helped insure bluegrass music’s survival into the rock and roll era and beyond. The folk market not only provided a much-needed source of income for performers but also, perhaps more importantly, provided bluegrass music access to younger fans at a moment in time in which they were desperately needed. Many of these new fans became musicians themselves.

As a suburban Virginia teenager growing up in the 1970’s, it was the singer-songwriter and country rock movements that eventually brought me to bluegrass music. If it wasn’t for the banjo that I heard buried in the background of such songs as the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” and James Taylor’s “Riding on A Railroad,” I might have ended up as a guitar player instead of a five-string banjo picker. The first time that I heard New Grass Revival was when they opened for 70’s rock icon Leon Russell and I first experienced the Earl Scruggs Revue on a concert bill shared with Richie Havens, Edgar Winter and White Trash and Buffy St. Marie! Before I knew Bryon Berline and Alan Munde as founding members of Country Gazette, they were names I read on a Flying Burrito Brothers LP cover.

These days, young people are first exposed to the elements of bluegrass music in a dizzying variety of different musical contexts - from jazz to punk rock to the jam band movement. Bela Fleck’s music was first heard by thousands of rock fans when he appeared a number of years ago as a special guest with the Dave Matthew Band on their national tour. More recently, Bruce Springsteen featured the sound of a finger picked banjo when he hired Crooked Still banjo player Greg Liszt for his Seeger Sessions world tour. Three plucked banjos grace the backing tracks of alt rock singer Feist’s huge 2007 hit “1 2 3 4” while the more eccentric alt rockers Sufjan Stevens and Gabriel Kahane play the five-string regularly in their stage shows and on recordings. I recently played a few numbers on stage with a jam band collective called The Contribution, featuring members of String Cheese Incident, Railroad Earth and New Monsoon and it was one of the most diverse (and largest) audiences I’ve played for in my entire career.

The full spectrum of bluegrass and bluegrass-related music heard today reflects the mixed bag of stylistic elements that both musicians and fans bring to bluegrass, based on their experiences as human beings listening to and enjoying all kinds of music in the 21st century. My question for thought until next month’s column: if it’s true that there’s an audience of younger folks out there just waiting to become fans, are we doing everything we can to welcome them into the bluegrass family?
Posted:  5/28/2010

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