The Future of Bluegrass?

A national music magazine ran a column recently re. the future of bluegrass music.  I thought I’s share my thoughts here and ask for your comments as well.  The column began thusly:

Magazine editor: “It is not so much that I wish to contemplate the future of bluegrass, though it seems rather less assured that it did in the heady days following O Brother. ”

Bill Monroe / Doc Watson 1963

Bill Monroe / Doc Watson 1963

My reply: Thing is, the film “O Brother” (which I prefer to call “Big Brother”) didn’t have a lick o’ bluegrass in it! I thought T-Bone did a good job on the music, which was basically 1930s hillbilly music – the film was set in the 30s, and hired some of my friends to appear, but bluegrass it weren’t.

And that may be one of the “problems” with bluegrass music, it tends to confuse the music dilletantes just as jazz did when it evolved from a dance music to an intellectual exercise in the 1950s.  Certainly, when Monroe founded the style in the late 30s and 1940s, it took hold of its audience in the mainly rural atmosphere of the high south. In the 40s and 50s, it was a part of the general country sound and got country radio airplay with hardly any leakage into the cities. As the advent of rock & roll devastated the  dance-based country singers and bands, it forced the country bands to adopt electric instruments and drums.  Monroe (for the most part) resisted and kept to his own inspriations, much to his financial planner’s dismay.

Bill’s band The Blue Grass Boys, and the first generation of musical followers all were country folk with shared experiences and backgrounds. Of that first generation, Monroe was the *only* band leader to ever hire musical talent from the city. He was the only one with the vision to look beyond his own mileau to “help the music as it goes along” (as he told me more than once).

In more current times, the music media have had two contradictory effects: one was to make the early music more accessible (at least, to those who were searching); the other was to put increasing pressure on new groups in the genre to fit into the “contemporary” mode. Allison Krauss/The New River Band, etc. set a mold for recording and performing that has had hundreds if not thousands of imitators, some sucessful. The music has become “delicate”, with all-encompassing warbly vocals – all in the same set style, with virtuoso instrumental breaks played as if the artists were wearing white lab coats, gathering around the mic. There is little feeling, and absolutely no risk-taking.

Those first-generation bands could be identified within 2 bars of any song, each had their own sound. Now, we must rely on the FM radio DJ to read off the credits after a set of 6-10 identical-sounding, ultra-smooth and pablum-ish numbers. Such beautiful blending of 57 vocal tracks and wonderfuly subtle mastering! What’s happening to bluegrass is exactly what’s happening to most American culture – it’s being rounded off and smoothed out to death.  Music always reflects the culture from which it comes. It’s our own culture and society that have changed.

The future? Well, don’t put your money on a music originated by farmers.  Only the corporate combines are left.

-Peter

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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