Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Is the Party Over?

Recently, when the question came up as to the reasons why CBA membership has declined, it was pointed out that the problem is due not only to low numbers of new members joining, but to the fact that some older, long-time CBA members are choosing not to renew their membership in this organization. Before I go any further, let me state unequivocally that I have no plans to let my membership lapse. The CBA has provided me with too many good times, and too many wonderful friends, to let that go. Having said that, though, I have to say that my enthusiasm for attending bluegrass events is not what it once was. I’ve given some thought to the reasons why this is so. Certainly, my love for bluegrass music hasn’t diminished in the least. So why do I no longer get that adrenalin rush anymore at the prospect of heading out to a festival? I’m reminded of the cliché breakup line: “It’s not you; it’s me.”

I used to equate festivals and campouts with a big party where I hung out with folks who liked to jam until the wee hours of the morning. Now I find that I’m ready to hit the hay by 11:00pm. Of course I don’t generally do this at festivals, but I have to force myself to stay up later, and then I’m dragging the next day. If I do cave in to my need for rest, I turn in for the night with a nagging, dissatisfied feeling that I’m missing out on the best jams…and more often than not, this concern is proven to be valid when I hear tales from more stalwart (and usually younger) folks than myself, telling about some amazing 3:00am jam that I missed. It seems like a lot of trouble to pack up a trailer, spend a small fortune on gas, and drive hundreds of miles, just to miss out on the best of the good times. I could’ve stayed home and done that for free.

Then again, maybe it isn’t just “me” and my aging bones: A few years ago, an older lady with a very low CBA membership number accosted me as I was leaving the stage area. She just needed to vent. Gesturing toward the band onstage, she asked me, “Is that bluegrass?” I shrugged in reply, realizing from the irate tone of her voice that the question was rhetorical. She then went on to complain how she had been at the festival for two days and had not heard one single band that she considered bluegrass. The band that was performing at that moment was comprised of competent musicians, all playing traditional bluegrass instruments. Their music was not what I would consider “edgy”, but I had to admit that other than the instrumentation, their sound (heavily influenced by country swing) didn’t even remotely resemble anything that would’ve been played by Bill, Vern, Ralph, Earl, or Jimmy. To be honest, anymore there seems to be only a handful of bands at any festival that do produce the purely traditional sound; even a majority of established bands that have been around for years (e.g., Country Current, Blue Highway) don’t replicate that sound. I’m not saying this to rehash the endless debate about what “is” and “isn’t” bluegrass, or to suggest that the CBA shouldn’t hire bands that don’t fall into that narrow category of strictly traditional bluegrass. Anyone who knows me knows that I have eclectic tastes and that, with the exception of hip-hop and heavy metal, I pretty much like all kinds of music. But would I want a solid week, or weekend, of music that I might like very much but don’t “love” the way I love traditional bluegrass music? Case in point, a few years back, Henry and I went to see Charlie Musselwhite and his blues band at a club in Fresno. We thoroughly enjoyed the two hours that we spent in that club listening to some great blues, and then went home satisfied with our musical experience. But would I have wanted to camp out somewhere and listen to one blues band after another for three or four days straight? Probably not. And that’s the way I personally feel about most of the newer bluegrass bands; I acknowledge that their members are fine musicians, and up to a point I can enjoy hearing most of them in concert. But that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t have the sound that made me go nuts over bluegrass music when I first heard Lester and Earl on the Beverly Hillbillies and the Bonnie and Clyde movie soundtrack 45+ years ago.

Perhaps a lot has to do with one’s expectations as much as one’s ability to adapt to evolving musical trends. For example, if I were to attend a World Music festival, I’d go with an open mind, expecting to hear a lot of different musical styles. I would most likely enjoy many of them and wouldn’t be disappointed in the least if it wasn’t trad bluegrass (or any kind of bluegrass, for that matter) because I wouldn’t have any reasonable expectation of hearing bluegrass music. But when it comes to bluegrass festivals, some of us older folks, like the lady who vented to me a few years back, had gotten so used to hearing mostly traditional bands in our early days of festival attendance that we’re finding it hard to relate to “bluegrass festivals” that now contain very little of the sound that years ago attracted us to the music in the first place.

I understand that not everyone has the same thought that I have in my head when I hear the term “bluegrass.” The TV show “America’s Got Talent” has among this season’s contestants a band out of Georgia called Fiddleheads, who perform tunes such as Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” to the accompaniment of bluegrass instruments. The panel of judges (self-styled experts Piers Morgan, Sharon Osborne, and Howie Mandel) seem to believe that this is a bluegrass band, and they are presenting the Fiddleheads to America as such. Judging from the enthusiastic reception from the mostly-young audience, I wouldn’t doubt that at least some people who had no previous concept of bluegrass music may now have an incentive to attend a bluegrass festival, believing that they will hear more music like this. And they probably will hear more and more bands on the order of the Fiddleheads, as Bill Monroe’s words “That ain’t no part o’ nothin’ ” fade into history.

Several years ago, I was one of the pollsters in a phone survey in which CBA members were asked to rank the music they would most like to hear at bluegrass festivals. The categories included Traditional, Gospel, and Newgrass or jam-grass. Most of the folks I called were over the age of fifty. “Traditional” was the overwhelming favorite, while “Newgrass” or jam bands were unanimously dead last. If the CBA members on my list had been under forty, the survey results might very well have been quite different. But there’s no denying that many of the older folks prefer the older stuff that we remember from back in the day. It makes us feel comfortable, kind of like revisiting an old hangout or enjoying a reunion with an old friend. As my participation in jams wanes in proportion to my decreased stamina, I’ll most likely gravitate toward more stage shows to get my money’s worth from the festival experience. So long as the CBA continues to present acts such as the Flatt & Scruggs Tribute Band, I’ll be applauding in the audience. I’ll even enjoy the occasional non-traditional band, as long as the musicians incorporate at least some elements of the music that enticed me to join the CBA years ago. But when and if the day comes that edge acts dominate the festival lineup and traditional acts are rare novelties, I’ll be ready to stay home and listen to my own music collection. Whether or not change is a good thing is subjective, depending on one’s perspective and personal tastes. One thing that is certain is that change is inevitable. I’ve read Chris Pandolfi’s blogs, extolling his belief in the importance of expanding the bluegrass tent if bluegrass music is to survive and attract a new generation of fans. I don’t think that Chris is wrong; in fact, I recognize his pronouncements as the writing on the wall. Nonetheless, for some of us who simply like what we like, that may mean that the party is nearly over. For others, who hear a different sound in their head when they think of “bluegrass”, it means that the party is just getting started.

Posted:  9/1/2011

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