When you attend a bluegrass event, whether it's a concert, festival, or local picking party, you never know who you might meet. Most people don't care who you are or what you do for a living. What they do care about is that you love the music.
Bluegrass players tend to be a geographically, socially, professionally, and personally diverse bunch who come together because of their love and respect for a subgenre of country music that emerged at the Grand Old Opry some 70 years ago.
They love tradition and they accept change, albeit slowly. They listen, play, study, present, and consume bluegrass music. But they know, at the same time, that there are only very general agreements about what bluegrass music actually is or what it can become.
Many long-standing bluegrass fans tend to prefer traditional bluegrass -- music styled after the sound that was first produced by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Osborne Brothers, beginning in the late 1940s. However, younger adherents have latched onto bands of the '80s and '90s, like the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Bluegrass Album Band, who sought to recreate this earlier sound in familiar, creative ways, avoiding outright imitation.
I first realized this when I heard the impact that Jerry Douglas presents with Earls of Leicester, an award-wining contemporary band that eerily reproduces the sound of the classic Flatt & Scruggs band of the 1950s. Bluegrass music tends to celebrate its past, often living in a world of nostalgia where programs like the Andy Griffith Show and Hee Haw provide wholesome, enjoyable watching despite episodes having been seen dozens of times before.
Nevertheless, new bands have found their way into -- and out of -- the bluegrass community. They have kept the genre alive and vibrant as they pull in sounds from rock and roll, folk music, and, lately, even punk rock. As a result, they've made bluegrass accessible to those who might not have embraced the original version.
The bluegrass festivals my wife and I attend tend to be “small c” conservative and “small d” democratic. Most of them try to remain apolitical, even in these days of hyperpartisanship. Meanwhile, members of some bands -- and sometimes the full band -- take “big C” Conservative postures on the stage, pandering to a particular audience or region.
Recently, in a book called Dispatches from Pluto, travel/adventure writer Richard Grant wrote about how to deal with people whose ideas you find difficult, but whom you like and want to be around. A friend and mentor of his gave Grant three words of advice: “compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize.” She went on to say that, if you can manage this, you'll meet the most delightful, loving, generous people on earth. This is also true with the bluegrass audience and performers. Bluegrass remains, in many ways, separate from the tribal divisions pulling us apart, as bands and audiences of all beliefs come together in common enjoyment of music.
People attending bluegrass festivals sometimes drive as much as 50 to 100 miles to get to their favorite event, going to two or three a year. However, festivals, even smallish ones, with a reputation for having strong lineups and a homey, rural American environment often draw guests from much further abroad.
Last weekend at Jenny Brook (Tunbridge, Vermont) a couple came from the Netherlands and appeared to be having a wonderful time. Each year at Dumplin Valley (Kodak, Tennessee), we met a delightful couple from England who sojourned there to enjoy the festivities. Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Japan, and Australia are all places regularly contributing an international flavor at bluegrass festivals. Though the festival community might appear homogenous, you can find a remarkably broad spectrum of backgrounds, interests, opinions, and knowledge.
An essential element of bluegrass has been, and continues to be, the bluegrass jam: Four or five players form a circle and the lead moves around the circle clockwise, as each picker announces and kicks off a song. Everyone joins in. You never know whether the person sitting next to you is a truck driver, a lawyer, or a farmer. They may range in age from nine to 90.
Here's a piece of a jam in the courthouse square at Dahlonega, Georgia, shot in 2008, that includes many of the qualities that make jamming an inclusive and democratic time of music making. Jamming combines the genuine difficulty of playing excellent bluegrass and relative ease of playing and singing bluegrass songs into one group activity.
The world of bluegrass is open to everyone, almost anywhere in the world. Look around, listen, ask a few questions, and you'll find it, too.
So, who's the bluegras audience? Anyone who wants to join.