Kane Hollins is the banjo player for Silverplume. First place winner of the 2014 RockyGrass banjo contest. Plays the Allegheny model banjo of his own design and construction. Started playing banjo in Washington D.C. and has been part of the Boulder county Bluegrass scene since 1984.
Traditional bluegrass has been a rich archive of folk themes from the early cultures in this country. It has served as a testimonial to the trials and tribulations of the generations of people struggling to define and support our country. Many themes can be identified among the classic tunes recorded by early musicians from the last century. Love is always a muse for music and song. Religion is also a great impetus for any style of music including great bluegrass gospel numbers. Mama, biscuits, corn liquor, squirrel hunting, horse racing, tractors or working on the railroad may be things of the past so what common threads can we expect to find in songs today? Certainly war has had a great effect on the lives of most Americans. World War I and World War II figure prominently in country music: “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky” (WWI) or “Take The News to Mother” (WWII). The Great Depression also influenced the music by extolling the hardships of poverty, such as in “Over The Hill To The Poor House” or “Do Re Mi” (“if you ain’t got the Do Re Mi…). This plus the social implications that went along with it appear in songs like “Only A Hobo,” “Moonshiner,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Coal Miner’s Blues,” “Prisoner’s Song,” “Wreck Of The Old 97,” “Rye Whiskey” and the list goes on and on. Love, religion, prison, alcoholism, labor occupations, politics, war, murder, double murder, mass murder, family feud, natures wonders are all themes. At one point the category of Country & Western music was created for marketing reasons and some figured it was all the same. Although I’ve heard distinction made that the Country part of C&W music was “Cadillacs, whiskey, divorce, prison and trains.” On the other hand Western music included the smell of beans and bacon on the campfire, drinkin’ coffee from a can “before it sets up on ya”, prickly pear and cholla, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, piles of dirty winter underwear and the grandeur of the great outdoors. So as we continue to see bluegrass music change, mature, revise, impersonate, “pickin’ on” this and that, Jazzology, Dawgology and bluegrass played by folks from all over the world, I would ask: What are the themes of today’s bluegrass songs? Tim O’Brien certainly made a spoof on computer technology with “Running Out of Memory for You.” I inquire about specific themes here rather than the old dialog as to whether it’s bluegrass or newgrass or jamgrass. What are the social mores of today that would warrant a song based on personal experiences by a large population of Americans? Social media references or climate change songs could be relevant topics to write song about. Robots? What about them? Do they fit in here somewhere? Perhaps a bluesy number about “robots stole my luggage; I’m left with just my hat. Robots stole my luggage; do they have an app for that?” Perhaps old songs go by the wayside because they contain more and more irrelevant references. Jimmy Martin sings, “I’m gonna tear your ash hopper down…” How is one intimidated by an ambiguous reference like that? How many of us perform these old songs and miss the reference only to insert something in there that we “think” is said in a line? “Kyper, Kyper, Kyper my son…” What is the meaning here? Who’s Kyper? Of course, some pride themselves on knowing these references, but what about new songs? What takes over as a theme in story and song—references that may sound outdated in a hundred years? This may be where songwriters make reference to Grand Theft Auto, Snapchat, Hello Kitty, selfies, Bitcoin, fidget spinners, bad tattoo art, genetically altered food or binge watching serial episodes of Black Mirror. Whatever triggers emotion for us will usually show up in music as our generational version of love, jealousy, salvation, joy, sorrow, depression, glee or any of the many landmarks along the emotional spectrum we call humankind.