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 Goes to College, But Should It?

As someone who made a career promoting roots music and was fortunate enought to be professionally involved with Bill Monroe as a concert producer and then a secondary agent, I'd like to point out a couple of things.

1. All the world's roots music deserves just as much respect and representation in academia as western classical music. 

2. There is no academic field where a degree guarantees a job, let along a long, satisfying, remunerative, career. The individual needs to have at least some discipline and vision to be something other than a drone. Compare the videos you offer above to this 1981 Monroe performance. A reasonably talented and dedicated student can learn to play Muleskinner Blues, but they can't play and sing it like Monroe if they practiced for 100 lifetimes. Still there is plenty of room for competent musicians to make what Utah Phillps called a living, not a killing. Most of the people who are agents, managers, tech people, concert producers, and teachers have some talent and education in the arts they love.

3. Beyond teaching the past and giving people job skills, college gives people a set of friends who can be important for their whole lives. I have benefited, in sometimes dramatic ways, from the continued help of a variety of my college classmates. And that includes the guys you play music with.

4. My experience is that extraordinarily talented people in music, and other fields, often move quickly, omit college or move on after a year or two. I attribute that to the strength of their vision their high level of talent. They should and do go on the road instead of college. Stevie Wonder went on the road instead of kindergarten. 

I want to thank Dan Boner, Program Director of the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music at East Tennessee State University. Nate Olson, and Jack Tottle for their thoughtful discussion of this piece. It adds depth and thoughtful analysis to the discussion that continued all day yesterday on Facebook looking at a number of similar issues. I think it's rare for any thoughtful consideration of issues to be conducted in online forums, so this contribution is particularly welcome. I urge people who read and thought about what I wrote to watch this video and contribute to the ongoing and necessary discussion.  


I think this was a simply brilliant way to respond, and now I'm thinking I could respond by video, perhaps much better than by writing. I also agree with most of what the profs had to say. Especially, IMHO, starting with marks on a page and proceeding to music is not only backwards, but more than a little creepy. Sort of like making people write out recipes for a year before they got to eat anything. 

I also appreciated the discussion about how attractive the music communities are people. Music flows from our basic humanity. It serves us most in the physical act of doing it and/or dancing to it and they way it facilitates our connection to others, even others we are not supposed to like. As Charles Seeger said, "To make music is the essential thing - to listen to it is accessory."

The great musicians I had the privilige to work with and get to know all had one thing in common. They all came from home and community environments were music was pervasive. The major activities of life, recreation, child rearing, education, work, worship, all involved music. With a few possible exceptions, music is like a language. If you don't get by the time you are 5, it is a much harder struggle to obtain fluency.

Many of us who grew up without music in our families and communities, in the middle class "educated" society that only values classical music virtuosos. Trying to put music into our lives is a struggle. The college offerings, like the one at East Tennessee State, are a good way for us to connect with music and the social communities that support it. It doesn't all have to be about the music business or even excellence. Providing and entre to passion and life satisfaction are great reasons to have roots music cirricula in higher ed.


Thank you Ted, for a thought provoking article on a topic of tremendous importance to the music industry. Having had a career in the bluegrass and rock industries after being educated in the more traditional conservatory approach, my conclusion is that the higher education realm desperately needs the by ear skills that a genre like bluegrass can offer more now than ever. Students who majored in music performance thinking that they would participate in a major symphony orchestra are finding that these jobs don't exist anymore. Because music degrees continue to exist (regardless of whether or not the students are prepared to make money or not) these students need an ever-widening skill set that includes chord reading and improvisation. In fact, it is the classical players who need these skills more than bluegrass pickers ever needed to learn how to read notation. The two schools of thought compliment eachother tremendously and if the arts are to continue to exist at the collegiate level, we owe it to these passionate students to present them with as many avenues for success as possible. It is time to work together music educators! It is time to offer our students the real life skills that musicians use every day, with the keen business sense that will be required of them in an increasingly difficult market to make a living in! I just published a blog on similar subject at

The time to unite is now! 

Thanks so much for your comment, Annie. More later.

Molly Tuttle is one superb example of the results of college on bluegrass.  Check out the Goodbye Girls, with Molly on guitar and vocals.  Bluegrass music benefits from and infusion of complexity based on the higher learning profiles of those new musicians.  And for the record, I have to say that I (and my wife) find Gentle On My Mind - though beloved and extraordinarily sentimental - to be very mysogynistic.  I know, I sound like a traitor to the art form, but really - REALLY - listen to those lyrics.

