Author: Cornish, Rick


Another beautiful day in California’s Mother Lode, where gold was king one hundred and fifty years ago, where picturesque little mining towns all along Highway Forty-Nine once provisioned an army of men in desperate search of that one big strike, and where today Walmarts from one end of the Lode to the other are choking out the last vestiges of what was once the epitome of everything that was good and innovative about American mercantilism. Heck, in two months a new Lowes opens in Sonora, population 4,978. And what of the four hardware stores that have been struggling here during this past recession? Let them eat cake! But I digress. On to bluegrass.

You all know, of course, that those profound and evasive questions, what is bluegrass, where’s it headed and why, are no closer to being answered than they were when the debate began. But every now and then it can be instructive (well, at least entertaining) to look in on the question, so I pulled out a typical little skirmish from the Bluegrass L. This one’s got an uncharacteristically scientific bent to it…..

Mr. Monroe was an innovator, considered a radical by some, was always on the lookout for something new, by constantly writing songs, [he penned over 350, at least] whether on
the road, or at home, or as he put it, "...pulling the notes...out of the air, and fitting them together"..... ..changing....but remaining within the loosely knit foundations...stepping stones..... Listen to the recordings The Old Man [who was young back then, 1940-50's Bear Family Box Set.]....made with Owen Bradley, Paul Cohen; .....sure, the recordings never made it out of the can back in the day, not a commercial success.....but I enjoy listening to them anyway.. and playing them on my weekly show. on WMMT, 88.7fm.I always seem to hear something new... [ Hammond organ, snare, electric bass..!!.... he was willing and able to explore, taking chances.... ] yet, he made it sound's all good.......


The key here, is that these cuts did not see the light of day except on a bootleg french lp and the completist Bear Family set. Even Mr. Monroe did not inflict Hammond Organs on his audience and call it bluegrass.

I think, for a band to be truly top notch, it must have its own sound. "Evolution" to one ear is vandalism to another. We'll never agree collectively about what fits in each category.

Arthur Berman
North Vancouver, BC

You dare to presume what Mr. Monroe's thoughts were, in order to fit
into your interpretation of bluegrass?? ;-)


Well, yes but once he found out what his audience wanted, the left of
center stuff stopped...

He continued to bring out new or "new" old material which seems contrary
to Mr Foster's definition
of "Traditional" Bluegrass but the experimentation stopped...

And, many will argue that not all of the experiments were his idea...


Hmmm. How can you call Mr. Monroe's music 'traditional' when there was
nothing like it beforehand?


Actually, this is an interesting point. One person cannot evolve.
Evolution consists of three components:

-- Innovation
-- Selection
-- Transmission

Without innovation, there's nothing new. Without selection, there's no "weeding out." Without transmission, innovations cannot be perpetuated With natural evolution in biology, it is only innovation that occurs through chance (e.g., by mutation). Selection and transmission can be very deliberate.

Bob in AZ

This almost makes me believe in the theory of gravity.


From the reading about Monroe that I've done, I'd say it came down to inspiration, crafting and some serendipity. He was pretty obviously inspired by the old time music he absorbed as a youngster and identified himself as a repository of traditional country music. But he also crafted the music to fit his own tastes and there was the lucky chance of hiring a firebrand banjo player with a distinct style.

In my opinion if any of these 3 driving forces gets out of whack, you're likely not to succeed in being a tastefully creative bluegrass artist. You need to derive something from the traditions without just Xeroxing what's come before, you have to do some shaping and texturing of your own and you have to hope that something completely unexpected in the mixture pops up. My distaste for a lot of progressive bluegrass music arises from what sounds to me to be a conscious attempt to alter or augment the music just for the sake of alteration. These folks have zeroed in on the innovation part without regard to good taste.


This thread reminds me of my post exactly three years ago (subject line was The Real Bluegrass Fragrance) when we released the "RBF" accompanied by a simulation feature for any lister to build his own blend of bluegrass fragrance "MFB - My Bluegrass Fragrance" on an excel spread sheet. This perfume is still "in the air" at And we would feel happy now to receive and add some more evolving/progressing samples for evaluation coming from all across the bluegrass world.

Erio Meili

Inconclusive? Of course, they always are, but you never know what new twists the experts will come up with. Evolution this week, who knows, Masonic conspiracy next week.

Have a terrific day and, friends, please vote.

Posted:  8/31/2010

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