Author: Poling, Chuck

Whoís in Your Tent?

The debate rages on within the CBA Ė should the focus of the organization be on preserving the most traditional forms of bluegrass, gospel, and old-time music, or should a wider range of styles be included in the mix? Is our mission to stubbornly insist on Stanley Brothersí clones, or do we open the floodgates to every weirdo hippie assemblage that just happens to include a banjo?

Fortunately, the debate is more rational than this. Recent exchanges on the CBA message board about the controversy were spirited and pointed, but also thoughtful and respectful. Itís the classic big tent vs. little tent conundrum that faces almost every organization. The very fact that weíre having this argument supports the theory that we already have a big tent. The CBAís membership of close to 3,000 includes several generations and lots of opinions.

While differences exist about the direction of the CBA, there can be no argument that all of its members want to see the organization thrive and grow. The question is: Can we do it while remaining true to the stated purpose of ďpromoting and preservingĒ the music? Membership is down in the last few years, though bluegrass music continues to grow in general popularity. Steve Martinís foray into the world of bluegrass has given the music a jumpstart with mainstream audiences. It doesnít hurt that heís got one of the sharpest bluegrass bands around Ė the Steep Canyon Rangers Ė backing him.

Thereís a huge potential source of future members out there. How do we get their attention? Do we broaden the definition of bluegrass in the hopes of appealing to anyone whoís heard anything about bluegrass and hope we can teach them about the musicís roots? Or do we seek only true believers of tradgrass to make sure that the music of Mr. Monroe is passed on untainted to future generations?

I donít necessarily see either strategy or goal as contradictory. Of course Iíve got my own opinions of what the CBA should do, but thatís just what they are Ė one memberís opinions. My favorite kind of bluegrass is the most basic type of bluegrass, the sound that made me fall in love with bluegrass in the first place. My least favorite is anything vaguely related to newgrass.

But even this distinction requires a lot of parsing. I like the Infamous Stringdusters, but Iím not a big fan of Sam Bush. I dig the Greencards and Crooked Still, but I detest the Avett Brothers - and Iíd never describe any of these three acts as bluegrass bands. I love the old school stuff, but letís face it -some traditional bluegrass bands are just boring. What about the Del McCoury Band? Nobody has more impeccable bluegrass credentials than Del, but he ranges pretty far for source material (recording songs by Britfolk icon Richard Thompson and Marin County songwriter Joe New), and he recently collaborated with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Iím having quite a debate within my head, independent from the larger debate thatís been taking place on the message board. I guess like most folks, I like what I like Ė what pleases my ear. As a CBA member, I have to think about more than just what I prefer. I think each of us bears a certain responsibility to the organization to see that it continues to grow and thrive, as well as a commitment to keeping traditional bluegrass, old-time, and gospel music alive and well.

Personally, Iíd like to see a little more variety in terms of traditional country styles. A Cajun, cowboy, or western swing band wouldnít be inappropriate, as they represent influences that can pop up in bluegrass music. Jamgrass isnít exactly my cup of chai, but thereís a sizable audience out there who are familiar with bluegrass only from the acts theyíve seen at Bonaroo-type festivals.

Having gone out on a heretical limb here, let me emphasize that I believe the focus and soul of the festival be the very best traditional bluegrass acts we can book. This is, obviously, another definition subject to debate, but the CBA has usually done a pretty good job with acts like James King, Danny Paisley, the Bluegrass Brothers, and others who deliver pretty straight-up product. Itís always been my belief that whatever bait gets the newbies into the festival, itís the real high lonesome sound that makes them bluegrass fans for life.

I donít expect everyone to agree with me, but I feel good about putting my viewpoint out there because our community encourages a lively exchange of ideas. As we continue to share our thoughts on the CBAís direction in a thoughtful and mature manner, letís remember that the future of the organization in our hands today.

Posted:  4/25/2011

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