Thanks for the comment. I'd never considered an underlying mysogyny in this great song's lyrics, but I'll take another listen. Meanwhile, I ran all over Raleigh last September in an effort to hear more of her work. Molly Tuttle's an upcoming star. I must say that when I saw the Tuttle Family Band at IBMA several years ago, I wouldn't have predicted her progress, so I'm most pleased to have been wrong. Complexity, even sophistication, seems fine to me, but many other fans prefer to maintain the simplicity of earlier days and music. The trick, it often seems to me, is to find simplicity within complexity. As the great Shaker song says, "tis a gift to be simple."


Well said, Ted.  One could almost come up with 2 categories of bluegrass fan base, the Traditional and the Progressive (not in a political way, please).  Not that they are mutually exclusive!  I'll be curious to hear your take on those John Hartford lyrics.  Lovely Krauss/Ma song, too.  Thank you!

   Seriously, I don't see anything wrong with these courses. College is so expensive, I think that you would be better off buying a good instrument,take some lessons, meet some pickers, and start practicing. A lot of country musicians go to Belmont. You have to love what you do.

Great discusssion and a great thank you to the men from ETSU.

Along the way, it occurs to me that the definition of "college" could be explored.  Different people have different ideas of what "college" is.

Thanks, Ted!

Honestly I don't think it's so different from someone who goes to college, majors in English, and then makes it as a professional singer-songwriter. It provides a backup as well as some time steeped in studying something the person is passionate about. It's the same skillset as a history major so they're at least as employable in the kinds of fields as any other humanities student.

And of course the value of a liberal arts education altogether has been hotly debated for several decades now.

I'm still an advocate of the liberal arts.  It's a hard sell with the cost of college, but the choices a person has widen with the quality and commitment to undergraduate breadth. 

Oh I don't disagree. I do academic advising at a community college! I think it's very important that students do more than just professional preparation!

I have no interest in getting political at all, but here's an interesting article about college:

I can't see anything mysogynistic in the lyrics of "Gentle On My Mind."  If anyone infers anything of the sort, surely that pales in comparison to the overt mysogyny we are observing these days, from the top down.

Allow me to clarify my perspective:  He has this girl he sleeps with regularly whenever he drifts into town, cuz he leaves his "sleeping bag rolled up behind" her couch.  He can wander back to her whenever he wants, - "knowin' that your door is always open" - no questions, no commitments.  Speaking directly to her the whole time in the song, tells her that some girl cried to her mother cuz "she turned and he was gone".  Doesn't that comment cause hurt to his regular lover whose door is always open?  Does she just accept that he may have a lover in every town he drifts through?  To say nothing of the hurt he may have caused to the girl who cried to her mother - did he lead her on, create expectations?  Did she think he was going to stay around?  Did he not even tell her that he was moving on?  I think there was a different acceptable cultural ethic in '67 that would not be acceptable today.  Indeed, an ethic that many people today vehemently oppose.  Also, there was a lot of mysogeny in the pre-women's lib 60's - 70's within the "progressive" cultural movement.  Women had to fight for a long time to be recognized as anything like equals.  You could argue that the two lovers are equals - maybe she's perfectly happy with the arrangement.  I doubt such an arrangement would be nearly as acceptable today, though I'm sure it happens.  But I also doubt it would be celebrated in song. 

John Hartford says he wrote this song after watching the film "Dr. Zhivago."  The story (Zhivago) presents such a complicated array of relationships, that I would not impute any misogynistic motives to the protagist in Hartford's song.  I don't know what Hartford was thinking.  There is simply too much we do not understand about the characters.  Like you say: she could be perfectly happy with the arrangement.  I do agree that "sexual freedom" in 1967 often resulted in more pain and suffering for women than for men.  Some things have changed for the better, but we still have a ways to go to achieve real equality.

Below are some extended comments on this topic from Jocelyn Neal, the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is also the director of the UNC Bluegrass Initiative, and the author of The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music (Indiana University Press) and Country Music:  A Cultural and Stylistic History (Oxford University Press).

Bluegrass Goes to College, But Should It? Yes. 

