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.

Tradition's Rolling Target, An Ever-Present Allure

Another interesting article Ted

 Bluegrass, old vs. "new"


Sure, bluegrass music is changing.  Music reflects the society from which it comes, and our society has changed much since Bill Monroe first began making music professionally.

I have read countless articles on newgrass or "progressinve" grass, and how wonderful it all is.  Invariably, these articles make condescending references to so-called "traditional" performers, to the "easy three chords", all the while extolling the great experiment of making bluegrass sound like rock or jazz, etc. etc. ect.  As a sideline, the columns take note that the super pickers of today are well grounded in the "traditional" sounds.

The only problem is, when these "super" pickers take on the "old standards", souping up arrangements, playing ever more notes, faster and faster, through fantastic sound systems and from  stages complete with rock band-style special effects, something is missing.  The *feel* of the music has been displaced by showy fluff.  And it is the *feel* of the music that first attracted me; its wildness, its unpredictability, its embrace of life and the basic human condition.  Yes, the music must change; that's inevitable, but change is not always for the better.  Much of the changes happening now are best described as "musical busy work".  The changes are being made not for the sake of bettering the total sound, but for the sake of change, and that simply ain't enough.  One must have something of value to contribute.

Bluegrass has a fairly unique set of fans that attempt to perform it themselves as "hobbyist bands".  Festivals these days are designed around them and their interests.  Of course, most of these hobbyists fail in their attempts to echo the professionals, but some get pretty damn close.  The sensitive ones begin to receive an appreciation that the "old standards" are not as simple as newgrass proponents argue.  To equate complexity in music with numbers of chords played is absurd on its face: I remember Ravi Shankar performing raga Marwa for almost two hours one late night . . . guess what?  One chord!  It is the *expreession* of the style that makes a good piece of music, and it is the experience and emotions of the musician(s) that must be communicated.  One can write "fuck" on a restroom wall in elaborate calligraphy, but it is still just graphitti.

-Peter Feldmann


Peter - This is the most cogent and thoughtful comment I've yet to encounter on this column, up until the last sentence, which I find gratuitous.  I don't think you'd argue that Sam Bush, Jeremy Garrett, and their like are not well-grounded in traditional bluegrass. Their explorations beyond the "standard" versions of many songs transcend merely adding notes and speed. In many ways, they continue to reflect the complexities and difficulties encountered in our lives as they've been affected by what's now nearly three quarters of a century since Bill Monroe, aided and abetted by what Lester and Earle brought to his band, developed a sound he was eager to instiututionalize and stand behind as his. Meanwhile, he insisted, at least as I understand it, that others should seek to define and explore their own expression through the instruments associated with string band music. I would surely agree with you, and with Bob Cherry who commented similarly on my FB page, that much of the new material is not great. But I'd say that much of the productivity from any era in any genre is generally best forgotten. 

I'm not sure what people are talking about when they find "soul" in the older music. I think it's an elusive quality, at best, that refers to the music I hear evoking an emotional response from within me, rather than something infused in the interpretation itself. Who could write or perform more soulful, emotion charged, authentic material that the Gibson Brothers? What could be more evocative that Steve Martin's song "Daddy Played the Banjo" or Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive?" But such excellence requires vast amounts of thought, hard work, honing, writing and re-writing, and the translation into a band setting. Such performances result in music that's difficult to write and to perform, much too difficult and demanding an effort than most musicians (or writers, painters, electricians, or plumbers) are willing or able to undertake.  

Just a few thoughts, and thanks for taking the time and effort to think about what I said and respond to it. - Ted


I'm sorry my choice of metaphors upset you.  The thrust of it was that a person can have all sorts of talent, even virtuoso, but there needs to be  something of value to be communicated.  The Carter Family recorded a song in the early 1930s, "You May Forget The Singer, But Don't Forget The Song."  The modern world of show rock bands seem to have the antithesis of this attitude, and many of the newgrass performers seemed to have learnt their stuff there.  The best performances by bluegrass (and other) bands since the late 1950s (when I first started hearing the music live) have always had a "certain something" that hit me in my solar plexus.  Someone posted a video of performances at the first bluegrass festival in '65 at Cantrell's horse farm on YouTube.  There is an abundance of what I mean in there, despite the poor sound and abysmal video quality.

Just what is this "bluegrass soul"?  I suppose if it could be defined in words, you wouldn't need to perform the music.

That said, I appreciate all efforts to write about, struggle with, and attempt to define ideas around the music.  Thanks for your column, and please do keep in touch.  If you ever find yourself near Santa Barbara. CA, stop by for a visit.




Thanka for reminding me about Barry's book. My last three trips to The Strand on Broadway has yielded no inventory, so it went on the Amazon wish list from hell. Ditto the book Wayfaing Strangers about Celtic's musical journey to Appalachia. (I wish there was spell check in the comments section.) Will let you and Peter chat about tradition and all that stuff. It's all good as long as I like it. 

Thanks, Ed. One of the great benefit of writing for ND has been the extent to which it has expanded my horizons, as I listen to some of the many people written about here. Between ND itself, the list of bands referred to by my friend writer Timothy Hallinan, and the joys of the playlists Spotify provides for me, based on my listening, weekly, I'm listening to music from a wide variety of sources, much of which turns into moments and more of joy for me. 

  I got turned on to the traditional bluegrass, by listening to Newgrass, I used to love a group called The Greencards, they had a couple of great CDs, Also , I love the infamous Stringdusters.  On the other hand, groups like "Trampled by Turtles" should maybe try their title, just a little sarcasm and poor humor there. Mumford and sons, nothing happening there.  Groups have a right to play whatever they like, People just don't have to listen to it.

     Flatt Lonesome are a great group with both country and bluegrass influences. They seriously have a contender for Album of the year with their great sophomore CD "TOO". And they have a wonderful new disc in the wings called "Runaway Train", which in my highly unbiased opinion is going to be a big winner too. They are close to one of my  favorite bands, The "Grascals", their sound has just been tweaked by the departure of one Jamie Johnson. These guys are instrumentalists extroidinaire. With Kristen Scott Benson at one end and Danny Roberts at the other, they can flatt out play bluegrass. Add new fiddle player Adam Haynes, and you are in for a ride. They love to play Osborne Brothers, Earl Scruggs, George Jones, plus you have Danny and Terry's humour, they were requested to play "orange Blossom Special" one Night, and Danny said, we don't have the legend , but we have girl Scruggs, referring to award winning Kristin Scott Benson. Well, I'm checking out, Blugrass is great stuff.