What makes bluegrass music one of the most enduring, and fastest growing, forms of music? That’s a great question without a totally clear answer. But, here are some thoughts:
It’s authentic. In a time of studio produced “packaged” music, best exemplified by modern county music found on the radio, bluegrass is different. It is the opposite of packaged, it is acoustic, un-electrified, and un-gussied up. It is focused on the basics. It has its roots in rural America and tells the story of ordinary folks facing the ordinary experiences of daily life telling their stories with basic wooden (and metal for the banjo) instruments. Folks tired of the artificial and the prefab find this appealing. If the appeal of the Kardashians is at one end of this spectrum, bluegrass music is at the other!
It’s participatory. A very high percentage of bluegrass music fans also play the music. Bluegrass music encourages fans to pick up an instrument and join in. This is best exemplified by the importance of jamming in bluegrass. Attend any festival and no doubt there are more jammers than performers. This is not true of other music genres which separate the performers from the fans. Many people find this aspect of bluegrass appealing—they can join the action and not be stuck on the sidelines as a listener.
It comingles top performers and fans. It is part of the “bluegrass way” for even the top performers to do a meet and greet after every show. Often you can find top performers in the parking lots jamming with the fans. This interaction and accessibility of the performers to their fans is unique to bluegrass. Hey, Rhonda Vincent will stay after every show and “shake and howdy” with every fan who wants to chat with her. Try that with the top country, pop, jazz, rock, or blues performers! The ability of even novice player-fans, or just listeners, to approach and speak with their favorite bluegrass stars is an appealing aspect of the genre.
It is virtuosic and improvisational. Bluegrass music emphasizes virtuosity and improvisation. Most other popular music forms are the opposite. Virtuosity is weak and canned repetition is emphasized. Listen to modern country with its canned drum beats and repetitive instrumentation full of reverb and other effects, and compare a recording of a top bluegrass band with lots of improvisation, minimal or no effects, and great skill on the instruments.
It has cache. It’s hard to find bluegrass music on the radio. It rarely plays stadiums or other large venues. If you want bluegrass music you have to seek it out, and this leads to feelings of discovery and ownership in the fans, and that feels good. A fan makes the music his or hers by choice, not by being bombarded by it on the radio. Remember the O’Brother CD release? It sold millions of copies but got almost zero radio play. It succeeded by word of mouth within the bluegrass tribe. That’s a business model unheard of in other forms of popular music. Bluegrass music fans can feel they are part of something different and special, and that’s a strong and appealing feeling in a time when not much else in popular culture leads in that direction.
It’s accessible and a great listen. Bluegrass music tells simple stories of farm life, home, work, love, joy, and disappointment. You don’t need a music degree to be moved by the music or the lyrics. Contrast jazz, which also emphasizes virtuosity and improvisation, but which is hard for many people to understand and appreciate.
It has a great beat. Bluegrass music has a hard driving beat that leads to foot tapping and dancing. Much of bluegrass music is fast. It appeals at a visceral level. Contrast classical music—which is great stuff—but which typically does not have a beat demanding that you tap your foot or get up and dance.
I’m sure there are other reasons fostering the appeal of bluegrass music but the above no doubt play an important part. And, we have to acknowledge that many of the strengths of bluegrass music mentioned above are also its limitations. It never will be a dominant radio music genre, and it never will regularly book Qualcomm stadium for a big show. To do that it would have to lose its accessibility, cache, and jamming, and that would be like tearing the wings off a bird. Thank God it won’t ever dominate the radio, but it will always be an important, special, and uniquely American, form of music enjoyed by millions worldwide. That’s good enough for me!
There are some great bluegrass shows coming up here in San Diego.
On Wednesday, March 2, SDBS will present Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper in concert in La Jolla at the La Jolla Christian Fellowship Church located at 627 Genter St, La Jolla. Admission is free; donations will be solicited. For details visit the SDBS website at www.sandiegobluegrass.org.
On Friday, March 4 Barefoot Movement will be at the Del Mar Powerhouse presented by the Del Mar Foundation’s Bluegrass and Beyond Series. For info and tickets visit: www.delmarfoundation.org.
A concert with Alan Munde and Bill Evans, two banjo masters, is in the works in the next couple of months—stay tuned for details to come.