As my wife and I have traveled over the last 15 years, during what some would call our retirement, we've experienced bluegrass music as what I thought to be a national music phenomenon. Recently, I read a book called Bluegrass in Baltimore by Tim Newby (you can see my review of it here) that has succeeded in convincing me that I need to examine the music through a different lens. Our friend Brent Davis, who's a producer of documentaries and station executive at WOSU, the public radio station in Columbus, Ohio, took us under his wing to give us tours of Columbus from both a macro-urban perspective and a micro-bluegrass one. Newby, through his book, has done the same thing, using Baltimore as an example. And I have come to view these local scenes, and others we've experienced, as the real world forming bluegrass music's base.
In each of the regions where we habitually travel, there's a bluegrass culture that's similar to what we've seen in other places, but also distinctive. Some we've come to be quite familiar with, while others we've dipped into, and others we haven't seen. What I've become aware of is that New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, North Carolina (both a state and a region), the Deep South, and Florida are musically similar, but not the same, when it comes to bluegrass, each having its own distinctive flavor and quality. These qualities have been blurred and diminished due to the homogenizing influence of our broadening and separating media, but the differences have not yet disappeared.
Many think of bluegrass music today as a form that traveled whole cloth from the mountains of Appalachia, where it told the story of mountain people. But we find that it cannot exist as a national phenomenon without having developed out of the migration of white mountain people to the industrial centers of the country. While many of the original songs express yearning for better days in the mountains, old cabin homes far away, and life on the farm, we more typically see that yearning in the context of a life we're now losing. Thus, the marvelous James King song, “Thirty Years of Farming,” or the Gibson Brothers' award-winning anthem “Farm of Yesterday,” which contrast the hazy memories of yesteryear with the realities of change and its consequent loss of lifestyle amidst changing values. The folk revival of the 1950s and '60s represented this loss and change as well, as it developed into a struggle, just as the current political battles disrupt society in seeking to return to what cannot be recovered.
My misconception lay in, and may have been developed by, my thought that “national” meant better. Our first bluegrass festival after discovering bluegrass at a small, regional association meeting in Conway, SC, was Merlefest, which we attended in 2003. There, over a ten-year period, we saw icons like Doc Watson, Asleep at the Wheel, Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson, Del McCoury, Robert Plant, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Prine, the Kruger Brothers, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Travis Tritt, and on and on, all national bands with national or worldwide recognition. While local or regional performers were booked and performed there, they were largely relegated to side stages and odd hours, while the nationally acclaimed headliners were featured on main stages at prime hours.
In each region we visit, people have told me that this or that musician was wonderful, worthy of national recognition and attention. I tended to downplay or ignore their enthusiastic recommendations, for which I've become sorry. Ignoring those led me to miss some wonderful performances. My thinking was that by avoiding the battle for recognition and national appeal, local and regional artists had not subjected themselves to the competition that forces growth and development. I still hold this posture, to a certain extent, but have come to recognize that there are many more ways than accepting the rigors of the road to have influence. One example of a mostly local player with a national reputation is West Virginia's Johnny Staats, who has maintained full-time employment as a UPS delivery man. Here's a TED Talk he gave a couple years ago:
What Newby emphasizes, and what I've seen in our travels, is that many highly accomplished, knowledgeable, and attractive performers work, and even make something of a living, performing close to home while maintaining full-time jobs, staying close to their families, and leading full, rewarding lives that include, but are not totally dominated by, music. Many of these bands today consist of musicians who found the music rather than either bringing it with them or participating in it to keep closer to their roots. Mac and Hazel McGee came to New England from their homes in Georgia and Tennessee to find work in the early '50s, built a band called White Mountain Bluegrass, and helped spread the music in New England. Dozens of now prominent New England musicians were introduced to bluegrass or developed through Mac and Hazel's influence. Today, it's much less likely that musicians new to bluegrass and its derivatives will have the advantage of first-hand experience with the economic poverty and cultural wealth of rural living.
Today, because almost anyone who can afford a decent microphone can make a recording worthy of wider attention and because publication on YouTube is available to anyone with almost no costs of reproduction, it's possible for local and regional musicians to gain more attention. Sadly, the competition to get FM or satellite air time seems to be so great that it appears nearly impossible for such recordings to get sufficient traction to gain recognition. Bluegrass Today editor John Lawless informed me that this go-to daily online publication's charts are structured to count only terrestrial radio, but he suggested that trying to find a way to count YouTube plays might provide fascinating data about what's really sought out and listened to.
But there are clearly regional and local bands that gain and maintain local attention, perform in a variety of venues, and, over time, develop distinctive sounds and flavors to their music. Several years ago, our late friend Jennings Chestnut took us to Guy and Tina Faulk's Pickin Parlor, near Moncks Corner, SC, where folks have gathered for decades to pick, chew the fat, eat, and do small shows for those who know how to find the place. As long as such places as Guy and Tina's continue to exist, bluegrass has both a past and a future.