If bluegrass music is changing, are the changes good or bad? These are profoundly important questions. Let’s see if we can answer them.
The changing face of bluegrass. In many ways bluegrass music has changed dramatically, including how we listen to and consume it. We’ve gone from hearing live bluegrass from 1940s’ traveling road shows to local radio play, occasional local or regional TV shows, the rise of the bluegrass festival movement, and now to social media, YouTube, and virtual concerts.
We’ve gone from buying 78s, LPs, and cassette tapes at our local music store to purchasing CDs from bands at a concert to buying from merchandise tables at festivals and events, online purchases, and, most currently, to consumption through iTunes, Spotify, and the like without ever “owning” a product. This all reflects major change.
Has the music itself changed? Yes and no. There are still plenty of groups performing bluegrass music much as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the other founders performed it. The same instrument mix used then is prevalent now. An upright bass, a fiddle, a banjo, a mandolin, perhaps a Dobro, and a guitar. Much of the singing is the same: three-part harmonies and that high lonesome sound.
But, other things have changed about the music. Back in the day women were rarely allowed in bluegrass bands and, if so, typically only on upright bass. Now, women have an equal footing and, in some respects, dominate through all female groups like Della Mae. Women regularly take home top awards—women like Missy Raines on bass, Sierra Hull on mandolin, and Molly Tuttle on guitar, to name but a few.
The modern era is full of innovators of all genders and types. Performers like Billy Strings who showcases his great skills, adopted a stage name, and has capitalized on all the modern strategies stand out today. What these innovators do today is new and their own.
But, innovation is not new in bluegrass music. Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs were innovators in their day. Bill Monroe had a woman in his early band (an accordion player no less!), and Flatt and Scruggs experimented with drums and electric instruments. So, innovation has always been a part of bluegrass music.
How bluegrass musicians get paid has also changed dramatically. That will be a topic for another column.
Now the tough question: Are these changes good or bad? The answer to that is a matter of personal opinion and taste. Here’s mine. I think these changes are overall good, although I miss the excitement of acquiring that next Flatt and Scruggs LP, running to the local music store to get it, and wearing it out on my home record player. Now, I can hear anything I want anytime I want, including in my car through Spotify. That’s better in terms of access to bluegrass music, but that advancement comes with a bit of nostalgia.
Overall, the ongoing innovation of our modern time is a good thing, in my view, as the music would get stale and die without it. But, the old school traditional bluegrass music remains the rock of our music. Traditional music that Bill Monroe would be proud of is prominently available now more than ever. One of the great attractions of the modern era is that we, as individuals, can chose what to hear and play. It’s not an either/or choice of traditional versus progressive bluegrass music. Those who like tradition can hear Danny Paisley and many others doing it regularly in top-notch fashion. For those more modern types, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Punch Brothers, Billy Strings, etc. are easily available.
Bottom line: Bluegrass music is complex and presents many different styles and approaches. Aren’t we lucky that we can easily choose and enjoy the parts we like and that we have easier and better access than ever?