What happens when a musical tradition grows old?
In its short, roughly 70 year life, bluegrass music has already veered off in a number of compelling directions, but always had its inventors around to represent that straight, 'traditional' path down the middle. Though some of the most prominent bluegrass pioneers ultimately took a more experimental route (Earl Scruggs Revue, anyone?), they are a link to the musical past, connecting us to that 'traditional' standard that many still believe to be unmatched. But right now that 's all changing.
With Ralph Stanley announcing his farewell tour and with the recent passing of bluegrass titans Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, the presence of the bluegrass founders is fading, and a genre that's still relatively young is growing up and perhaps even starting to feel old. It's a transitional and significant time, as we see legends moving on, along with the fans that were most directly connected to their sound, the ones who fought for its preservation. We all miss the mystique of BIll Monroe, but that's life; that's what happens when things grow old. In some way it sets us free to appreciate these legends for what they are--innovators and artists--instead of holding on to some small part of their past, hoping for them to recreate it for us in person. Just like any other viable art form, bluegrass is growing, changing, evolving, and the legacy of innovation that once seemed a threat is now defining the music for a younger generation.
Most music historians agree that bluegrass was born when Earl Scruggs joined forces with Bill Monroe in 1945. Though the style was certainly incubating in previous years, this marked a significant leap forward for both the sound and popularity of the music. The standard of 'traditional' bluegrass was set. Fast forward 68 years and that standard is still pretty firmly intact to those within the community, despite the vibrant evolution that has been bustling right outside the gates.
Four first generation bluegrass figures are still performing: Ralph Stanley, Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman and Bobby Osborne. But they are not the ones defending some 'traditional' concept of the music. As has always been the case, professional bluegrass musicians young and old are overwhelmingly open-minded on the topic of musical evolution (it's that blockbuster fact that the purists always manage to leave out). There are numerous examples including Ralph Stanley's recent collaboration with Pretty Lights, Jesse McReynolds' album of Grateful Dead music, the heavy influence of country music on the Osborne Brothers sound, and Wiseman's upcoming album with Merle Haggard.
But through it all, these names represent a link to a more 'traditional' past, remembered by many for their part in creating the bluegrass sound. Bobby's current collaboration (The Masters of Bluegrass) with second generation all-stars JD Crowe, Del McCoury, Jerry McCoury and Bobby Hicks is a clear reminder that while the founders do venture outside bluegrass, they also bring us back, and fans covet the rare opportunity to experience the origins of the music. That's how young bluegrass is! To many, the legends literally keep the past alive.
The examples of bluegrass icons venturing outside the genre are countless, but the reasons are simple: real artists strive to create and evolve, and they need to find an audience that will sustain them. Bluegrass has always struggled with commercialism, an obvious factor in the growth and development of any genre. Fans connected to that beautiful, original version of the music have a shockingly narrow definition of what bluegrass is and don't want to see it change. The folk music boom of the 60's-70's was an obvious place for bluegrass musicians to find new fans, but it further fostered this hyper-opinionated version of fandom that sought purity and shunned commercialism.
The opinion factor is exacerbated by the fact that so many die-hard fans are also part-time players, giving them a powerful sense of increased ownership over the music. They strive to preserve the art form, but in a way are doing just the opposite. You can't fault them for loving the music, but bluegrass exists because it is amazing, not because its followers hoped to keep it a certain way. For at least a period in the early going, before a small genre's available audience reaches critical mass, artists cater to audience opinions and growth can be stunted.
But from my perspective, bluegrass is now emerging from this early phase. As the original innovators fade from prominence, so too do the fans who are most closely connected to them. Only a few short years ago I saw firsthand the influence of the traditional bluegrass audience, the dominant voice at the annual IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Conference and Awards Show. At that time (2006-7), the IBMA was the go-to resource for all kinds of talented and eclectic players from all over the country. We (The Infamous Stringdusters) met several band-members, signed a record deal and won awards at the conference in years to come. Following that we were beholden to the bluegrass crowd. We envisioned ourselves a modern derivative of bluegrass but couldn't figure out how to find new crowds without alienating old ones. Ultimately we took a leap of faith -- one that has paid off, because it turns out that lots of people outside our community love bluegrass and all its musical relatives! A similar thing is happening within IBMA, which as of this year is moving to Raleigh and embracing a much broader spectrum of music. It's true that the evolution of acoustic music is well underway, but it appears that only now are these new styles finding a meaningful way to be tied to one of their most significant ancestors--bluegrass.
Moving forward, young people discovering this musical world will have less and less context for this 'bluegrass dilemma,' as figures like Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas represent a more modern, open-minded and popular version of the music. This is how young people now discover bluegrass. Zooming out even further than that we see the acoustic boom that includes bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, a world that will inspire more banjo sales than Earl ever dreamed of. But for those who find their way back, Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs (and many more) will get the credit for kicking off this amazing streak of innovation, not just for that one version of bluegrass that they conjured up nearly 70 years ago. Great musicians will always gravitate to the simple, soulful perfection of bluegrass, assimilating the parts that appeal to them, mastering them and incorporating them into an array of musical styles. Good music lasts and informs what comes later, genres bleed together and new worlds are discovered--that's how music works.
With respect to the lasting significance of these old influences (some actually fear traditional bluegrass will disappear), it's again important to consider just how young the genre is. Bluegrass music was conceived almost entirely in the era of recorded music. Our version of the 'oral tradition,' is actually a fascinating intersection of imitation and innovation. While we do learn much of the repertoire and style from jamming with and listening to other players, the genre is so young that we also have quality video/audio recordings of the founders honing their craft. These references are a great resource to access/preserve the past, mixed with all the amazing things that happen when people learn music together by ear. Anyone exploring the instrument will have easy access to hours of Earl on video, and serious banjo players will always learn Earl.
I was lucky to meet Earl Scruggs and hear him play live (with one my own bandmates!), and only a few years later he was gone. His work (and that of so many others) is done, and it was done very well--the rare perfection those legends achieved is what will keep the music alive above all else. In a few short years, a young person discovering bluegrass music won't have the opportunity to experience the music's founders first hand. But the influence of their sound remains, and the older it gets, the less burdened it is by the legacy of conformity and traditionalism that have followed it all these years. That's what happens when a musical tradition grows old, and perhaps nothing feels that old until its creators are gone.
(Special thanks to Jon Weisberger, who's generosity with his time, energy and ideas will be another part of what keeps bluegrass alive.)
Chris Pandolfi is banjo player and one of the founding members of The Infamous Stringdusters. He was also the keynote speaker at IBMA in 2011. He lives in Denver.