In the last issue I addressed my thoughts on why bluegrass music is so popular in spite of the fact it is rarely found on commercial radio. This time, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why other people don’t like bluegrass music, perhaps explaining why it is seldom heard on the radio.
First, we must concede that there is, at least for some, an unflattering “hayseed” image to bluegrass music. You know, the potbellied redneck in overalls with a straw in his mouth–the “heehaw” image considered by many to be unsophisticated and unappealingly crude. Note, however, that this image is dated and applied to the people not the music itself. Note also that Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, as well as many other top bluegrass bands are perfumed in suits and ties to deliberately break down this hillbilly image.
Second, if the first bluegrass music one hears is Ralph Stanley, singing in his raw style, one might be taken aback and put off. This “hard core” end of the bluegrass spectrum is an acquired taste. Start off with Old and in the Way, Alison Krauss, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain, and the like and then ease into the Danny Paisley and Ralph Stanley area and the reception is likely to be more positive. Hey, did you like the first beer, whiskey, or tequila you tried? I’ll bet not, but I’ll bet you acquired the taste over time having eased in through the more accessible end of their spectrum. It’s the same for bluegrass music.
Third, bluegrass lacks the “hooks” that are used ad nauseum by the popular music dominating the radio, be it pop, rock, or country to attract attention. You know, the driving electric bass, repetitive lyrics, with formulaic guitar and drums all gussied up in the studio. Bluegrass music comes at you with none of that–no drums, no electric guitar, and no throbbing bass. Rather, it brings technical prowess and fast-paced instrumentation with meaningful lyrics. It’s different from the normal radio pablum, and for those used to typical radio fare, its differentness can be a turn off, at least initially.
Fourth, bluegrass music is complex. Its image may be one of simplicity, but it is far from that. Like jazz, bluegrass values virtuosity, technically proficient presentations, and subtlety. Also like jazz, sadly, this can be hard for the masses to appreciate.
Finally, there is the old saw that all bluegrass music sounds alike. That’s only true if the listener has no idea what they are listening to. Most English speakers can’t tell the difference between Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai when spoken–they all sound the same to most Americans. Likewise, most Southeast Asian language speakers can’t tell the difference between English, French, and German. In both cases, it is because what is being heard is not what they are used to listening for. Just as an English speaker can learn the difference, and appreciate it, between Thai and Cambodian, one used to radio pablum can learn to listen to and enjoy bluegrass music, but it may take some time and effort. Once one learns how to “listen” to bluegrass one discovers unlimited variety and subtlety.
Sure, bluegrass may not be for everyone. But, I’ll bet you a southern fried pickle that given a chance and approached properly, most people will not only tolerate bluegrass music but will come to love and appreciate it.
Julian Family Fiddle Camp This Month. The annual Julian Family Fiddle Camp takes place April 11-15. This camp is a great learning experience and, trust me, it’s a blast! There is top-notch instruction is offered at all levels of ability and all ages on guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, and mandolin. There are great evening concerts (open to the public), and it all takes place at the beautiful Camp Cedar Glen in the mountains outside Julian. Tuition covers instruction, workshops, jamming, concerts, and room and board. To learn more about the camp or to sign up visit www/ familyfiddlecamp.com.
We’re lucky to have this opportunity right here in our backyard. If you’ve ever thought about something like this, now’s the time. I’ll see you there–I wouldn’t miss it!