Bluegrass – It’s not the music • Jon Weisberger
Bluegrass – It’s not the music • Jon Weisberger
Thanks to recent conversations on- and off-line with a bunch of folks ranging from members of the IBMA’s Board of Directors to the Farewell Drifters‘ Zach Bevill, and prompted more immediately by Chris Pandolfi’s fine meditation on the state of bluegrass, I’ve been inspired to drag out a piece I wrote, incredibly enough (at least to me), six years ago, in the hopes that it might serve as an additional contribution to the emerging discussion.
What follows was written back in March of 2005 for a lamentably short-lived magazine published out of Vancouver, British Columbia. Bluegrass North’s editor, Connie Jean Thiessen, had asked if I would contribute a regular column to the magazine; this was the first of what was intended to be a long series of ruminations. It turned out instead to be an exceedingly short series, as publication ceased not long after I turned in a second column. I hope there was no causal connection, but I can’t swear to it.
In any event, what I wanted to do—and this is where I feel that the connection to Chris’s piece is apparent—was to take a look at why and how controversies over what bluegrass is and isn’t arise, and why and how they can be perniciously unproductive. And in many conversations over the years that have passed since I wrote it, I’ve heard some of these ideas echoed back to me by musicians both famous and obscure, as well as other players in the world of bluegrass. So I can’t help but feel that I was at least on the right track then—right enough that I have resisted the temptation to edit the piece in any way—and I hope that there’s something useful still to be found herein. Comments are, of course, welcome.
April 23, 2011
Bluegrass – It’s not the music • Jon Weisberger
A musician friend of mine—nameless, for reasons that will be immediately apparent—has a little sideline business, making bluegrass-themed t-shirts. Over the years, he’s come up with a great variety of slogans to adorn the shirts, but the greatest of them all is one he’s never actually made: “Bluegrass—it’s not the music, it’s the people I can’t stand.”
Now, before you call Connie Jean and ask her what the hell she’s doing giving precious space in Bluegrass North to someone who so obviously doesn’t get it, let me explain. Bluegrass people can be absolutely wonderful, and frequently are. It only takes one story to illustrate the point.
A couple of years ago, the band I was touring with had a vehicle breakdown a mile or so from the site of the festival we’d just finished playing. We were almost a thousand miles from home, and to make matters worse, it was on the Sunday of a holiday weekend. A fan who had left just behind us stopped to see what was wrong, spent half an hour on the phone tracking down a parts store that was open, and another two hours driving a bandmember to and from the store. As if that weren’t enough, we suffered another breakdown an hour or two down the road, and another couple of fans drove an hour and a half to come pick us up, took the entire band to their house, and fed and sheltered us for three days until we could get rolling once again.
So believe me, I know just how great the bluegrass community can be. And yet, you can believe, too, that every time I’ve mentioned my friend’s slogan to other bluegrass musicians, the line has gotten a hearty, if rueful laugh—because they know exactly what it’s about. For the same absorption in the music that leads so many in the community to be generous and devoted has also bred a sense of possession that can, and more than occasionally does, devolve into an intolerance that can be not only frustrating, but sometimes almost frightening.
There’s a phrase you run across that sums up both the positive and the negative of the situation pretty well. Often attributed to Dillards bass player, rural comic writer and all-around good guy Mitch Jayne, it goes like this: “Bluegrass doesn’t make fans, it makes converts.” As a statement that captures the way the music can inspire an enthusiasm rare in almost any other genre, it works well, but consider this: are converts what we really need? And what’s wrong with being a fan, anyhow?
Every artist wants fans: people who follow their careers, attend their shows, buy their CDs, visit with them at the record table, people who appreciate their music and find enjoyment and meaning in it. This is how most people relate to music. In it they can find everything from simple entertainment to inspiration, celebration, recollection of days gone by, encouragement—even consolation in times of sorrow—and there’s nothing more gratifying to an artist than knowing that his or her music has touched a chord in someone’s heart.
Converts, on the other hand, are (or can be) something else altogether. It’s a religious term (or can be), and there, if you think about it, is where the trouble starts. What distinguishes one religion from another is not so much a set of experiences as a set of beliefs—important ones, too, dealing with life, death, and matters of the soul. For a committed believer, faith is a part of one’s deepest identity and sense of self, and adherence to the tenets of his or her religion is something that goes well beyond the voluntary—nor is their credo something that can be changed lightly.
