Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Béla Fleck and Chris Thile: Following the Artist's Muse

First an admission, not intended to rile:  I'm not a big bluegrass fan. 

I'm referring to bluegrass in its pure traditional sense.  I do love the sense I get of the cameraderie players get from participating in jams, of the capacity of the music to draw people in and challenge them in technical ways.  But as a non-musician, and not someone who has grown up with bluegrass, it just doesn't grab all that much. I'll listen to it from time to time and enjoy it, but don't normally seek it out.

But music from bluegrass players who have expanded their perspective in novel directions is a different matter.  I just loved the work of the Sparrow Quartet, with the Chinese influence, and regret that Abby Washburn has turned more or less exclusively towards bluegrass influenced conventional singer/songwriter stuff (which I love, I might add, and I hope that she and Bela win their richly deserved Grammy this year).

And I really like the complex and "deep" work of the Punch Brothers, which under Phile's leadership has gone in weird and wonderful directions.  I sometimes think I hear 70s prog rock in there.  Phosphorescent Blues didn't grab me at first, but each time I listen to it I hear new things that interest me.  And I think that Thile's performance of classical transcriptions for the mandolin work better than Fleck's similar work on the banjo.

Of all the Punch Brothers' work (collectively and solo) what I like least is Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.  Very traditional and to me just not that interesting. I'm obviously in a minority, among those who care.

I'm really glad that Thile and Fleck and Washburn, and others, have not hewn to the traditionalist path and have opened up new vistas for us all, and especially for bluegrass.

Thanks for your comment, Ron. I understand what you're saying, and believe that there are many like you. I also believe that at some point, many people who are struck by the music they hear, really becoming interested in it, will be intrigued enough to look back to the sources, in much of Americana or variou stripes, that means listening to and considering the contributions of the founders and, shall I risk it (?) saints of bluegrass music. A portion of them will also take a real interest, while others will say something like, "That's nice, but not for me." I find that the more I play, the more the earlier bluegrass music brings me happiness. Nevertheless, I like variety and I like it at the same place/time. In other words,  my tastes are eclectic. Thanks again. 

A reader sent me a comment he labeled as private. I wrote him asking to post it anonymously. Here it is:

"Having been a casual observer of the "bluegrass scene" for about 15 years, it still amazes me that the issue of "purity" to the genre is still discussed by some people. 

The real impact (damage?) takes place with various gatekeepers of various stripes as well as with some voting IBMA members.

It has become obvious that the real significant growth in this type of music is taking place outside of the confines of the traditional adherents. Sure, much of it is not "bluegrass", but much of it respects and implies bluegrass in it's approach, including the lifestyle of real music by real people in a community atmosphere. And many of the progressive players can play traditional bluegrass with the best of them.  

For traditional adherents to dismiss all of this as invalid and not worthy of recognition is a huge mistake on the part of people who could use this to expand the appeal of traditional bluegrass. 

Today, young people are introduced to bluegrass in a non-direct route, though these alternative artists.  Without that pathway, very little would be happening. Far too many newly formed and strict traditional bands simply struggle financially until they ultimately disband. The market to sustain them is already saturated by older bands.  

These bands can find wider audiences (and sustenance) by attaching themselves to the much larger progressive bluegrass scene, where the festivals are more plentiful, the crowds bigger, and the opportunities more vibrant. 

Sure, people like what they like. And they should. But actions sometimes have far-ranging consequences. 

There continues to be a core of gatekeepers in the music that wants to EXCLUDE a large swath of artists who identify with and associate with bluegrass, but are not strictly bluegrass.

These gatekeepers are doing them, and the music itself, a great disservice by harboring these attitudes. 

IBMA could be so much bigger, so much more vibrant, and so much more relevant with such inclusion.  Noam Pikelny tried to make the argument not too long ago, directly to IBMA, so I am not alone in these thoughts.  

Yet, the EXCLUSIONARY approach continues in many corners. It has become somewhat pointless, as the marketplace for bluegrass-inspired music continues to grow without their blessing or participation."

Good comment...jazz has always been this way as well...East Coast Vs. West Coast...Wynton Marsails is, Branford somtimes isn't, Larry Carlton, Fourplay, Earl Klugh isn't, ...Chet Baker shouldn't have sung, and should've studied more...fascinating that two genres that require technical expertise combined with the ability to improvise would have so many rule makers and "gatekeepers", but it is that way...

I don't want to spend my life worrying about whether or not what I hear and like is the real thing or some kind of hybrid...if Thile follows his muse, I'm not probably going to like what he does all the time...he's clearly not going back to Nickel Creek as his day job if he's plowing into uncharted territory with the Punch Bros., which does take a few listens.

This is a really fine and thoughtful article Ted.  Thanks!

Thanks, Jim. We listened to A Prairie Home Companion's regular Sunday re-run on the local NPR station this week. Both of us were impressed by the flow of the humor. Thile's topical song about the superbowl, "Omaha, Omaha" was a hoot. He used Sarah Jarosz well, explored new skit territory, and successfully kept the look and feel of PHC. Irene commented that the music will improve with Thile's voice over Keilor's. As NPR seeks out to re-imagine this new show to appeal to a younger demographic, I'm increasingly interested in seeing which way Chris Thile is likely to take it, while being acutely aware that I'm not a part of the demographic they hope to develop. Fun! - Ted

I love that "Genre Hopping" video with Chris Thile -- indeed, why not give a shout (or pump your fist, perhaps, if you fear a shushing) during a symphony performance? Great point. He has such a joyful approach to music, and I'm so happy that he hasn't lost that one bit as he's gotten older.

Thanks, Stacy. I struggled with whether to choose it, or to find a video with more music in it. Finally, I decided that it captured something of the essence of Thile. I'm so glad you found that, too!