When I was a high school teacher, lo these many years ago, as the school year began to draw to a close members of the senior class would sometimes say, “Let’s start a tradition!” with the idea that they would leave their mark on the school. It has often seemed to me that tradition requires memory and nostalgia, creating a longing for days gone past, but held in hazy memory. As such, it becomes the stuff of older folk to maintain until it becomes material for historians to resurrect.
Daniel Levitin, the author of the wonderful This is Your Brain on Music, has maintained that the music we love throughout our lives is the music we most cared about and listened to during our journey through puberty, when it imprinted itself deeply into our psyches. We yearn for the experiences, sounds, tastes, feelings that occurred when we felt most alive and attentive to our own responses. For me, a moment on Compo Beach in Westport, CT, in perhaps 1955 or '56, when I first heard Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” will always be associated with the smell of Coppertone, pretty girls, and memories of an awkward, overweight 14-year-old.
My friend Don Dilling, father of longtime banjo player with IIIrd Tyme Out Steve Dilling, who now plays with the newer and rapidly ascending traditional band Sideline, has often told me of coming upstairs late in the evening to find his son asleep at his desk with his banjo cradled in his arms after he had been practicing Earl Scruggs licks by lifting the tone arm on his phonograph to find and replay them over and over until he had mastered them. Many others tell stories of having been struck hard by Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, or Jimmy Martin. It strikes me, though, that many people who tell these stories and have personal memories of these performers and their bands are, if they’re still with us, becoming increasingly elderly, as am I. (Who knows about Bill Haley today?) Younger musicians have been influenced by Tony Rice, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and the Bluegrass Album Band, while still younger ones look to the The New Grass Revival, Lonesome River Band or IIIrd Tyme Out for their models. A new generation just emerging will remember, with nostalgia, The Infamous Stringdusters or the SteelDrivers. As they age, they’ll extol the traditional music in their memories. Meanwhile, the tail of tradition will grow longer and the body of music it includes ever greater.
What does that all mean for bluegrass music, and more particularly, for bluegrass festivals? Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1962 and 1964 to sell-out city audiences, a still-selling recording, and huge acclaim. The first multi-day bluegrass festival was held on Cantrell’s Horse Farm in Fincastle, VA, in 1965. By the early '70s, an event promoted by early music entrepreneur Carlton Haney was held in Camp Springs, NC, featuring both traditional bands like Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers as well as the then-extremely innovative Country Gentlemen. You can get a strong sense of the vibe and character of this period by watching this film in its entirety:
The upcoming International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) annual business conference, awards show, and musical extravaganza called World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, epitomizes both the opportunities and the problems inherent in the changing musical environment that the word “traditional” stands for. (You can read my preview of this year's World of Bluegrass here.) IBMA, an organization formed in 1985 as a trade organzation to strengthen bluegrass music, has steadfastly refused to define the word “bluegrass.” But some claim that the name can only be applied to music that stays within the template created by Bill Monroe and the first generation of bluegrass musicians, while others feel that the name can be applied to a wide variety of acoustic music that has grown from the original and developed as technology and tastes change through time. The battle rages under the rubric of "WIBA" – What Is Bluegrass Anyway.
On a much smaller scale than World of Bluegrass, modest rural bluegrass festivals still take place on farms and in campgrounds all over the country, transforming a rural field for a few days into a musical center to which people travel in their elaborate motorhomes, older trailers, or cars with their tents to set up camp, jam together, or go to the stage area to hear local, regional, and national bands make music or wander around the campground to find jams to make their own entertainment. These events include Sertoma, Thomas Point Beach, Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, Farmers Branch, Milan, California Bluegrass Association Father’s Day, and dozens more. Many of these events are attended by an aging population that remembers the originators as well as younger families who’ve developed a love for the music. These festivals are multi-generational, family events.
Larger festivals that feature a wide array of music, sometimes including traditional bluegrass, but more often leaning toward the newer, rock-inflected version, have sprung up and in some cases been taken under the umbrella of multinational corporate festival promoters. These events, like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Telluride, and No Depression’s own FreshGrass cater to a much younger, more energetic, and rowdier crowd with more varied kinds of music. It all depends on the kind of music and experience you want to enjoy.
Banjo player Barry Crabtree, who played with Larry Sparks for nine years and now is with the Dave Adkins Band, figures that many thousands of people turn 65 every day. They’re ready, he says, to stop dancing, drinking, and smoking, and to settle down and listen to gentler music. Bluegrass is happy music, and it fills them with happiness and a sense of nostalgia. He seems pretty confident that the audience will continue to be self-replacing. Meanwhile, young, ambitious, and eager musicians will keep honing their skills on acoustic instruments before heading for full-time jobs where they can make a living, or branching off into other music. Bluegrass fans seem to connect most with music they heard about 40 years ago. So what's popular now may be termed "traditional" by audiences 40 years from now. Look for grunge bluegrass and hip-hop bluegrass on the horizon. Meanwhile, serious fans will always return to the roots, and there will always be contemporary bands who love to keep playing it. And there will always be jammers, too!
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For a previous column on this topic, see Tradition's Rolling Target, An Ever-Present Allure, from 2015.