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Béla Fleck, Sarah Jarosz, and Noam Pikelny Discuss the State of Bluegrass Music Today

Photo of Bela Fleck by Jim McGuire

Following is an excerpt of an article published in Bluegrass Beyond, the Winter 2016 issue of No Depression in print. To read the full article and all the other contents of the issue, purchase your copy or subscribe today

By the time New York native Béla Fleck joined New Grass Revival in 1981, the group was being simultaneously derided and celebrated for derailing bluegrass music tradition. Fleck’s technically proficient and creatively profound approach to Scruggs-style banjo picking catapulted him to a level of influence that nearly matched that of his hero and that inspired a whole new generation of pickers.

Among them was a young Noam Pikelny, who grew up in the Chicago area and discovered a fierce predilection for bluegrass music when he dug into Fleck’s records and then followed the chain of tradition all the way back. Pikelny’s own banjo work in the past decade or so — first with Leftover Salmon and then as a soloist and with Punch Brothers — has thrust the instrument into new dimensions as well, though his passion for traditional bluegrass music remains undiminished.

Sarah Jarosz similarly has moved the music forward even as she embraces its past. A New Yorker by choice and a Texan by birth, Jarosz started making waves as a mandolinist when her age was barely in the double digits. Mentored by Fleck’s generation of bluegrass-rooted innovators, Jarosz has grown into an imaginative, dexterous multi-instrumentalist whose albums of original material have her inhabiting a unique intersection of singer-songwriter, jazz player, bluegrasser, and something else of her own making.

All told, these three players embody much of what makes bluegrass music particularly interesting and unpredictable in 2016. Though few knowledgeable critics would place their records squarely in the bluegrass category — each has a tendency to skirt genre entirely — the artists themselves agree on the way that their bluegrass roots have given rise to the music they now make. Whatever you want to call what they do these days, Fleck, Pikelny, and Jarosz have helped to construct the threshold through which whatever comes of bluegrass music will come.

So it seemed fitting to bring them together into a conversation about what bluegrass has been and what it might become. At least, that’s where our conversation began.

Kim Ruehl: What is bluegrass music in 2016? 

Noam Pikelny: I think bluegrass is now a lifestyle brand. [Laughs.]

I truly believe that the people who are worshipped as the pioneers and progenitors of bluegrass — Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers — that first generation was following their own musical mind and heart, trying to create something that was personally unique, an artistic statement of their own. The spirit of bluegrass is a spirit of innovation. I think that’s unmistakable, if you listen to what those guys were doing. [They] were doing something that nobody had done before.

The conundrum is that they created something so incredible and so perfect that it’s become frozen in time by people who just want to celebrate that perfection and pay homage to it, and reenact it from time to time. I respect that too, though, because I think that’s a feat in itself, to try to play music in that style.

I really think that the people who are coming along today, who are playing folk instruments with a spirit of innovation, pay tribute to the pioneers of bluegrass. But I see why people get their feathers ruffled when something that wouldn’t have ever been considered bluegrass 30 years ago is now falling under that banner. When people love something so much and dedicate their lives to it, when that term ends up becoming a broader term, people feel threatened or they just have a proprietary relationship with the moniker of bluegrass.

KR: Do you think it’s sort of like recreating Woodstock?

NP: I don’t know. I think when someone makes a truly personal statement, by definition, that will never reach the original level of authenticity by someone trying to recreate it later. That’s not to say that someone can’t shine new light on an existing piece of music. Just think of how many times the same solo Bach violin music has been recorded. People have their own way of interpreting that.

I love listening to the Bluegrass Album Band recordings of Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe [songs]. They were paying tribute but also celebrating that music. Was it as compelling as the original stuff? That’s almost not worth debating, but they did play it in their own voice. I dedicated an entire project to that kind of concept [2014’s Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe].

The spirit is spinning through as long as there’s some kind of personal offering that’s happening with it. If the Bluegrass Album Band was just trying to sound exactly like that Flatt & Scruggs recording, then there would have been no point in it. But J.D. Crowe sounded like J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice was playing guitar breaks when there weren’t guitar solos on those original recordings. I think there’s room for everybody to do this. It’s just when it becomes more of a reenactment that it’s a little head-scratching to me.

