I don’t know about you, but after a bruising election season in which I learned more about some friends’ political opinions than I really wanted to know, I’m more than ready to get back to bluegrass music—although I have to say, sometimes I learn more about some friends’ opinions there, too, than I really wanted to know.
One I’ve heard from a couple of quarters lately has me scratching my head. It goes like this (and while I’m paraphrasing, I swear that I’m not exaggerating): Bluegrass started off about as good as it could possibly be with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, et.al., and ever since then, it’s been on a more or less steady slide. It’ll never be as good as it was. In fact, it’s not even able to stay as good as it’s been. It’s actually getting worse all the time, slicked up and smoothed out, diluted by alien influences, its integrity sold out by industry suits who want to ruin it the way they ruined country music by chasing after popularity and dollars, etc., etc., etc.
I’ve learned better than to argue the point with folks who think that way, so I usually just say that I find that attitude a little sad—it doesn’t give them much to look forward to, does it?—and let it go. But that’s mostly me doing my best to be non-confrontational, because what I really think is that they’re just wrong, and that in many respects, we’re in a golden age for bluegrass. It’s not always easy to see, and there are some things worth worrying about, but it’s a sure bet that the way to deal with those isn’t to hector people about how it’s all downhill from here.
Now, I’m not saying that there are a bunch of singers who can sing a bluegrass song better than Lester Flatt did, or pickers who can play “Rawhide” better than Bill Monroe did. For one thing, what I mostly choose to listen to in the way of bluegrass when I’m not listening for work is old stuff; I’m pretty sure at this point in my life that I’ll never get tired of hearing Flatt & Scruggs or Jimmy Martin or the Osborne Brothers. But more importantly, to frame it that way just misses the point.
Great musicians are, pretty much by definition, unique, and ranking them in any kind of objective way is impossible. What we need, now and in the future, are bluegrass musicians who have the same kind of skill, discipline, knowledge and passion—musicians who emulate those first and second and third (and…) generation folks not in their precise manner of playing and singing, but in their creative inspiration and engagement. And no matter which direction I look on the bluegrass landscape, I don’t see any shortage of those.
I’m just a few weeks away from finishing my 10th year in Nashville, and one of the best things that’s happened in those years has been the chance to get to spend a fair amount of time with some veteran bluegrass musicians, like Roland White and Del McCoury. If you think about it, they’re exactly the kind of long-timers who, if they chose to gripe about how bluegrass isn’t like it used to be, you really wouldn’t want to argue with them about it; they were there, and they’ve made contributions that will last as long as music lasts. And yet…they don’t.
Take Roland, for instance. For those who don’t know, he, along with brother Clarence, headed up a seminal southern California band back in the 50s and early 60s; spent a few years as Bill Monroe’s guitar player and lead singer in the latter part of the decade, and then a few more as Lester Flatt’s mandolin player. He was an integral part of Country Gazette, and then of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and for more than a decade he’s fronted his own Grammy-nominated group. The IBMA gave him its Distinguished Achievement award a couple of years ago, and it felt like the standing ovation he got went on forever.
See what I mean? With a resume like that, Roland White is entitled to be just as crabby as he wants to be when comparing bluegrass music and musicians today to those of the legendary past. And yet, Roland is known to just about every young picker in Nashville not only as an inveterate jammer, but as one who really wants to hear what everyone around him has to say musically. He’s just amazingly encouraging, and especially to young musicians.
Similarly, Del (and I trust that I don’t have to recite his accomplishments here) responds as a listener mostly to one thing: whether or not a musician has his or her own, distinctive sound and style. It could be his lifelong hero, Mac Wiseman, it could be long time buddy Sam Bush, it could be singer Claire Lynch, or it could be Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band—as long as he can pick out who it is just by the evidence of his ears, he’s good with it. That’s not to say that Del doesn’t appreciate hearing a banjo picker play “Foggy Mountain Chimes” really closely to the way that Earl Scruggs recorded it—or, more precisely, who does it enough to make the mastery clear—but if that’s all a guy or gal has to show, well, it’s just not going to set him on fire.
Talk to any good bluegrass musician—whether it’s a Hall of Famer like Del or not—and more often than not, what you’ll get is some variation on that theme: show me that you’re bringing something of yourself to the table. Let me hear what you’ve got to say musically that no one else says.
That, after all, is what Bill, and Earl, and Don, and Bobby, and all the rest of them offered us; it’s what built the musical legacy that’s still with us all these years later. And we best honor that legacy not by treating it as a fossil record of days gone by that can never be recaptured, but by taking its creative core to heart and making it our own.