A friend of mine has been in bluegrass for 40 years. He's a protector of bluegrass tradition and a road warrior who's still standing, singing, touring with his band after all these years. When we see each other at festivals, we often talk about the state of bluegrass. Of course, that's what bluegrass people do. They talk about the state of bluegrass.
“It's dying,” he might say. Or, “It needs to be preserved and cherished.” Or, “It needs to change, to find a contemporary audience.” Or more specifically, “If it doesn't have a banjo played in the syncopated style of Earl Scruggs, it ain't bluegrass.”
After my friend and I spend some time together, sometimes standing outside his bus while he stretches out after many hours behind the wheel, he will often end a period of silence with a sigh and say, “Well, it's all good. It is what it is.” Then he'll go back into the bus and I'll wander off looking for pictures, another story to tell, a song.
I've been thinking a lot recently about these two closing bromides and how destructive they are. Let's take a look at them.
First, it's not all good! As a matter of fact, or at least in my opinion -- since there aren't too many facts here we can count on -- a lot of “it,” whatever it is, is just plain bad. Lots of “it” is redundant, copied, restated, lacking in all creativity or inspiration. Since this column is devoted to bluegrass, there needs to be a connection here. In this striving genre, where artists seek to keep an audience as well as appeal to a newer, younger, perhaps more vibrant one, there lies an urge to preserve. So many folks feel the need to keep bluegrass the way it was when the crowd at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville first heard the three-finger banjo style that Scruggs synthesized in his genius way from what he heard in Flint Hill, North Carolina.
No doubt, Scruggs set the standard and established a new way of playing the banjo. All contemporary banjo players give him credit while often quoting him in their own playing, or actually playing one of his compositions as a component of their performances. People will say, “There'll never be another Earl,” and they're right. Many banjo players take his work as the ultimate, approaching their playing by merely seeking to emulate Earl's style.
But, on the other hand, along have come a series of great banjo players – Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, Noam Pikelny, and Jens Kruger, to name only a few – who have taken what Scruggs achieved, built on it, surrounded it with their own musical ideas, and created something new ... and wonderful.
There are plenty of others who've tried and failed, though. After all, to achieve genius, or even excellence, there are two necessary ingredients: the willingness to try something new and the necessity to overcome the fear of change by taking risks.
Pikelny has chosen to take this piece in a new direction. A YouTube commenter said, “This is a great piece of music. My dad, a bluegrass banjo player himself, always jokes that 'You can't play a sad melody on the banjo', I think this proves it wrong!" I don't know whether this fragment from a larger piece will last, or whether it suits your taste, but it suggests some different directions, and, surely, represents a change in how playing the banjo can be conceived. Just in case you were wondering.
I've been thinking about how we receive something new, our tendency to be resistance to change, and how artists persist, striving for excellence. Two perhaps contradictory pieces of art have come to mind. George Gershwin was best known as a composer of popular songs. He, along with his brother Ira, had toiled in the vineyards of Tin Pan Alley for years, writing Broadway shows and songs. He established a standard of songwriting that has created standards that have been sung and sung again, for generations. Try this one on for size.
How can you not respond to this work?
But in 1924, when band leader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to participate in "An Experiment in Modern Music" that he was developing, Gershwin sat down and wrote “Rhapsody in Blue.” When it was first performed in New York, the piece was met with mixed reactions. One critic wrote, “How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!”
Yet, this piece established Gershwin as a serious composer. He followed it with more songs, but also “Concerto in F” and Gershwin's sole opera Porgy & Bess. Gershwin's work has since been enshrined in both popular music and serious orchestral music, fit for symphony orchestras and opera houses.
All this to say, it's not "all good," but what do we do about that? One way is by rejecting, “It is what it is.” Without striving for something new and different, we are left with much too much in life that's derivative, imitative, and mediocre -- even bad. Whether one talks about art, architecture, or even bluegrass, the importance often lies in taking the risk of failure, putting one's ideas out into the public square for testing, and waiting to see whether they will stand the test of time. "Rhapsody in Blue" does this; so does the "Flint Hill Special."
Who can say what else will be listened to, striven for, in generations to come? I sure can't, but the fun and inspiration lies in the discovery.