Author: Campbell, Bruce

The View From the Bluegrass Penalty Box

Traditionally, in a bluegrass performance, the bass player is in the back. My friend Red Rick calls this the “Bluegrass Penalty Box”. There’s at least one real good reason for this configuration – everybody in band needs to hear that bass. I have seen some bass players move around quite a bit back there, positioning themselves closest to whichever bandmates to hear it the most at that juncture.

I can tell you, from a performer’s standpoint, it’s a unique place to stand, and I have grown accustomed (and fond) of the vantage point it offers.

For one thing, it brings some responsibilities. In every band in which I play bass, I am the guy who ensures straps are firmly in place, for instance. On a guitar, the strap button over the bottom end of the guitar is not visible to the player, and quite often, the strap gets twisted. It’ll feel OK to the player, and the instrument seems supported, but a twisted strap will come off that button as gravity applies pressure and if you’ve ever heard the distinctive smack of a dreadnought hitting the stage, well, you never forget it. So, I’ll give a heads up to any guitar player whose strap looks precarious.

I also provide “capo fault prevention” services. If a song’s in B, and I see some capos on the 4th fret and one on the 3rd, I will issue a courtesy alert to the player whose capo is maladjusted. If you’ve ever heard a band jump into a song where one player’s capo is a fret (or two) off, you know how THAT sounds. It’s a pretty valuable service I provide there.

I can also be the band messenger – running a quick message up and down the line of musicians if there’s a quick change to the song order or a last minute key change. It’s kind of like the guy running messages up and down the trenches in World War I, only with a completely different hat. This is much more efficient than having a message retold from one person to the next - we all remember that game in grade school. The chances of the person at the end of the line getting the same message that began the communication are close to nil!

As part of my “back of the stage” duties, I also provide some odd benefits like freeing ponytails (male or female) from instrument straps, correcting instruments precariously placed on stands, warning of cables about to be tripped on, etc. Safety is no accident, my friends!

But truth be told, I just love the view. As a kid, my favorite pictures of performers were from behind the stage, with the performers silhouetted in the spotlights and the faces of the audience, faces upturned. In the many years as I’ve performed music, I still love watching musicians interacting onstage, and if I’m actually part of that interaction, well that’s just gravy. The Bluegrass Penalty Box is no punishment for me!

Posted:  1/26/2011

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