In 1983, eminent bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg wrote a piece in the scholarly journal American Music, published by the University of Illinois Press, about bluegrass stereotypes found in popular media of the time. He wrote about three offerings found on television and film in the summary available to me. The summary of his lengthy article said, “These three recordings are the best-selling records in the history of bluegrass.” He continues to say that they changed the the way visual media affected “the cultural meanings” of music. This column looks at the these three as examples and takes his argument into some present issues in American society, raising some questions that have become increasingly relevant in recent years.
The theme song for the television situation comedy The Beverly Hillbillies gave Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs a huge mass media hit. Sung on TV by Jerry Scoggins, the song was also released by Flatt & Scruggs in a version merging the introduction and the ending of the theme music. The song spent 20 weeks on the Billboard country charts, including three weeks at #1 as well as reaching #44 on the Billboard Hot Country List in 1962. Beverly Hillbillies spent nine seasons on CBS-TV, achieving #1 rating in its first two seasons. The program was canceled in 1972 when the network, seeking a more sophisticated and upscale audience, canceled all its rural-themed programs at once.
"Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was first recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in 1949 but was discovered by film makers as terrific background music for car chases and such in movies featuring rural settings. The song was prominently featured in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, featuring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway as the ill-fated, but, to country folk during the Depression, heroic band robbers who became legends in the fashion of the James brothers and Pretty Boy Floyd.
The "Dueling Banjos" scene from the 1972 film Deliverance created an indelible impression of the gulf between between the clueless city men off for a wilderness canoe adventure as they encounter the severely limited banjo player (played by actor Billy Redden) whose virtuosity and seemingly autistic response amazes the slickers. An interesting sidelight to this performance is that Redden was unconvincing as a banjo player, requiring local musician Mike Addis to perform his left hand with his arm up Redden's sleeve. Camera angles were used to hide his presence. The other interesting matter arising from this both thrilling and chilling performance was that Arthur Smith was forced to sue to obtain credit for his work, having originally composed the tune in 1955.
All three of the preceding songs gave bluegrass music a higher profile because of increased media exposure. Since 1983, when Rosenberg's monograph was published, bluegrass has continued to be represented in contemporary media, often reinforcing a rural stereotype that the bluegrass community is, at best, ambivalent about. The International Bluegrass Music Association, founded in 1985, with its first awards ceremony held in Owensboro, KY, and the first World of Bluegrass trade show in 1990, became the major trade organization of bluegrass music. IBMA describes itself as “the trade association that connects and educates bluegrass professionals, empowers the bluegrass community, and encourages worldwide appreciation of bluegrass music of yesterday, today and tomorrow.” How then, does the way in which bluegrass is perceived changed?
RFD-TV is a cable and satellite broadcast television outlet featuring rurally oriented programming about farm life, farm economics, and rural entertainment. It is available to less than half the total audience of television viewers, with much heavier presence in rural areas in the Midwest and South. Three of the network's programs are particularly interesting here. The Marty Stuart Show, Reno's Old Time Music, and Larry's Country Diner, all of which feature bluegrass and old-time country music in their programming. They have captured a strong traditional, rural audience with this programing as well as offering reruns of Hee Haw, the highest rated of country music network shows, which ran on CBS from 1969 – 1971 and then in local syndication for 21 years. While reaching out successfully to an underrepresented community in mass media, the network does little to broaden the appeal of bluegrass and country music to an increasingly suburban and urban media audience.
The Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou (released in 2000) did much to awaken interest in country and bluegrass music, although there actually isn't any bluegrass in the film. However, the appearance of major star George Clooney, with his singing done by Dan Tyminski; singing by Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch; and a career-rebuilding performance by Ralph Stanley, reflected well on bluegrass, leading to a renewed surge of popularity. The clip below features all these people and more in a celebration of their Grammy-winning performances at the 2002 Grammy awards program on CBS.
Another example of the way in which bluegrass music has informed popular culture is the song “Rocky Top,” often derided by bluegrass fans as a cliched and overplayed piece of fluff reflecting poorly on the genre. Nevertheless, "Rocky Top" has been named the fifth Tennessee state song and become the fight song of the Tennessee Volunteers football team. Below are an example of star quarterback Peyton Manning leading the crowd in Rocky Top after a win at Alabama and the Osborne Brothers singing the song. It may be a cliché, but it's perhaps the most requested bluegrass song of all by those not familiar with the genre.
A recent podcast recorded for the German cultural site DW explores bluegrass music today through visits to a bluegrass jam in West Virginia, to the Carter Fold in Virginia, and to Rosine, Bill Monroe's homeplace in Kentucky. In a 28-minute production, reporter Andreas Horchler captures the spirit one can find still alive in rural America. In it, he says, “The musicians tell the story of America.” Take some time to listen to this thoughtfully conceived program from a European perspective (click on the photo):
The video below features the fine traditional band The Boxcars playing on a Saturday night at the Carter Fold, featured in the podcast above, playing the old fiddle tune "Old Joe Clark" as members of the audience come to the floor to dance. It is events like these helping keep tradtional music alive and thriving.
The question remains, however, whether bluegrass can expand its reach to the world of urban and suburban cultural centers and theaters, find an audience on television, and continue to support professional musicians and touring bands. Or is the music's true life to be found in the jams and country festivals that abound throughout the nation? Can it have it both ways, appealing to some kind of “cultural elite” while still maintaining its rural roots? Can it be charming, comforting, innovative, and exciting all at once?
The elevation of Chris Thile to the role of host on A Prairie Home Companion suggests to me that the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Thile, born in California in 1981, has been a well-known mandolinist almost since the Watkins and Thile families founded the youthful progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek when he was eight years old. When he was 12, he won the mandolin championship at Walnut Valley in Kansas. He founded his current band, Punch Brothers, and won a McArthur Award (the so-called “genius” award) in 2012. Now he's the host of A Prairie Home Companion, replacing the irreplaceable Garrison Keillor, who founded the show in 1974. The program has been a flagship public radio production ever since. While Thile has already brought his own style and character to this gently satirical and thoughtful look at American culture, his transition appears to have been smooth. Below are a brief overview of bluegrass music presented by Thile and master Dobro player Jerry Douglas followed by a longer skit that imagines an experience with the ghost of Bill Monroe. Enjoy!