From the perspective of a bluegrass “convert,” the music can all too easily be felt as a kind of religion. It has a creation story, a father figure, disciples, missionaries, a canon, and a One True Way—or so it apparently seems to more than a few zealots. And throughout the history of bluegrass, they have felt free to speak their minds when artists transgress against their understanding of the music, often with an inappropriate vehemence that reveals how they’ve incorporated their definition of bluegrass into their essential definition of themselves. It’s as though they experience a deviation from the bluegrass norm as a personal attack, and respond accordingly.
That may (may!) be appropriate when it comes to the fundamentals of faith, but not when it comes to what is, after all, simply a style of music. And so it’s no surprise that bluegrass musicians will react with dismay, even if they wisely choose to rarely, if ever, express it publicly. They are, after all, artists, whose loyalty—if they are any good—is claimed first and foremost by their artistic impulses, not the conventions of a genre.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of bluegrass artists who choose to work within those conventions, often with great distinction and compelling results. The point, though, is that it’s just that—their choice—and they’re no more likely to see it as a mandate from on high than are artists who wind up pushing, or even crossing outright, the boundaries that the faithful have drawn. They understand that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, each and every one of the music’s greats has had no qualms about giving primacy to inspiration, not rules—even Bill Monroe, who didn’t hesitate to use strings, recorded sounds of nature and even wordless background vocals on his monumental “My Last Days On Earth” (or, for that matter, to re-record his waltz, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” with a rockin’ revision to the time signature and without banjo after Elvis Presley’s successful reworking of the tune).
Indeed, there’s a terrible irony in the way that those who often cite history and tradition in support of their “commandments” of bluegrass—you must have this, you can’t have that—often are ignorant of the rich variety and creativity embodied in its precedents. I once had a guy tell me, with considerable passion, that J. D. Crowe & The New South’s self-titled Rounder debut, a/k/a “Rounder 0044,” was proof that you could innovate within the genre without recourse to drums, pedal steel guitar or piano; this despite the fact that all three are used, albeit sparingly, on the album. Is there a better illustration of the way that zealotry can disregard not just creativity, but actual facts?
I’ve been playing bluegrass now for a quarter of a century, and writing about it for a decade. I don’t plan on giving it up any time soon, and what’s more, my personal taste, though I find much to enjoy and admire in contemporary bluegrass, runs mainly toward undisputable masters—Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, J. D. Crowe & The New South, Doyle Lawson, the Bluegrass Cardinals. But taste and preferences, no matter how strong, aren’t rules and religion, and they ought not to be confused. Bluegrass is at its best when it has room for a broad array of strong, distinctive artists who aren’t afraid to follow their hearts, and for an even broader range of listeners, some of whom won’t care for much else, many of whom will. What it needs is not converts, no matter how well-intentioned, but fans—and lots more of them.
Jon Weisberger • A Night Driver since the beginning of 2003 (and senior member by approximately 5 shows), Jon Weisberger holds down a dizzying array of positions in the world of bluegrass. In addition to his work with Chris, he has made appearances on bass with artists ranging from the legendary Jimmy Martin, Hazel Dickens and Roland White to Tony Trischka, Harley Allen, David Peterson and April Verch. As a songwriter, he has supplied material to many of today’s top artists, including Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, Blue Highway, the Infamous Stringdusters, Mountain Heart, the Gibson Brothers, Terry Baucom, the Chapmans, Blue Moon Rising, Dwight McCall—and, of course, the Night Drivers.
Like Chris and Ned, he’s involved in bluegrass radio, too, producing and appearing on a weekly syndicated show, The Blue Side Of Town With Del McCoury. Jon also writes occasional articles for publication, continuing an extensive bluegrass journalism career that earned him the IBMA’s Print Media Person of the Year award in 2001 and the Charlie Lamb Award For Excellence In Country Music Journalism in 2005.
In addition to his creative endeavors, Jon served two terms as a member of the IBMA’s Board of Directors, and was elected to the position of Vice Chair in 2010.
IBMA • www.ibma.org/about.ibma/leadership.asp
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WebSite • www.chrisjonesmusic.com