Of the first generation Bluegrassers, there are only two still alive, and they are both banjo players: Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. I believe we are a special hard-headed breed, so leave it to a banjo player to start one of the hottest debates that bluegrass music has seen in years. Chris Pandolfi, the banjo player for the top-notch band "The Infamous Stringdusters," started the discussion/debate by posting his Bluegrass Manifesto on his blog. It's a beautifully written piece that describes the marketing conundrum that the "Dusters" found themselves in after several years of hard work and well-deserved growth. The gist of it revolves around the question, "Do we continue to call ourselves bluegrass?" He then describes the thought process that forced them to decide that to continue and reach the growth they desire, they had to stop labeling themselves "bluegrass" to take part in the acoustic music revolution that is seeing acts such as The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and Yonder Mountain String Band reach new heights for string-band based music.
|Yonder Mtn String Band playing to a sold out crowd at Red Rocks.|
|The Avett Brothers|
|Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs|
The last, and most important, piece of this puzzle is the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). This body is the only association dedicated to the Bluegrass Industry (although others seem to be trying to get going) and unabashedly takes the role of Godfather for the music. The fans are going to enjoy the bands that they love no matter what happens, and the players are going to play their music and try to grow their bands each year, and also look up with respect and awe to Yonder Mountain and The Avetts for the huge audiences they play to all over the country. The question is will the IBMA accept these bands openly and invite their fans in to discover the genius of Blue Highway, Vincent and Daily, Michael Cleveland, etc. In my opinion, it should, as bluegrass has managed to survive the jazz of Tony Rice and David Grisman, it survived the mad genius of John Hartford, it survived the absurdity of Nickel Creek, and I'm sure it will also survive The Punch Brothers.
But survival for legacy's sake misses the point. Bluegrass is an art-form--one of the most beautiful in the world--and as a salubrious art-form, it should always move and grow and evolve. If it doesn't then it isn't art, because, like the human race, growing is the main purpose. I believe the reason that this debate hits on such a visceral nerve is because we are dealing with one of the most beautiful, truly American, art-forms that has ever been created. And it all started, as John Hartford sang, in the heart of the cross-eyed child.
|Monday evening jam at the Crouse House in Sparta NC|
I believe the one point that is most easily overlooked is that musicians will consistently look for different ways to express themselves and these different combinations will always produce different sounds that will not fit in any conventional labeling. The only reason Bluegrass is called Bluegrass is because that was the band name back in 1946. It was a brand new voice expressing itself individually and no one knew what else to call it. Individual skills and personalities that work together can create a brand new combination. Technically an Earl Scruggs banjo timing should not match up well with a Duane Allman blues timing, yet in our band it somehow does. We are always asked how we describe our music and we have yet to come up with a perfect answer. Appalachian Rock is a beautiful term but it does not help someone gain a better understanding of who we are.
As we debate what is and isn't Bluegrass in 2011 we must also remember that one of Bill Monroe's greatest pieces of advice to up-and-coming musicians was, "Learn to play it right, but then go find your own voice." Jerry Garcia used to always point out that both he and Grisman were Bluegrass/Monroe disciples, and then they created the "Dead" style and "Dawg" style. While some work furiously to preserve Monroe's voice of 1946, other voices will sprout up and take off. Bill Monroe would have been 100 years old this year, and there's probably some kid practicing in his bedroom right now that will create a style that will survive the generations, and people will be trying to preserve that voice in 2111. It is exciting to think about isn't it?
(I've had this piece written for well over a week now and for some reason I just could not post it, and then I found out how sick my good friend Billy Constable is and it all became clear. This post wasn't complete without the following paragraph - about one of the main people that taught all of us young Boonies what Bluegrass music really is. Thanks Billy!)
|Billy Constable. More than likely playing a jaw-dropping solo.|
The next generation of Bluegrassers proving that the music is in good hands!