Last week, I was shocked and deeply disappointed to read — first in a Facebook post, then in Bluegrass Today — the daily online news source for the bluegrass community, that WAMU's BluegrassCountry.org, would be leaving us on Dec. 31 unless a new owner is found. (For further information, read my comment below.) The announcement explained that, from its inception 47 years ago as a half-hour program of bluegrass music, Bluegrass Country had grown into a “24/7 roots music service broadcasting at 105.5 FM, 88.5-HD-2, 93.5 FM, and streaming on bluegrasscountry.org.”
It described changes in the demographics of the Washington, DC, listening audience. Two studies commissioned by the station found that WAMU's 88.5 news station had steadily grown to be one of the most listened to radio stations in the Washington, DC, area, but that “similar growth in listenership and financial support for bluegrass in years to come” could not be expected.
The question this leaves is: does the loss of a flagship, publicly supported radio station with a distinguished broadcast record in the nation's capital, which streams worldwide over the internet, represent simply the loss of one radio station? Or is it symptomatic of the changing of an era affecting all bluegrass in particular and all of broadcast music in general?
A website called Music Genres List, begun as a hobby and now a still-growing list of the proliferation of genres available worldwide, lists bluegrass as a sub-genre of country music. Here's the list of country genres:
Country Pop (thanks Sarah Johnson)
Within the list, bluegrass is mentioned as three differing manifestations of country music.
People who consider themselves to be bluegrass fans and/or experts often engage in a self-destructive exercise now called WIBA (What is Bluegrass Anyway?), during which they discuss, argue, explore, engage, and often disagree about the definition of bluegrass music. People at festivals who consider themselves to be "traditional bluegrass" fans will often fold up their chairs and go back to their trailers when a "contemporary bluegrass" band takes the stage, especially one featuring a drum kit.
“That ain't bluegrass!” they proclaim. With punkgrass, gangsta grass, urban grass, and jamgrass either well established or increasing in popularity, further divisions in the bluegrass audience are either already here or on the horizon.
Maybe this is inevitable in our increasingly polarized world. Perhaps it's simply a matter of taste. I've often heard people say, “I listen to lots of different types of music, but when I go to a bluegrass festival, I want to hear bluegrass.” By this, they seem to mean Monroe-style bluegrass, best represented by the music first heard in 1946, when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Monroe's band for a brief two years before leaving to form their own ground-breaking group.
But perhaps all these changes are simply the inevitable movements in taste, technology, demographics, and change that life in the world brings. This is represented best in the history of bluegrass when we consider how America shifted from being primarily a rural country to one centered in cities where a "little cabin home on the hill" is now but a distant memory for most.
Will A Prairie Home Companion survive Garrison Keillor's retirement and the elevation of one-time bluegrasser Chris Thile to the role of host? Will the hoary program, which has been on the air for 40 years, simply change its tone or disappear? After all, NPR, the show's overarching public radio supplier, has its own problems. Public radio was “invented by people in their 20s in the 1970s, largely at stations funded by colleges and universities," says Jeff Hanson of Seattle's public station KUOW. Public radio is almost completely listener-supported, with small federal subsidies going to some local affiliates while NPR receives almost no public money.
Bluegrass music has had a long and distinguished run. Seventy years is a long time for a musical genre. Even bluegrass festivals — many of them small events held in rural locations without amenities — have had their up and down periods for more than half a century. Both classic rock and roll and classic country have become nostalgia pieces, too, although each is much younger than traditional bluegrass. Dixieland jazz and big band music have become almost archival museum genres. Grand opera and classical orchestral music are largely the province of wealthy, urban audiences who can afford to support them. Meanwhile, large multigenerational, multigenre festivals appear to be thriving across the country, attracting huge, and often difficult to manage, audiences.
Bluegrass, as it developed over more than two generations, was invented from a broad range of influences as Bill Monroe and his immediate followers heard and made them part of their own imaginations. It hearkened back to the music of the Appalachian mountains, from which many of the original players emigrated to cities and factories in the southern Piedmont, where post-Civil War reindustrialization was taking place. The music included folk music originating in England, gospel music, improvisational music influenced by jazz, country & western music, and more. The people who came from the mountains were exposed to vaudeville, movies, honky-tonks, bars, recordings, and films. And the music growing from this became roots music itself.
Many of the bands we see at festivals and concerts, although their music has moved a little distance from the original — or so far away as to be almost unrecognizable as bluegrass — always give at least a musical nod to their sources. The most recognized and popular bands on the bluegrass circuit, like Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Dailey & Vincent, The Gibson Brothers, Seldom Scene, and many more, play music that's grounded in bluegrass, but deeply influenced by other musical traditions. Bluegrass has become a root music, but bluegrass is a trunk and branches, too.
The Avett Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters are a couple of recent examples of popular performers whose music is rooted in or deeply influenced by bluegrass music. Sam Bush, now elevated to icon status, still always acknowledges bluegrass, and, at events like IBMA's Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh each September, joyfully plays in bluegrass jams with the likes of Béla Fleck, who also nods to the genre.
Those of us who celebrate bluegrass as a pure form would be well advised to honor the founders (as well as the roots and branches that influenced them), at the same time as enjoying the close offshoots, dipping into the green tips on the ends of the branches.
In "Jesus Was a Capricorn," Kris Kristofferson sang, “Most of us hate anything that we don't understand.” Music and taste move on, they change, develop, evolve. Maybe, just maybe, listening will lead to greater understanding, appreciation, and then love. The means of delivery will change, but the music lives on.