As with the last blog installment many of the ideas and or quotes come from a sunny morning sitting on the porch conversation with Annie Savage, President of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society and Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo. Bluegrass, by its nature as an American music form, is a hybrid of many influences and traditions. Without a doubt an important element is the Scots-Irish fiddle tunes, but when does a fiddle tune stop being a Celtic tune and become a Bluegrass song, if ever? Blues provided a vital building block for the music Bill Monroe was crafting in the late 1940s, but when does a song shift from being a bluegrass tune with blues influences to being a blues song? I’m sure many of you would say “I know it when I hear it” and indeed there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Bluegrass music has a unique sound, but that sound is varied and diverse at the same time. I think it’s fair to say that Bluegrass is an acoustic music form, played primarily on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass with dobro sometimes added to the mix. Songs come primarily from both a canon of traditional American folk tunes and newer songs written very much in that style from either the pioneers of the genre or contemporary writers. Harmony singing is an essential part of the sound with songs often in the higher end of the vocalist’s range. Notice I use words like “Primarily” and “Often”. That’s because while I believe you can accurately label a band as bluegrass or not, the rules are never hard and fast and are more of a sliding scale, or several sliding scales to be exact. Can a bluegrass group have a drummer? Well, if Flatt and Scruggs can be called a bluegrass group then the answer would have to be yes, same for The Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin. Can accordion or piano be a featured instrument? Bill Monroe would have to answer yes, having used both in his band. I think you can only apply the Bluegrass label to the totality of a band’s work. Going back to Flatt and Scruggs, clearly they were a bluegrass band although they used drums, electric instruments, recorded songs from contemporary rock artists, and even played with psychedelic light shows (at least once – in San Francisco in the late 1960s) but their overall sound and approach to the music was clearly in the traditional bluegrass mold. Imagine a scorecard where you check off the items for any band – acoustic instruments, featuring the core Bluegrass instruments? Harmony vocals? Most songs have a traditional folk song structure? Instrumental breaks? If a band can check off most of those points then they’re a Bluegrass band in my view. How many categories do you need? Ahh, there’s the rub, I don’t think it can be defined exactly and it will be harder or perhaps more pointless to try to nail it down as time goes on.
One indication of the breadth of what is considered Bluegrass anymore is the see what recordings are listed under that title. You don’t see many record stores anymore, but an online search of music retailers has an amazing collection of artists under the genre heading, many of whom would have even the most broad minded fans scratching their heads. I think this is a logical progression for any musical genre. Consider Jazz. In the early part of the 20th century there was a style of music coming out of New Orleans that was called jazz and the boundaries of the musical form were pretty clear. Fast forward thirty or forty years and now you have that traditional style of jazz but you also have the beginnings of be-bop, free-form, big band, swing and many other sounds all under the big jazz tent. Today you could find music as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Return to Forever, and Cassandra Wilson in the Jazz section. Perhaps as any vital music form ages it is destined to diversify. It should not be strange then to find The Punch Brothers alongside Bill Monroe, or Carolina Chocolate Drops next to The Seldom Scene. One thing that the current diverse spectrum of Bluegrass has that few other equally diverse genres have is the fact that any one of the current bands who push the progressive boundaries can play music that sounds as traditional as anything laid down in the 1940s and they often do. Maybe that’s something else, equally elusive to add to the scorecard – an appreciation for the history and traditions of the music. There are Colorado bands that push the envelope of musical structure like Yonder Mountain or The Railslitters but there’s no missing the appreciation and respect for the traditions in their sounds. Perhaps another element to muddy the waters on the “What is Bluegrass” debate is the line up at festivals. Another Telluride Bluegrass Festival has just gone by and I was delighted to hear one of my favorite contemporary bands JohnnySwim. Their album “Diamonds” is one of the finest acoustic based Americana-Pop releases I’ve heard in years and I wouldn’t call them at bluegrass band in any way, shape or form. Is that a problem? I don't think so. Festivals can have whoever they want and can define the genre however it best suites them. I for one like some variety in a festival line up and this year’s Telluride Festival was a great blend of artists who complemented each other wonderfully. Does your appearance at a bluegrass festival make you a bluegrass band? I would think the obvious answer is “No”. Will the genre continue to diversify and expand? I think the answer here is “Yes”. Just as there once was a style of music called Rock and Roll and we now have rock, pop, pop-rock, heavy metal, prog-rock etc. and all of these terms convey information about the sound, the various sub-genres of bluegrass, traditional, jamgrass, newgrass, etc. will probably be used more and more to give a more specific definition of the sound. I think that’s fine, there’s room at the table for everyone I think.