The Ted Lehmann Interview
BGL • Ted, you have done nothing short a herculean job of documenting the past and present of bluegrass, and exploring its future, as a journalist and photo-journalist. How in the world did you get yourself into this? Where and how did it start?
TL • I’ve always written and taken photos. Most of my published work was written for professional consumption and went largely un-noticed. I’m really not a scholar. I published a short story in a "small" magazine called Blue Line, dedicated to literature from and about the Adirondack Park, about fifteen or twenty years ago. I also had a conventional web site, but it seems to have disappeared as we no longer use the server which stored it. So I had a couple of skill areas with not much I thought was important enough to share with anyone else.
Then along came blogging. I read bloggers, particularly the political ones at election time and surfed blogs, fascinated by the phenomenon, but uncertain how it was relevant to me. When we became very active in attending bluegrass festivals after our going to some local evening events in Myrtle Beach and our first Merlefest in 2003, it sort of became clear that I had a topic I wanted to write about and an outlet for my efforts. I was reluctant at first, and Irene was even more reluctant to have me do it, but I finally posted my first blog entry on December 22, 2006.
“Since them, I’ve posted an average of about 135 posts a year. Most of them have been related to bluegrass, but I also read a lot, so I started writing book reviews, too. Actually, book reviews dominated my early posts.”
I didn’t actually expect very much to come of my blog, but we were traveling a good deal, and I saw it as a good way to communicate with family and friends. Later, I realized I wanted others who were enthusiastic about bluegrass to read what I was writing, too.
“Meanwhile, I was learning a lot, finding that bluegrass professionals we were beginning to know were receptive to what I was writing about them, and other fans were interested, also. I all just sort of grew from there.”
While I understand at some level that lots of people read what I write and enjoy my pictures, I still get a huge kick out of people coming up to me at festivals or other events, saying "You’re Ted Lehmann, aren’t you? I read your blog regularly. And I am constantly grateful to the musicians and promoters who’ve found what we do, for Irene has become an integral part of my blog and our three Facebook pages, for the increased access we’ve been granted at events.
BGL • I do believe your blog has become a fundamental building block of modern bluegrass architecture, because it is uniquely useful, insightful, generous and compassionate, in the sense that it seeks above all to understand and share… the good with grace, and the bad with courage. Always with integrity and honesty. And it’s obvious you care a great deal. What do you love most about Bluegrass? What reassures or worries you about its future?
TL • My background in music didn’t inevitably lead me to bluegrass. I played violin as a kid (hated it so much that when bluegrass came around I stupidly chose the banjo as my preferred instrument) and grew up on Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas, classical orchestral music, Paul Robeson, and, as my own taste developed during the fifties and sixties, folk music. I played guitar, listened to The Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell, the Limelighters, and lots of Pete Seeger (esp. his early Sea Shanties album with the Almanac Singers). Josh White was my favorite blues singer and, as I grew still older Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Broadway show music. Later, as we drew closer to the day bluegrass would enter our lives, I listened to Nashville Country and fell in love with Canadian Stan Rogers wonderful work. Harry Chapin was a big one in our family. So, as you can see, my tastes were very eclectic.
I had heard about Merlefest and found it on the Internet, so we decided to go for the first time in, I think, 2003.
“The world that opened up for us there was rich and broad, but I thought we were at a bluegrass festival, so the musical choices represented by Merlefest became, in my mind, bluegrass.”
Still are, but I’ve learned that it’s a complex, interesting, and wonderful world.
Along the way, we met Jennings Chestnut, who owned a mandolin shoppe in Conway, SC while also making quite fine instruments. We would stop to visit with him and, eventually he gave me a couple of pointers; he never called them lessons. Jennings hosted a small, one day festival called Bluegrass on the Waccamaw. He took me under his wing, educated me in the world of bluegrass, tolerated my ignorance, and, eventually, allowed us to volunteer at his festival.
“We also became friendly with some performers. The music moved and intrigued me, but, perhaps, just as much, I found myself drawn to the people and culture the music, in all its variety, represents. Not a rural person myself, my experiences have taught me to enjoy and respect rural people. So, over the next few years, we reached out to the bluegrass world and found ourselves enfolded in it, and welcomed by it. I also found myself in awe of the marvelous skills of the musicians.”
I’m reassured by the young people I see coming into the music; by their enthusiasm, skill, passion, and innovation. Many of them have taken the music and combined it with the other music in the air around us to begin re-defining the bluegrass sound. Exactly what reassures me also worries me, as I see these efforts being rejected by many. That’s what I’ve been writing a lot about recently; the narrow limits we place upon our music and the insistence on purity. I worry that as the baby boomers and people my age who are committed to traditional bluegrass continue to hold the line, they will chase away the people who could become their musical friends. Only time will tell, though.