I think the Del McCoury Band is simultaneously the best traditional bluegrass band out there right now and also very progressive, the way they arrange songs. Everyone thinks of Del McCoury as the banner head of traditional bluegrass. I think he is, too, but because he’s so compelling and so undeniable, he can play Richard Thompson songs …

Béla Fleck: Yeah, but that’s not a property that’s confined to people who make bluegrass music. That’s true of classical and jazz and progress of any kind, any human progress. What makes it bluegrass would be an interesting thing to think about, maybe.

The first thing I thought about was those jazz festivals in Europe that we used to play. … By the time the Flecktones were actually able to play at those festivals, they’d have Buddy Guy and they’d have Sheryl Crow. It wasn’t a jazz festival anymore, but they were called jazz festivals because the word jazz was a great marketing term that meant something to the public and brought them out.

[I also think of] how angry people were at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, because when you got down to it there really wasn’t any bluegrass there, or maybe there were three acts — maybe one a day — if you were lucky, that were really bluegrass in the truest definition of the word: really connected to the early music that Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe put together, and even the music of the Osborne brothers. … It’s good marketing for somebody to use these [genre] titles to sell stuff, but what’s the music, actually, to us? And as it changes, what part of it still is bluegrass?

KR: I had an ex who was a painter, who used to make the joke, “At what point does yellow become green?” It seems like that works in music, in terms of when does bluegrass become jazz and when does it become country? And does anyone even care?

BF: That might be a better question: Who cares? Who are the people that really care about whether it is or isn’t bluegrass?

I think there’s something very special about that music, that got us going. We want to carry on the properties of it that we love the most, that are honest for us, or [at least] change it in a way that makes it honest for us, hopefully keeping some of the essence of the thing that inspired us.

NP: Yeah, another question is: Why is bluegrass all of a sudden becoming more of a buzzword [that people use] to describe bands like Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers? I’ve thought a lot about that. I think, to people who aren’t familiar with Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe [and who don’t] know anything about the instrumentation, “bluegrass,” as a word, maybe suggests authenticity or something handmade.

[These days,] almost anything that’s acoustic falls under the term of “bluegrass.” I think people are in search of a term to apply to music that’s a little less plastic than a lot of the music that’s happening in the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a terrible thing that the word “bluegrass” has come to mean [what it has] to the general public. It almost mirrors the farm-to-table food movement or the resurgence of vinyl. People are looking for something that has echoes of a bygone era, that seems more concrete or human than what has come in the last few decades, as far as pop music.

KR: I’ve noticed that happens a lot with the word “folk,” too. There are a lot of people who use “folk” and “bluegrass” interchangeably. I think there are some people who might think of bluegrass if there’s a banjo in it, no matter what the music is. But, at some point, what the audience thinks is a certain style of music kind of becomes what that style of music is, right?

Sarah Jarosz: I think the way that people come to discovering a specific tradition in music is either by hearing something that’s contemporary and working their way backwards or hearing the original thing and then growing with it. I came at [my music] right smack dab in the middle of those two things, getting into all the traditional bluegrass music when I was like 10, and then simultaneously hearing new music that was being created at the same time that I was discovering the traditional stuff. But it was all inspired by the same spirit.

I think I’m two generations behind the original tradition of what I would call bluegrass. My generation — at least my friends — we care a little bit less about these words. [Bluegrass has] already undergone [a change in] one generation before us, when people were getting more of the brunt of, “You’re not within this tradition and we’re going to chew you out for that.”

My spirit of creating music, all along, has been a little more open, and it has been met with more openness from listeners too. Yes, I happen to be playing mandolin, banjo, and guitar, so I think the instruments are maybe what puts it into that field [in people’s minds], but overall I’m creating new music and I’m writing original songs, so that’s what it is. … I’ve never really felt that the music I make — or the music that anyone I love makes — fits specifically into one word. [Calling it bluegrass or not is] more of a language thing, and who really cares what different words mean to different people? 

To read the full conversation, and many other deep-digging articles related to this one, purchase a copy of the Winter 2016 issue of No Depression in print, titled Bluegrass Beyond

Correction: An earlier version of this article -- as well as the version in print -- stated that Fleck was from Queens and Jarosz lives in Brooklyn. In fact Fleck was raised in Manhattan, where Jarosz now lives.