Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Side Musicians: The Musical Glue Making Bluegrass Work

Good piece, Ted. Initially, I was impressed by the $250-500/day rates you mentioned as a range. Then I plugged $250 into an inflation calculator and learned that this is equivalent to about $85 in 1980, a pretty typical sideman wage back then.  Still, those working on the higher end of that range, assuming regular work year-round, are doing OK. I wonder how many band leaders pay for health insurance.

I think some top ones pay insurance for  some of their people, but insurance didn't much show up on my informal survery on FB.

$250 a day may sound like a lot, but compared to the real world it's chicken feed. You have to really like playing the bluegrass music. I'm glad so many still make that sacrifice because as the old song goes, "It's a hard road to hoe".

BTW, looking at the world's first bluegrass band, its leader started out as a side man with his older brother. And he found it a tough adjustment to switch to the leader's role . . . but there's enough material there for an entire article, if not a book.

You mention Flatt & Scruggs. The side men there were not paid on a daily basis, but were on salary, thanks to the contract worked out with Martha White by Louise Scruggs. They had job security, which meant little turnover. This arrangement had its good and bad points: very tight arrangements, but after a while, a decline in creativity and lack of direction, resulting in the band's splitup. In Monroe's band, pay was by the day, and not much except for later. That resulted in a constant stream of new band members: huge variation in sound, but constant creativity and new approaches. Monroe was stimulated to create until the day he died.

Thanks for the insight, Peter. Ideas about continuing the creativity, keeping the well from drying up, really interest me. I've thought that Monroe became increasingly protective of his model, hoping to keep it going rather than growing and changing. 


Thanks! I've enjoyed your writing, though we may not always agree.  That's what makes life interesting. :-)

Monroe's "protectiveness" evolved though many different phases. He and his brother Charlie would walk around their schoolroom show spots and literally punch window gawkers out of windows . . . those who were trying to see their show without paying the 25 cent admission price. Then when getting his spot on the Grand Old Opry, he would dress himself and band in planter's outfits, shirts, riding boots, and ties to distinguish his band from the often garish outfits other acts were using.  (The Arthur Smith Pigpen photo is *another* story...) He was also upset when other groups began adopting the bluegrass format to their music. It was his competitiveness, an intersting combination of shyness and showing off.

As he became known as the "Father of Bluegrass" (thanks to the efforts of my friend Ralph Rinzler and others), his demeanor changed a bit. He actually began to encourage younger musicians, while at the same time becoming very disparaging of too great an innovation or deviation from his style.  There developed a sort of "negative feedback" mechanism, familiar to population biologists, where species establish boundaries to avoid constant change. Bill's oft-quoted phrase "That ain't no part of nothin'" comes to mind. 

It is still a major question in my mind as to whether bluegrass as a distinct style can survive.


  Hi Ted,

Interesting article, In my years of reviewing music, I found bluegrass to have a whole other vibe to it than mainstream country or rock. I found people to be a bit friendlier and easy to get along with, than big stars, well especially the musicians,

    You could usually talk to them after the show whether you were reviewing the show or not. I did notice that people were changing bands alot and wondered about this. Your article gives alot of light to this subject. Bluegrass is a smaller genre than most, but that doesn't mean the talent is any less. Vince Gill started in bluegrass, but became very popular in country. Bluegrass is a genre that you see the artists really seem to enjoy the music.


Thanks, Jim. I'm working on a piece about bluegrass as an influencer of other music and bluegrass musicians as seed for them. Not quite ready yet. 

Great article with some interesting insights.

Thank you for your efforts. Keep 'em coming.