Column

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.

Bluegrass Doesn't Play Well with Others

Loved hearing about your beginnings in Bluegrass and the you-tube videos.

 

Thanks, Veta. And Thanks for the introduction to your son. I look forward to reading his book.

Many years ago - in the late 1950s and on - I struggled with the popular conception of the term "folk music". Soon, that term became so all-accpeting and vague that it became useless in describing music at all, with field recordings by Herbert Halpert from the Library of Congress conflated with the latest LP hits by Jackie DeShannon and the Kingston Trio.

The same thing is now happening with the term "bluegrass".  Originally, it was not used, even by Bill Monroe, the creator of the style. It became a more or less usefull descriptor in the 1960s, even though it was sometimes maligned by jealous rivals of Mr. Monroe, some from the country origins, some from urban areas. Now, we have the term "roots music", pertaining to the idea that the music in question should be of value to modern listeners, solely because it contributed to the growth of rock music - assumed to be the end-all and creative summit of man's musical aspirations. So, I find that term both arrogant and insulting. As for "jam bands" and other rock-derived groups, one of whose members picks up a banjo on a slumming expedition, calling it "bluegrass" only serves to further cloud the understanding of inexperienced listeners.

To those who happen on the real thing, there is still a chance that it may impact them in a manner that may make a positive impact on their own sensibilities. It is my fondest wish that Mr. God will still allow a possibility that that will happen.

Peter - I've written a good deal over the years about my own musical genesis, so I won't reprise it here. Suffice it to say, my musical heroes in the fifties and sixties included Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Josh White, Dave Brubeck, and Gilbert & Sullivan...in other words, it was an eclectic mix. Although I was aware of Flatt & Scruggs in the early sixties, bluegrass didn't become an important part of our lives until the early years of this century. This column contains a shortened version of that experience. As both my taste and knowledge have expanded, so has my appreciation of the first and second generation performers. However, I think it's worthwhile remembering the Bill Monroe was a synthesist of the music in the air during his formative years. Old-time, country, gospel, swing, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley pop all became included in the music he developed. As others have ably pointed out, his genius lay as much in his ability to pull varying strands together into a cohesive musical experience. This genius must always be honored, not in placing his production on a pedestal, but in the future's willingness to allow the process of a music's becoming to be heard and appreciated for what it, in its appeal to new generations, also becomes. The music, whatever it sounds like, is real. For people who listen, search, and, yes, learn to play, the founders will continue to wield their influence, and new music will continue to arise, much of it influenced in one way or another by bluegrass. As I've played the banjo, poorly, and, more recentl, the guitar, my appreciation for the earlier music has grown in the pleasure of singing it. Nevertheless, I treasure some of the new music, am bored or tired of "sound alike" bluegrass, and find glorious music in a few of the newer bands. But...only time will tell.

Ted, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. My main concern is with the nomenclature used in critical music writing.  As I mentioned, "folk" has become so broadly used as to become meaningless.  Big Bill Broonzy was quoted as saying "I'm a 'folk', and I play guitar, so it's gotta be 'folk music'".  What I found fascinating was that the term "folk" was transformed from a descriptive adjective into a value judgement. Even my friend, folklore professor DK Wilgus, began to use it in that sense. Of course, the same is happening now (and over the past 35-40 years) with the term "bluegrass". There have been countless struggles, arguments, and attempts to define that word. And again, it has been turned into a value judgement: If it's real bluegrass, it's good; otherwise . . . wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Now, I strongly agree that there is plenty of bad, mediocre bluegrass music. Unlike its original sound, it is now played by amateur or hobbyist bands, many of whom simply do not have the sensibiliuty or skill set to properly perform it. Also, any meaningful music comes from a societal base; it means something in the culture from which it originates. Then there is the variation brought about by individual impressions of the music and life in general, each resulting in a spectrum of sounds. The "first generation" bands are almost all dead. The music will move on. I do question whether it can still be properly called "bluegrass music".  I liken it to a mountain stream, clear, pure, fast-running, which cascades down the mountainside. Then, as it hits the flatlands and valleys, it slows down, spreads out, and begins to be polluted by various tributaries. By the time it hits the delta (like the Mississippi), there is not much left of the original, which has become diluted beyond recognition. Of course, those of us who try to write about the music must realize that, if it could be precisely described, there would be no need to play the notes! Again, thanks for your response.

Ted,

   I looked at the top 50 albums voted on by people here, I did not see anything that I liked.  My tastes are very , I like what I like. I wrote country and bluegrass reviews for 12 years, so I know what is out there. My favorite Bluegrass bands are Flatt Lonesome, The Grascals, and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.  The best bluegrass show that I have seen was Kentucky Thunder. The opening band was pretty good, they played bout 30 minutes. Kentucky Thunder came on and they were like several notches better. They play real bluegrass. Ricky can sing and at that time they had one of the best guitar players in Bluegrass, Cody Kilby, also I love Ricky's Dialog with the audience. I can't wait to see Flatt Lonesome. James Stiltner is one of the best instrumentalists not on the tour, you Know about him. I love Akus, but they aren't doing anything anymore.  I did not like t
heir last album, it was depressing and it really drags along.

Thanks for your comment, Jim. One of the wonderful things about music, of any genre, is that it's ok for tastes to differ. Give a listen to some videos from the Lonely Heartstring Band and the Gibson Brothers. I think you might like them. 

In many ways, Ricky Skaggs exemplifies much of what I've been writing about. He's had two major careers as a performer in addition to his successful company Skaggs Family Records. He won a number of awards in country music, then returned to bluegrass, his first love, with a fine touring band. No one else could carry the personnel he does and make a living in bluegrass! He's had a long and successful career and has many loyal fans.

I think it's quite important that a major proportion of the bluegrass audience keeps the flame of tradition alive on stage and, even more, in jams. I also think it's important for questing artists to push the envelope. Whether their music lasts and finds a major audience is an important question, but not the be all and end all. 

Hi Ted,

    I have heard the Gibson Brothers, they are good, but I don't like them, they sound more folk than bluegrass to me. They remind me of Dailey and Vincent, bluegrass superstars. I will check out the other band you mentioned. Another couple of Bands I like are Detour and Chris Jones band, a bit different, but original. Stay safe in the snow.

Jim