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. ”
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.