I first blundered into becoming “involved” with music, essentially on a whim.
The Subdivision where we lived had something called “Yard-sale day”. The theory behind this was that everyone in the subdivision who wanted to have a yard sale, should do so on the same day. This minimized the problems typically encountered with yard-sales: Home-made signage, etc.
Anyway, at one of these yard-sales), more or less on exactly the sort of unexamined whim I have come to utterly hate – I paid one dollar for what was probably the crappiest guitar in history.
It was a “global” acoustic, which was so structurally flimsy that it made weird “creaking” sounds whenever anybody tried to tune it to EADGBE. Also, metal strings seemed to be significantly worse in this regard.
So anyway (because my family are idiot trash), I ended up “hanging out” with my Great-Uncle Warren for a few hours, on an entirely inconsistent basis, from approximately August of 1985, until Warren died in November 1985 (a little more than a month after my 12th birthday).
I have no idea how many “lessons” i had — probably less than ten in total (because – my “parents” being who they were, they didn’t consider anything I wanted to do important enough to actually warrant a “special” drive – even to have a relative help me learn something.
Anyway, after Warren died, I basically did nothing substantial in terms of music until we stumbled across Ray (the child-raping mandolinist).
Anyway, Ray attempted to “groom” me by way of “hanging out” with me, and (implicitly) using the fact that I had regarded Warren (even during those few hours of “lessons”), as infinitely more of a “father figure” than my own drunken, idiot “father” — to begin manipulating me in a direction which – had he had enough time to pursue it — would most likely have involved him either attempting to take “nasty” pictures of me, or drugging/violating me outright, or something.
Fortunately for me, by the time I had met him, he was already out on bond – awaiting sentencing for what the PA department of corrections describes as “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child”.
So, Ray went “away” (for a different reason). Thankfully, there was no “bad-touch”, so at least there was something half-way positive about the whole fiasco.
The other marginally “positive” thing to come out of it all was: it was my first opportunity to actually begin taking lessons on a consistent basis.
Nev Jackson was (and has remained) a genuinely odd person:
- Back in the late 1960s, he had a (particularly shitty and uninspiring) music group called the “Summit Singers“. Warren (of all people) had bought one of the few dozen copies of their album which ever sold, so I have had the “good fortune” to be able to listen to the thing.
It is pretty much what you’d expect: a morass of Woodie Guthrie, “Standard” Bluegrass instrumentals etc. – interspersed with Nev’s own compositions — all of which come off like what you’d expect from Bob Dylan (if Dylan had an aneurysm):
Anyway, Nev had come up with what now strikes me as a pretty solid career path for himself:
He knew he was never going to make it out of that shitty little backwater area. He wasn’t even a “big fish’ in terms of what passed for the local Bluegrass/Old-Time/Folk “scene”. So, he came up with a truly-innovative solution:
Market himself as a “music therapist”.
Here’s how that worked:
I never did figure out exactly what his degree was. Nor am I particularly clear on whether he was actually affiliated with the American Music Therapy association:
What I do know is: he gave (drastically-overpriced) “lessons”/”counseling”-sessions at his house, both of which were (as I later discovered), identical:
Both the “lessons” and “counseling” consisted of the following:
- How to read tablature
- Beginner/intermediate instruction on one of the following musical instruments:
3. The “privilege” of attending his monthly “jam-sessions” at his house.
4. The “privilege” of serving as a readily-available pool of “side-men” for whenever he somehow managed to get “gigs”.
That’s it, really.
This was an amazingly simply (almost cookie-cutter) formula, which “worked” on two levels:
- Those who wanted to learn guitar/banjo/mandolin, etc. could be gimmicked into paying him to receive drastically-overpriced “lessons” in the sort of thing you could learn more easily from either just going to local “Jam sessions”, or by way of the sort of instructional materials put out by Happy Traum, or Murphy Henry (the inventor of the “Murphy method”):
2. Individuals who probably should have been receiving actual psychiatric help for things like depression, eating disorders, substance abuse issues etc. – got to pretend that being able to play “Cripple Creek” on banjo would “cure” them.
Anyway, at anywhere from 60-120 bucks a pop, Nev had himself a really nice little lifestyle:
- He got to make 60 bucks for a half-hour of “work” (which mostly consisted of him listening to one of hist students stumble through Bile Dem Cabbage Down), and then telling them to “go home and practice some more”).
- He got the psychological ‘rush” that comes from being a “guru” to a morass of “disciples”.
See, there’s the other thing about Nev’s setup: He explicitly “warned” his students NOT to go to local jam-sessions etc. – because we would (supposedly) learn “bad habits”.
What this meant was: his “students” almost never integrated back into the local music “scene” (and – importantly – never went to “jam sessions” other than the one he had explicitly authorized – once every month – at his house.
Now, the thing you have to understand about Bluegrass and “old-time” music in general is this:
Bluegrass is a a MODERN, and very “scripted” genre, whose participants PRETEND that it is some sort of “folk tradition”.
Here’s what I mean:
Every distinctively modern music genre (IE: anything developed within the approximately the last 100 years or so) has been deliberately designed around (fairly) specific genre-based constraints related to: “permissible” palette of instruments, musical scales, song structure, performance style, subject-matter, etc.