  On July 5, 2017, Ted Lehmann’s weekly bluegrass column in No Depression asked this provocative question:  Bluegrass goes to college, but should it?  Through deft turn of phrase, Lehmann hints that the answer may be no, and that perhaps both the music’s historical integrity and today’s aspiring performers might not be best served via the college route.  Dialogue on such topics is always welcome, and the flurry of responses to his column on social media and through other venues including Inside Higher Ed suggests that the subject is acutely ripe for discussion.  I write here to contribute a few ideas to this conversation, centering on three particular points: that bluegrass music has always intersected with college, that people rather than music go to college, and that a university’s role is fundamentally different than what is depicted in Lehmann’s essay. And while Lehmann focused specifically on programs that offer pre-professional training in bluegrass performance, I will expand that to the broader question with which he titled the essay.       First, should bluegrass go to college?  In many respects, it already has, in ways that cannot be written out of the music’s history.  From the 1960s Folk Revival onward, much of the development of bluegrass music has occurred at junctures between college-educated communities and the groups of musicians who work the road.  Accounts of the Osborne Brothers’ career almost always include the impact of their performances at Antioch College in Ohio and their acquisition of a new, college-educated audience.  The biographies of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard—where working-class meets college-educated backgrounds—are a real-life illustration of that intersection, and the music that the two made together was incredible.  Even today’s bluegrass festivals both foster and rely on the co-mingling of fans and performers from different educational demographics, an essential part of the formula that makes such events financially viable.  Bluegrass Today’s 2012 “Special Report” on fans today confirmed that the bluegrass audience holds college degrees in approximately the same proportion as the general American population. In other words, it is only our nostalgic imaginings that frame yesteryear’s bluegrass as music removed from higher education in the first place.         Swarthmore, Columbia, Harvard, Indiana University, George Mason University… These universities pop up in the resumes of the people who have given lasting form and substance to bluegrass’s narrative.  Individuals such as Ralph Rinzler, Neil Rosenberg, Fred Bartenstein, Bob Cantwell, Murphy Henry, David Freeman, and so many more, have been a living, breathing part of bluegrass music, and their approach to the music is shaped, de facto, by their education. So pervasive is the influence of their work that even fans and performers who have not read their writings first-hand understand the music through these individuals’ interpretations of it.    In other words: bluegrass going to college is really nothing new, and we should not pretend otherwise.   Second, musical genres don’t go to college; people go to college.  Far from mere semantics, the idea that it is not “music” but rather people who embark on the journey of a college education is key to this discussion.  At colleges and universities coast to coast, people study myriad topics:  art history, literature, music, physics, math, sociology, engineering, foodways, biology, gender theory, business, etc.  Many years ago, music departments enshrined a particular cultural hierarchy that declared only some musics worthy of study.  During that era, music appreciation classes often centered on the apparent brilliance of western art music (“Ah, Bach…”) and those classes are a vivid memory for many former students.  But that attitude—that only some musics were worthy of study—is one that many music departments have left in the past for all sorts of excellent reasons, including the fact that such an approach focused on an unacceptably narrow slice of music, limited by racial, regional, gender, and class-based identities.  And in the face of students eager to learn and study, is the bluegrass community really willing to say that bluegrass is not worthy of study?     Third, a university education offers unparalleled opportunities for students, not limited to job placement.  Lehman proposes that “Colleges essentially have two basic functions: to inform the past and to prepare workers for the future.”  This assertion misses, in my opinion, the most central functions of a university on both counts.  The past is just that:  an abstraction of a time period that has passed, and not anything that can be “informed.” And preparing people to work is too narrow an interpretation. In contrast, consider the following:   A university serves as a nexus for knowledge and creative output (all the books in the library, recordings in the archives, field interviews in the oral history collections, and expertise of its faculty).  The opportunity to dive into those resources (an archive full of field recordings, oral interviews, and rare singles!), and to do so in the company of peers under the guidance of scholars and librarians, is itself of immense value.       A university is a crucible where the next generations’ knowledge of science, medicine, humanities, and arts creativity are forged, where ideas take form, where books are written.  Students take part in that knowledge formation.  If one wants to understand the relationships between bluegrass and whiteness, working-class culture, the sounds and structures of the music that express that culture, and southern, rural America, university scholars are bringing their expertise and—yes—real-life ethnographic experiences to bear in classroom lectures and in new books and articles that are worth reading and re-reading under the tutelage of scholars, as Jordan Laney and others have pointed out in response to Lehmann’s article.      A university offers students an education.  Note that an education is very different than “job training and placement.”  The goals of that education are to develop students’ ability to think critically, to understand and interpret the world around them, to make sense of their place within that context, and to contribute original ideas to the world in meaningful ways.  Colleges and universities are set up for students to work with experts, namely the faculty, on a regular and intense basis.  