That’s a great question that raises concern among some that the music is changing in a bad way, losing its traditional roots. Amongst others, it generates excitement. Let’s see if we can break down what is, and is not, happening.
Traditional Bluegrass. Traditional bluegrass is generally reflective of the founders: Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and other early pioneers. Their music is often raw and heartfelt, featuring “high lonesome” three-part harmony vocals and strong acoustic instrumentation anchored by the three finger banjo style popularized by Earl Scruggs. This music, originating in the 1940s, is still widely available. It is featured at many of the prime bluegrass festivals and in the CDs and other products that traditional bands sell. To the extent there is change, it is primarily in how it is accessed, rather than in the music itself.
From the 1940s through the ’70s and ’80s, to hear traditional bluegrass music one needed to buy the vinyl LP releases as they came out in a record store, or order them through the mail from places like County Sales. Typically, fans endured long waits between releases. For those wanting to learn the music, it meant lifting that record player needle up and down and trying to copy what was heard.
Fans could also attend the bluegrass festivals of that time period, or perhaps get lucky and attend a concert passing through town, featuring traditional bluegrass music. Terrestrial radio didn’t cover bluegrass, other than occasionally, or on some college campus stations or at other small non-profit stations. There was the Andy Griffith Show and the Beverly Hillbillies on TV with their smatterings of bluegrass music. There were also, of course, opportunities to play the music at home and at jam sessions. This remains a key aspect of the music today. But that was about it.
Modern bluegrass has not eliminated traditional bluegrass or displaced any of the above access opportunities, except perhaps the traditional record store selling vinyl. What it has done is add opportunities to hear the music on the internet, both for free and for pay. For free, the Internet offers various gateways such as Facebook and YouTube, etc. For pay the Internet serves up Pandora, Slacker, and other streaming services, CD Baby, Spotify, and so on. And, there is now a plethora of instructional materials available online not previously available, including Skype lessons and much more. These are new and do reflect change, but not necessarily in traditional bluegrass music itself. Anyone who wants to hear traditional bluegrass now has many more opportunities to do so than were available through the 1980s. Seems like that is a good thing (except perhaps when one looks at how musicians are compensated, but that’s for another column).
Progressive or Modern Bluegrass. This category of bluegrass music includes music played on traditional bluegrass instruments, giving homage to traditional bluegrass but taking off from there. One fairly simple definition is: music with bluegrass characteristics but that clearly departs from the traditional. Thus, Alison Krauss, the Infamous Stringdusters, Blue Highway, Lonesome River Band, and many more modern bluegrass bands are still rooted in bluegrass but have significantly stretched the envelope beyond the traditional. Then there are those like the Avett Brothers, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Trampled by Turtles stretching the envelope much further, to the point where one can argue if it is fairly categorized as “bluegrass” or something else.
What all these modern versions of bluegrass music have in common is that they are not strictly “traditional.” Ironically, though, it is fair to say that bluegrass music has always been progressive and modern, pushing the envelope. When Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs did their thing in the 1940s and ’50s it was new, leaving behind the traditional music of the time. So, what is now “traditional” was at its inception modern and progressive. But, the important point is that all this new stuff and all the change in access opportunities through technology is additive—it adds new music and new opportunities. Traditional bluegrass is still available, going strong, as people listen to the founders and the new groups specializing in traditional bluegrass music. In fact there are more fans of traditional bluegrass and more opportunities to hear it today than ever before. In addition, not instead of, there are the new fans of modern bluegrass. Even the most hard core traditionalist would, I suspect, see some good in that kind of “change.”
SDBS Free Concert on Saturday, April 8 featuring the Brombies with Dennis Caplinger. The San Diego Bluegrass Society will be returning to the First Baptist Church of Pacific Beach on Saturday April 8 to present a special concert featuring the award winning Brombies with super star Dennis Caplinger sitting in for Patrick Sauber. Admission is free, and the concert is planned for the afternoon so folks can get home for dinner. Visit the SDBS website for details: www.sandiegobluegrass.org.
Molly Tuttle, John Mailander, and more in concert at the Julian Family Fiddle Camp. The Julian Family Fiddle Camp, held April 11-15 at Camp Cedar Glen outside the mountain town of Julian, will feature evening faculty concerts open to the public. The Friday concert will feature camp faculty members John Mailander on fiddle, Molly Tuttle on guitar, and Joe Walsh on mandolin, in a bluegrass presentation. Thursday features two outstanding ukulele players. Tickets and info available here: www.familyfiddlecamp.com