Most popular music is broadly available for radio listening. Bluegrass music, with some exceptions, is generally not available for regular radio listening. Yet, its popularity is strong and growing. Some national survey results show that 20 million Americans, or more, listen to and enjoy bluegrass music. Why is it that this music is so popular and yet generally not available on the radio? It seems there are several explanations:
- It’s spread by word of mouth, with a bit of extra panache that comes with being into something not generally available to the masses on the radio
- It’s participatory. Bluegrass lovers are typically not just listeners but also players of the music drawn by the many jam sessions and opportunities for participation
- It thrives on a system of festivals, jam sessions, concerts, camp outs, and other events that hold a vibrant community together and engaged
- It’s authentic. Acoustic bluegrass music, emphasizing skill and home spun stories, is different and appealing at a time when so many search for the “real” and authentic when the radio is full of synthetic music
How to Get Engaged. To discover why bluegrass is so compelling, start listening to the easily accessible end of the bluegrass music spectrum and go from there. Start by listening to Alison Krauss and Union Station, or some of the many other groups doing “modern” bluegrass in a popular vein. Some of this you will find on the radio, and it’s all over YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes.
Or, if your background is more in the rock genre, try some of the edgy bluegrass stars like the Infamous Stringdusters, Trampled by Turtles, Yonder Mountain String Band, and others pushing the edges of the genre. While not strictly categorized as traditional bluegrass, all these groups have their origins in real bluegrass music.
If you are intrigued about their origins, try listening to some of the great classics that influenced these popular modern artists. All of them are proud to recognize the influence that the traditional bluegrass greats had on the modern form of the music. Icons like Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, and the other early greats. If you still like what you hear, then try the hardcore stuff like Ralph Stanley or Danny Paisley.
If you like any of what you hear in this listening experiment, you are a bluegrass fan. If you like all of it, count yourself part of the tribe!
San Diego Bluegrass Society’s monthly slow jam offers fun instructional opportunities. If you are intrigued by listening to bluegrass music and would like to give it a try as a player, the SDBS slow jam may be just the thing for you. Perhaps you play a bit of guitar, learned in the folk era, or you can jab a bit on banjo, but have trouble keeping up with the fast pace and complexities of bluegrass music.
The SDBS slow jam, held every third Monday of the month, takes classic bluegrass tunes, slows them down, and teaches you how to play them. Bluegrass vocals and harmony are also slowed down and taught at learnable speeds.
The sessions are taught by acclaimed teachers Janet Beazley and Mary Jane Cupp, with guest teachers from time to time. You can get on their email list to participate and they will send you, in advance, tunes and materials to be worked on. At the moment sessions are on Zoom, but are expected to return to in-person soon.
At the sessions you will learn how to play and sing these tunes at a pace you can digest. Soon, you’ll be getting it and able to take them on at speed. You will learn bluegrass singing, how to join in a jam session, and how to play in a band as well. The cost is only $10 ($5 for SDBS members) per session. Interested? Send Mary Jane Cupp an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check it on the SDBS website here: http://sandiegobluegrass.org/events.html.