In a college program, a team of faculty experts offers guidance; they teach not only how to play an instrument, but also how to write and communicate, how to do research, how to engineer a recording, how to market a band, and so much more. And they incorporate the full range of learning methods appropriate for the music, including oral transmission and aural acquisition. As Dan Boner, director of ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music degree program explained in his response to Lehmann’s article, ongoing access to the breadth and depth of faculty expertise is incredibly valuable.       There is, of course, a strong correlation between earning a college degree and finding a satisfying and lucrative career.  It happens that many attractive employers seek to hire individuals with the skills and experiences afforded by a college education, and of course, as a result, colleges and universities advertise their job-placement and earnings statistics.  But I would suggest that the real take-away for a student is the education itself, an education that students can build on for the rest of their lives, with the proven potential to open doors and raise standards of living for those holding degrees.  It is not, directly speaking, job training.       Among the concerns that Lehmann articulates is that bluegrass music will change if it entwines itself in the world of the university.  Yes, it likely will.  But bluegrass music, as any musical genre, is a living, organic art form that is in a constant state of change and evolution.  Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs all sounded different after they heard rock-n-roll; Fred Bartenstein has written persuasively that Josh Graves was likely hired as a response to those different external musical contexts.  That was a change in bluegrass.  In the late 1960s, young fans shifted the way that they consumed music in response to the social movements of the time, and bluegrass adapted in response.  That was a change.  Commercial opportunities have appeared at various junctures, whether Flatt and Scruggs on television or Alison Krauss gaining a mainstream country audience.  Those moments changed bluegrass.        Even the staunchest traditionalists today who play in bands that sound every bit as close to Monroe circa 1947 as possible are not making music “the same” as Monroe: he was an ambitious progressive who shaped the songs and repertory he borrowed to be his own sound, boldly facing the future (as we hear so clearly with the way his version of “Muleskinner Blues” altered Jimmie Rodgers’s version, and then kept changing it over the years).  A band today imitating those performances is working from a position of retrospective nostalgia.  So yes, bluegrass will change.  But not because “it goes to college.”  It will change because it is music, and like the currents of the river, it flows onward through time, continuously carving new paths.       Most important, perhaps, the demographics of the bluegrass audience—and of Americans in general—have changed and are continuing to change.  In 1947, when Monroe’s most famous line-up was crafting the classic sound of bluegrass, fewer than 5% of women and 7% of men held college degrees.  Those numbers have been climbing steadily, to the point that today nearly six times as many Americans hold a college degree. In other words, the role of college itself has changed since the founding of bluegrass music. If we exclude bluegrass musicians from higher education, we ensnare them in a world of limited opportunity.     Consider that since World War II, advocates of education, governmental policy makers, and others have advocated tirelessly to get first-generation college students from rural America into college for the very reason that a college education affords a person more avenues for success, agency to choose and/or change where one lives, and in general, a leg up in the world. Enormous efforts from the GI Bill to tuition-reimbursement programs have been deployed toward these ends.  For many first-generation college students, these opportunities are more than exciting.       Wouldn’t it be much better, therefore, if more colleges and universities recognized and rewarded a wider set of skills and talents from their applicant pool? Wouldn’t it be great if a young bluegrass musician who otherwise would never set foot on a campus were able to leverage bluegrass skills to gain an education and receive a college diploma?  And wouldn’t the fan culture around bluegrass music benefit if the diverse population of students at colleges and universities encountered bluegrass in serious, informed, and critically reflective ways as part of their overall education?      Yes, bluegrass should go to college in all respects to take its place in the discourse and education of future generations of thinkers, artists, and leaders. 

Wow!  Thank you, Ms. Neal!

Ms. Neal (and those following along here), I especially loved your comment: 

"That attitude—that only some musics were worthy of study—is one that many music departments have left in the past for all sorts of excellent reasons, including the fact that such an approach focused on an unacceptably narrow slice of music, limited by racial, regional, gender, and class-based identities.  And in the face of students eager to learn and study, is the bluegrass community really willing to say that bluegrass is not worthy of study?"

It summarizes my own experiences as both a performer and an educator quite succinctly and I applaud your perspective. Thank you for a *rocking* response to this article that continues to breathe great breath into this timely issue for both bluegrass AND the academy.  

Ms. Neal (and those following along here), I especially loved your comment: 

"That attitude—that only some musics were worthy of study—is one that many music departments have left in the past for all sorts of excellent reasons, including the fact that such an approach focused on an unacceptably narrow slice of music, limited by racial, regional, gender, and class-based identities.  And in the face of students eager to learn and study, is the bluegrass community really willing to say that bluegrass is not worthy of study?"

It summarizes my own experiences as both a performer and an educator quite succinctly and I applaud your perspective. Thank you for a *rocking* response to this article that continues to breathe great breath into this timely issue for both bluegrass AND the academy.