BGL • You spoke above of your wife Irene who has also become very involved, and while your blog started as Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms, your FaceBook page is titled Ted and Irene’s Most Excellent Bluegrass Adventure. Tell us a little about the Irene in Ted & Irene’s
“She was looking for a ride back to school, having been told that I had brought a few cheerleaders to the game with me. No one had thought to tell her the cheerleaders were all guys.”
"I also managed to embarrass her (for the first time in the next fifty years) on the ride home by sending a cold hot-turkey sandwich back to the kitchen for further heating. We were married in 1964 and have two sons living in New England with their own families. Throughout my professional career she loyally went along with too many moves to mention along with my attending graduate school for what must have seemed like forever. She’s the musician in our family, having played flute and related instruments in school and sung barbershop quartet, too. The ease with which she sings harmony or picks up the key and plays her mandolin along with the CD’s or radio never ceases to amaze me. Her sunny nature and quick insights have made her invaluable to musicians at their merchandise tables, where she often sells during the period bands are on stage.
“She’s a preternatural "Mom" who takes care of people along the road, one of whom is, I’m usually happy to say, me.”
As video has become an increasing component of my blog and our Facebook pages, her involvement in our effort has become increasingly important. She does a good deal of photography, although, being of a more retiring nature she’s reluctant to move around as much as I do. She also plays a major behind the scenes role, keeping my worst angels at bay as she tones down some of my more heated inclinations. Her work as a line editor and research assistant is invaluable.
“So far, we’ve been married for forty-seven years, and it looks good for the future, but we keep working on us.”
BGL • With the economic crisis, and it’s impact on everything including the IBMA, as well as IBMA’s own growing pains in these times of transition, what is your impressions of the state of The Bluegrass Nation. What are your hopes and recommendations.
“I’m not the least worried about the full range of what I think of as bluegrass music.”
Too many people too easily dismiss the new and somewhat different as "not bluegrass" without either remembering that Bill Monroe was a musical revolutionary and that much of what was cloned from his format and musical ideas has long since died. We can’t know what music being played today will emerge as standards. That’ll be up to some observer, writing in the cloud or being experienced in three dimensional holographic reality, fifty or a hundred years in the future. I’ve read that the singer/songwriter movement is killing the development of "standards," that is songs that are covered, sung by other bands, or played and sung around the campfire at jams, but we won’t know whether Allison, Rhonda, Louisa, Donna, or Leigh and Eric will be sung a generation or two from now.
“Meanwhile, I see unbelievably talented young pickers out there picking and people like Brandon Rickman, Chris West, and the Gibson Brothers writing tuneful and repeatable music.”
There’s a natural tension existing between the body of bluegrass players and any effort to create a professional, industry-wide organizational structure. It’s why the Professional Golfers Association (a pretty fair analogy) is divided into touring pros, teaching pros, and the USGA, which is a players organization. Even so, only a small percentage of all golfers are members of the USGA, and most of them belong to support the organization, having little real contact with it. The recent tensions within IBMA often end up comparing it with SPBGMA, which isn’t really an organization. As a former teacher, I believe in professionalism. As a social critic, I see the dangers of any organization becoming more concerned with its own organizational welfare than with its goals and objectives. For this reason, I look on some of the recent responses of IBMA to the financial pressures largely generated, I believe, from external economic forces rather than weaknesses in the organization, as largely beneficial, although the issue of the expense of being in Nashville simply doesn’t show cognizance of the realities of doing business in the world today. To make extensive changes in IBMA’s World of Bluegrass simply to make it cheaper and more user friendly for jammers isn’t a good idea.
“To encourage more part-time working professionals to improve their skills and knowledge, making it easier for them to increase their income, on the other hand is essential. If the changes in the organization draw more of this wildly diverse crowd into IBMA, then the changes will have been well worth the effort.”
I’m leery of too tightly organized an institution. I’d hope IBMA can be successful at strengthening local and regional bluegrass organizations, bringing them together under a single umbrella. I’d love to see every bluegrass association proudly displaying the IBMA logo and sending representatives to every annual convention. As a business conference, IBMA’s World of Bluegrass is an exciting and engaging week of music and learning. We’ve enjoyed the four events we’ve attended and would not be able to attend were the three components be split apart. For the health of the organization and of festivals, concerts, and other events around the world, continuing to have the meetings inside during the fall is important. Beyond that, I"m curious about the future and filled with confidence.
“There’s no reason to worry about bluegrass music.”
FaceBook • www.facebook.com/lehmanns.bluegrass.adventure
WebSite • www.tedlehmann.blogspot.com/
Twitter • www.twitter.com/bluegrassted
YouTube • www.youtube.com/KeeneValleyGuy
• Guest Contributors on Bluegrass Today
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