What do these labels mean? How can we distinguish bluegrass from these other genres? A look at the definitions, unfortunately, is of little
Bluegrass Music is deliberately not defined by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Wikipedia says: “Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music and a sub-genre of country music. Bluegrass was inspired by the music of Appalachia. It has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English traditional music, and was also later influenced by the music of African-Americans through the incorporation of jazz elements.”
Americana Music, according to the Americana Music Association, means: “Contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” So, I guess bluegrass, by this definition, is a sub-genre of Americana? Not much help that!
Roots Music is defined in Wikipedia as: “Folk music, American folk music, Americana (music), Roots reggae, Roots revival, a trend that includes young performers popularizing the traditional musical styles of their ancestors, traditional music, music transmitted as part of an oral culture, world music.” Sheesh, it’s getting worse! According to this definition “bluegrass” is a sub-genre of Americana and Americana is itself a sub-genre of Roots.
Folk Music is defined in the Oxford dictionary as: “Music that originates in traditional popular culture or that is written in such a style. Folk music is typically of unknown authorship and is transmitted orally from generation to generation.” Since Bluegrass, Americana, and Roots music all originated in popular culture I guess they are all folk music? I’m getting a headache!
These definitions just aren’t helpful! They are ripe with ambiguity and overlap. Not to worry, though, (not too much anyway). All we really need is language to give us some idea what the music sounds like so we know what we are getting when music is described as bluegrass. Let’s posit some simple identifying characteristics and see how solid they are. What we see is that there are guidelines about what is usually true in describing bluegrass music, but there are always exceptions:
1. Does bluegrass have to have a banjo? If you listen to bluegrass music you will probably hear a banjo. But, there are exceptions. Some prominent bluegrass bands play without a banjo either always (for example, Nickel Creek) or some of the time (Claire Lynch Band). No fixed rule here.
2. Are there no electric instruments in bluegrass? Generally, true, but again there are important exceptions. Many bluegrass bands use an electric bass (Blue Highway [nationally] and Bluegrass Etc. [locally] are examples), and some plug in acoustic guitars, mandos, and fiddles.
3. Are bluegrass bands limited to acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle and banjo? Often, yes, but not always. Some bluegrass bands use a dobro and some do not use mandolin or fiddle or banjo. The composition of a bluegrass band can be varied and fluid.
4. Are there no drums in bluegrass? For sure, can’t we say if you hear drums it’s not bluegrass? Most of the time yes, but not always. Alison Krauss and Union Station occasionally use drums, as does Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Even Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs experimented with them, and one band at Summergrass last year had a cajon-type drum. So, again there are pesky exceptions precluding a rigid rule.
5. Rock and roll style music is not bluegrass. Can’t we at least say that? Most of the time bluegrass music is characterized by traditional story songs that can be easily distinguished from rock music. But, alas, not always. In recent years bands like the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, and others have achieved great success playing a modern version of bluegrass that sounds like rock music, albeit played with the traditional bluegrass instruments. And, the Bluegrass Cardinals and others play a Beatles or Rolling Stones tune or two. If you need a hard rule here, sorry!
How is any of this helpful? If we are a linguist, or perhaps a journalist, we can argue definitions, but how does a music consumer make sense of all this? There is no answer to that which will satisfy everyone, but in the bluegrass world maybe we need to break the phrase “bluegrass music” into two categories: “traditional bluegrass” and “modern bluegrass.” In the traditional category we would put all the great old stuff like the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, Mac Weisman, the Osborns, Country Gentlemen, and Kentucky Colonels as well as the many great modern bands who play in that style like Dan Paisley and Southern Grass, Sideline, and the James King Band.
In the modern category we would put Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles, Mumford and Sons, the Avetts, and the others who are pushing the envelope. This might help at a practical level. If I’m told I’m going to a traditional bluegrass concert I would have a pretty good idea what I was in for. Likewise, if I went to a modern bluegrass concert.
Sure, there are bands that straddle this distinction [like Alison Krauss and Union Station], and some that play both traditional and modern bluegrass. But the division would help. Now, stuck with only the one term “bluegrass” I might have a chat with someone who says “I love bluegrass” when they mean they love Trampled by Turtles and I might reply “me too,” meaning I love Flatt and Scruggs and hate Trampled by Turtles. The gross lack of precision in the term “bluegrass” will have misled us both into thinking we have common interests when we don’t.
That’s a language failure worth thinking about, even while we acknowledge there is no definition of bluegrass that will satisfy everyone. Likewise we should all keep in mind that we make a mistake if we try to define bluegrass as only that part of the very broad bluegrass spectrum that we personally like. No one owns bluegrass and has the right to do that. We have the right to say we like only a certain part of the bluegrass spectrum but not to say that the spectrum is limited to our taste.
Likewise, we make a mistake if we try to limit any music genre to its past. Music is a living, breathing undertaking, and the envelope is always being pushed by musicians. This is a good thing. Bluegrass music is not a museum artifact that can’t be innovated. Hey, the bluegrass pioneers like Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs were innovators in their time and we must accept modern innovation now if we are to honor the tradition that they started. Those who try to make bluegass music a museum piece that doesn’t change will be left behind by the music and modern artists who will inevitably continue to innovate.
JAMES KING IS COMING FEBRUARY 16. The great traditional bluegrass group, the James King Band, is coming to town Sunday, February 16. The concert will be presented by the San Diego Bluegrass Society at the First Baptist Church of Pacific Beach at 4747 Soledad Mountain Road. A local band (TBD) will open at 7 pm and the James King Band will go on at 7:30. Admission is free; donations will be solicited. If you like hard driving traditional bluegrass, don’t miss this great band!