What makes a tune or a song “bluegrass”? Well, ask five bluegrass players and you will probably get five different answers, reflecting the fact that defining bluegrass is a subjective, unanswerable question. The mother ship of bluegrass, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), has deliberately decided not to try and define “bluegrass” for this very reason. Nonetheless, debating what bluegrass is can be instructive in understanding the current lay of the bluegrass music world and in helping one form his or her own definition.
To traditionalists, bluegrass is what Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs produced in the 1940s and ‘50s. This music is performed by a band with guitar, upright bass, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo, and features “high lonesome” three-part singing. To many traditionalists the torch for this brand of bluegrass is now carried by James King, Danny Paisley, and other truly traditional bluegrassers who steep themselves in keeping the traditional sound. To some in this crowd, anything else is “modern,” “newgrass,” or “progressive” and not really part of the authentic genre. These folks adopt a small tent approach to their definition of “what is bluegrass.”
Those who disagree with this approach point out that Bill Monroe himself didn’t follow tradition; to the contrary what he created was new and different in its time. He even included an accordion, played by a woman no less, in one of his early bands (Sally Ann Forrester). Same for Flatt and Scruggs who pushed the envelope of their day.
For these folks there is a middle ground comprised of bluegrass lovers whose tent is bigger than that of the traditionalists, but still only medium size. This group’s tent includes some of the newer and more modern bands that still have at their core the traditional instruments and the traditional approach to the music. This includes the Country Gentlemen, JD Crow, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (which now has drums!), Newgrass Revival, Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, IIIrd Tyme Out, Alison Krause and Union Station, and many others.
There is also a third group of bluegrass fans who set their tent very broadly, including all of the above of course, but also including performers and bands that use some of the traditional bluegrass instruments and techniques, but that have truly pushed the envelope. Missy Rains and the New Hip and the Infamous Stringdusters, for example, each had strong roots as bluegrass performers but have since pushed their repertoire into areas far from the traditional.
There are also bands in this broad tent category that may love traditional bluegrass, and who honor and respect it, and occasionally play it, but who have moved well beyond anything remotely traditional. These kinds of bands include the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Leftover Salmon, Trampled by Turtles, the Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Old Crow Medicine Show, and others. These bands have truly pushed the envelope, often including electric instruments, drums, and other non-traditional components. Pushing the envelope all the way, Adele, who just swept the Grammy awards as a pop and rock singer, appeared on the Grammy show with a banjo as part of her stage setup! And, she has recorded a Steeldrivers’ song, “Hadn’t Been for Love.”
So, in reality there is a continuum stretching from Bill Monroe and early Flatt and Scruggs to bands like Blue Highway and the Lonesome River band, to the Infamous Stringdusters and Leftover Salmon, to the surging modern bands like Trampled by Turtles and the Avetts, all the way to Adele. How much, or how little of this music one includes within his or her tent is a personal decision as to which reasonable people can differ. There is no right or wrong answer.
One truth, however, seems to be that the music will continue to evolve and change as it always has. Many of the modern bands don’t even debate what is “bluegrass,” they just play what they like. Their fans, who turn out by the tens of thousands to hear groups like the Avett Brothers and Trampled by Turtles also waste little time debating whether what they like is “bluegrass” or not. This can, however, lead to ruffled feathers, for example, when a fan of Trampled by Turtles calls that band “bluegrass” within ear shot of a traditionalist.
Personally, I am not threatened by the big tent crowd, in fact I welcome it. Exposing new fans to these modern bands on the periphery of bluegrass will eventually lead some fans to explore the more traditional, and that’s a good thing. Many of my generation came to traditional bluegrass through the folk music boom, through Bob Dylan and Newgrass Revival, and through others on the then periphery. Only through these innovators of their day did we get curious and discover the great traditionalists they were often copying like Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe. In the same way, I expect Trampled by Turtles will be a gateway for today’s fans to discover the more traditional side of bluegrass, and that has to be a good thing.
I know we will never lose our great traditional music. People like me will always want to hear Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the modern bands, honoring them by staying true to that style. I see us simply as having more choices. We don’t have to forgo tradition to appreciate the modern. You don’t need to give up ice cream in order to like cake!