Hi Neil, I’ve been approached by a music professor at UCSB to teach a class session in his popular music introductory course, a session dealing with bluegrass. Their reading assignment was the first two chapters of your “History”, so I re-read them. I had forgotten what a fine job you did with that book. I swear I found things in there that weren’t there when I first read it! So this is a fan letter. One thing you don’t really mention though, is the technology aspect of bluegrass. You do write abut George Hay not wanting drums or electric guitars . . . but what about microphones? When Bill traveled with his tent shows, you mention electric lights. What did he use to amplify his instruments? It is my impression that bluegrass was built around a microphone, and has been subsequently altered by the expansion of a single mic into a long, often forbidding, row of mics, monitors, etc. My earliest memories of bluegrass bands included their ballet-like acrobatics around a single mic which, to me, just added to the enjoyment of the show — and coincidentally helped focus the audience’s attention to the current lead soloist. At some point, I would love to hear your thoughts abut this. I am going to copy Mayne with this to solicit his thoughts as well. Warm regards, -Peter
– – – Neil’s reply: Peter, Thanks for the fan letter! Glad to know some students will be reading the book — be sure and tell them it’s still in print, available at Amazon, etc. Anyway (!), you’re right, in the first two chapters I only mention the microphone in passing at the end of the second full paragraph on page 6. There is an extended discussion in chapter 11, in the context of the Osborne Brothers’ 1969 electrification, in a long paragraph on 312-3. By 1969, solid-state electronics had transformed public performance. Recently I read Barry Tashian’s Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles’ Last Tour. Barry had a band, The Remains, that opened for the Beatles on their ’66 tour. We think of rock bands having banks of speakers, etc., but according to Barry most of they time they sang into mikes connected to the house (stadium or arena — big venues) PA system. And they ran their instruments through wimpy little Vox amp/speakers. No monitors. Frequently thousands of screaming girls overwhelmed their sound — they couldn’t hear themselves. In the ’40s and ’50s Bill carried a PA system with the tent show. It would have consisted of an amp, a microphone and some speakers.Sometimes he had other acts with him who used electric instruments; they’d have their own amps, etc. All of this plus the lights suggests his tent show equipment included a generator. There are descriptions of the tent show out there (they generally mention more than one truck) but I don’t know if they mention a generator or not, or if they discuss the PA system. The long rows of mikes/monitors of the ’70s and ’80s at bluegrass venues were at least partially superseded in the early ’90s when Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver started working with a single high quality condenser mike. Subsequently many bands followed Doyle’s example, and gradually this became a standard option in bluegrass. It’s now seen as part of the traditions connected with the music; there’s an annual single-mike bluegrass contest at a festival somewhere. A lot of bands carry their own mikes. Our band does this in contexts where we have control over the ambient noise (hard to use in a rowdy bar). With it, you don’t need monitors, and the sound man’s role is greatly simplified. Enjoy the class & howdy to Mayne
– – – Neil adds: I think Fincastle in its first two years at least had just a single PA mike on stage (the rest in the photos are connected to tape recorders). The number of bluegrass festivals went from 1 in ’65 to hundreds in ’72. Somewhere in there the multiple instrument mikes, monitors, etc., came along. It would be interesting to know how much this was shaped by the growth of local sound system companies upon which festival owners came to depend as crowds grew and migrated to the bluegrass from the rock festivals. In my neck of the woods, it took a while for trained bluegrass sound-system owner-operators to appear. Their market grew as the number of festivals grew. The earliest sound-system companies were into working with rock, didn’t know acoustic.
I hadn’t realized that the first Beatles U.S. tour was so acoustically hampered. I just figured the screaming stadium crowds would have drowned out the band under any circumstances.I’ve said this before, but I want to mention the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of PA technology enabled and encouraged much larger outdoor folk and bluegrass festivals than traditional venues, including hillbilly music parks, accommodated. With only a generator and a rough-built stage the PA and separate mics for every instrument and voice could project the sound to many thousands, even those wandering at the back of the crowd among sales booths, etc. No need for acoustically engineered stadiums and amphitheaters. I think you could make the case that the BG festival movement would not have had its huge success without this development. The same technology made it feasible for the Kentucky Colonels to feature Clarence’s lead guitar over the whole band — Clarence having his own microphone, separately controlled by a sound mixer. I was very much aware of this specific issue at the time I was running sound at the Ash Grove for that band in the mid-sixties, but I was not fully alert to the growth and importance of the festivals. When I went to Fincastle in 1965, the Newport folk and jazz festivals were already established, though recent. At Fincastle, were there no outlying mics at stage left for, at least, the fiddlers? This was the pattern at the Brown County Jamboree in 1963, as I recall. I can’t summon from memory a trustworthy enough image of Monroe’s band(s) onstage. I’m sure Peter, like myself, has encountered the problem Neil mentions of performing with excellent sound systems run by kids who tried to control the balance of voices and instruments by twisting knobs, no matter how emphatically they were instructed to set the proper levels and then let the musicians do the “mixing” by moving in and out (and sometimes behind others).
Thanks to Neil and Mayne for their insights. Comments and additions are welcome. It looks like we’re going to continue this discussion in the near future. -Peter