My wife and I first drove up the steep hill to the top of the Wilkes Community College campus in late April of 2003. We had heard of the groundbreaking music festival known as MerleFest several years earlier, but now we were there. After setting up our rig on the edge of the large parking lot at the top of the campus, we looked out over the vista below. Spread out before us appeared an almost medieval assemblage of circus tents, open space, classroom buildings, a large auditorium, and at least a dozen stages -- large and small. The next day we walked down to the campus, through elaborate security designed to make sure we weren't carrying any alcohol through the gate and wandered around. The campus filled and we studied the massive, complex schedule of bands most of whose names we had never heard before.
“Oh, so this is bluegrass!” we exclaimed to each other.
Four days later, having seen Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Ralph Stanley, The Del McCoury Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, and oh-so-many more, we were hooked. Only later, as we attended more and more events, did we discover it wasn't really quite that simple.
We learned that within the roiling fervor of fans, music, T-shirts, and almost exclusively acoustic instruments, there were factions, cliques, exclusive enclaves, and jealousies. We focused ourselves on learning bluegrass and discovered it usually included some array of four or five unplugged instruments, keening loneliness, incredible instrumental skill, lovely three-part harmony singing, and a rich cultural heritage. And that it was a relatively small niche within a much larger context. Even within bluegrass, we found divisions between the traditional tunes growing out of the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and others. There was newgrass, a result of the influence of rock music on traditional sounds. There were jam bands, influenced by the Grateful Dead and Woodstock. There were strains of country and Tin Pan Alley pop. It was all there, contained in what people were calling "bluegrass."
MerleFest had mountain and country folk attending, as well as college kids, urban professionals, older retired people who preferred to sit and listen. It turned out there wasn't one community, but a wonderful roiling world of people who had little in common beyond the music. And there were resentments – big tent and small tent adherents seeking to restrict “their” music within narrow walls or expand it almost beyond the breaking point of recognizability. They danced around each other, throwing labels.
At smaller festivals, there were chair clappers, those refusing to sit still for what they considered to be “not bluegrass.” We discovered, too, that pure bluegrass was not a genre that could support significant numbers of musicians, but that oh-so-many people who'd had their first musical experience stricken by the speed and virtuosity of the music -- especially the banjo, guitar, and mandolin played together -- had spread their influence throughout the musical world.
Last week, I asked my Facebook friends to send me the names of some people who had been bluegrass musicians early in their careers, but had spread to other genres in order to make a living. I also asked for prominent musicians in other genres whose early musical influences had included the down-home, porch-made bluegrass music. The response was overwhelming, as too many names to consider thoroughly arrived by email. Some of the people mentioned were household names, others familiar to me, and some names -- to my shame -- I've never heard.
Who would have thought that famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perleman would have played bluegrass music? But here it is:
Over a 12-hour period, there were 83 comments on my Facebook page, as people submitted the names of hundreds of musicians and composers who either had spent a lot of time performing bluegrass or whose formative experiences in mostly, but surely not exclusively, rural America had included bluegrass. Not surprisingly, as bluegrass is truly a sub-genre of country, the list was heavily weighted toward country musicians: Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Chet Atkins, Guy Clark, Charlie Daniels, John Denver, Glenn Campbell ... the list goes on and on. Loosely defined rock and roll artists with bluegrass beginnings included Jerry Garcia, Gram Parsons, Jackson Browne (an early member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Béla Fleck (who belongs in too many genres to count), Levon Helm, and more. For some reason, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill seem to have so much credibility in bluegrass that they can pass easily back and forth to mainstream country. On the other hand, Joe Diffie, Robert Earl Keen, and Alan Jackson had a little more to prove to the bluegrass community.
A musician named James Stiltner wrote me, saying:
I seen your post about No Depression. I started out in bluegrass but I'm finding more gigs and more acclaim with these country bands I'm in. I'm making more money with country gigs but I still love bluegrass. Gigs for a country band are just easier to find, [attract] a wider audience, and [provide] more steady work. I play lead guitar, banjo and mandolin when it comes to bluegrass, but when I began playing the electric guitar professionally with various country/rock bands and I stopped limiting myself to bluegrass, I got more work and more acclaim. Don't get me wrong, I love bluegrass, but it's such a small niche-type music that it's hard for someone to break into. The only artists who find any form of success in bluegrass are children and older/established artists, or to a lesser extent, novelties. I was none of these things, I just have a instrumental gift that I continue to strive to get better on every day, and country/rock style music offered me a bigger audience, more work (and consequently, more acclaim) than bluegrass could.
Here at No Depression, the editor has decided to cover the broadest of waterfronts under the heading of "roots music," and many in the community prefer the word "Americana." But even the name Americana doesn't do justice to the genre, as this music has spread worldwide, still usually defined by the five instruments it started with: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass. Some bands add drums to the mix, though most bluegrassers prefer not to. Some play plugged-in, while others still anchor to microphones, but there's a similarity in the differing musics. There's no Euro-techno funk here ... I don't think.
Take a look at the diversity represented in the bands polled by the magazine's staff and readers, and listed as the 50 top albums of 2015. If you can't find lots of music to like here, there's a problem. It's not all to my taste, nor should it be, but there's lots of choice.
As for my wife and me, we've elected to continue attending mostly small-to-medium-sized bluegrass festivals, scattered up and down the East Coast. They suit us, at our age, in terms of the volume of the music, the accessibility of the artists, the fact that we can sit, if we wish to, without having our view obstructed. Plus, we've developed many friends over the years. That doesn't mean that we don't find some elements missing. We'd like to see a greater variety of bands. We appreciate the new ideas and styles beginning to show up at these festivals, even as we -- and the artists -- continue to treasure old bluegrass standards and the still-living representatives of the early days of bluegrass. We often wish there was more diversity at the festivals we attend, and that they might attract more families and young people. But, fans should celebrate the fact that, over the past 70 years, bluegrass has influenced American music beyond measure, as it has been influenced by it. Bluegrass people should celebrate these interactions and seek to enjoy the results.
As 2016 emerges, try to get yourself to a music festival. Find a setting and sound that pleases you. Then go and allow yourself to be immersed in the music, the scene, the joy, and the experience. You won't find a better place for your entertainment dollar.