Contrary to what many critics of the above trend (mistakenly) believe, the above structural constraints have been trickling down for centuries before the advent of audio recording. In fact, they are implicit in the so-called “axiomatic triangle” (“Art”/popular/Folk).
At any rate, “Bluegrass” wasn’t entirely or exclusively “invented” by Bill Monroe. For one thing, the specific instrumental line-up/repertoire etc. had been more or less independently developed by others, essentially as a “refinement” of what was, at the time, a preexisting “folk”-tradition endemic to Appalachia.
What Bill Monroe, The Stanley brothers, Reno & Smiley, Mac Wiseman etc. did was to take a preexisting “palette” of instrumentation/subject matter etc, – and both formalize and polish it.
The subsequent history of Bluegrass music is pretty clearly summed up in the following tidbit:
Historically, there is a consensus that “bluegrass music” began with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys band. The recordings made by this group in the mid to late 1940s are considered the gold standard of bluegrass music. What characterizes this music are:
1. All the instruments are acoustic: an upright bass, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and banjo.
2. The singing is a “high lonesome” sound created through three-part harmony with a tenor or high baritone voice on top.
3. There is great virtuosity on the instruments, and the instrumentalists take solos.
4. The music is comprised of instrumental songs as well as ballads and story songs.
Before Bill Monroe there was Old Time Music, but it did not feature instrument solos or the three-part high-lonesome singing. There was blues from the Delta and Piedmont areas, but it did not utilize the instrument mix or singing strategy of Bill Monroe. There was fiddle or mountain music developed derivatively in Appalachia from the music imported from the British Isles, Italy, Africa, and elsewhere, but it, too, did not have many of the characteristics of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass music.
Bill Monroe listened to all of these styles of music, enjoyed them all, and his genius was to take aspects of all these forms and meld them into a new form: what we now call “bluegrass.” Pretty simple, no? If the music sounds like what Bill Monroe did, it’s “bluegrass” and we have our clear definition.
Music, however, is a living, breathing, ever-changing art form. Even Bill Monroe experimented with electric guitars, drums, and had a female bass player. Those who were contemporaries or early followers of Bill Monroe – the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Flatt and Scruggs, and many others no doubt were influenced by the basic style of bluegrass created by Bill Monroe – each put their own spin on this new, evolving music. Although they changed what Bill Monroe had done in many subtle ways, most would agree their music is close to that gold standard and falls within the definition of “bluegrass.”
The next generation of bluegrass musicians pushed the envelope further – far enough that their music came to be called “Newgrass.” Newgrass Revival was a seminal group of this era (the 1970s) as was Old and in the Way. These groups used the same instruments Bill Monroe’s band had used in the 1940s (although John Cowan of Newgrass Revival played an electric bass) but they broke from tradition in many other ways, including the types of songs, the complexity of the chord structures, singing styles, and instrumentation. Newgrass became very popular and enjoyed considerable success.
From there the third generation of bluegrass musicians pushed the envelope even further. Blue Highway, Lonesome River Band, Mountain Heart, Alison Krauss, and many others put their marks on the music while still using the same basic acoustic instruments, some with an added Dobro. Groups like Alison Krauss and Union station took the music in a more pop-oriented direction with huge success. Hey, Alison Krauss has more Grammies than any female artist and the first million-selling bluegrass album.
If one compares what each generation produced with the music of their immediate predecessors one can see a gradual progression over time. But, if one compares the music of the third generation to the gold standard of the 1940s the change is dramatic. For some, too dramatic, and for these traditional purists this music is not “bluegrass.”
Now, we have the current generation of bluegrass musicians whose approach is wider and more varied still. In one sub-group we have bands like the Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, and others who still use the traditional instruments and still present recognizable aspects of earlier bluegrass music, but produce a more rock ‘n’ roll or jam band influenced version of the music. In a second sub-group we have bands like Trampled by Turtles, the Avett Brothers, Railroad Earth, and others who have pushed the envelope way further, still using banjos, mandolins, and fiddles, but electrifying their acoustic instruments sometimes adding drums and going pretty full-on rock ‘n’ roll to appeal to the younger generation.
With each progression of the music there are those who “fall off the wagon” trying to stand their ground that if it isn’t at least pretty close to what Bill Monroe did in the 1940s, it isn’t “bluegrass.” At the same time, there are large new audiences captured by the newer sounds. What all the performers of these versions of “bluegrass” have in common is a respect for Bill Monroe and the pioneers. The Avett Brothers love Bill Monroe. Yonder Mountain, too, as does David Grissman and the other modern practitioners. Bill Monroe was the innovator of his time, doing what no one had done before him, and these modern musicians, arguably, are doing the same – innovating and respecting that part of the Monroe tradition.
I personally thing the above “big-tent” line of agitprop is entirely too charitable – especially toward so-called “traditionalists”:
For one thing, there is a real tendency among Bluegrass fans to define Bluegrass negatively – usually, by contrasting it with whatever passes for mainstream “Country” (and/or rock) happens to be doing, at any given time.
Thus (for example), in the 1940s/50s, the only substantive “difference” between “Bluegrass” and “Country” music artists such as Hank Williams, was: Hank Williams stuff (sometimes) included (electrically-amplified) lap/pedal steel, and typically didn’t include banjo or mandolin.
The two genres diverged fairly radically with the development of the “Nashville Sound” (by producers like Chet Atkins):
In the 1960s, this same sort of thing happened again, with an infusion of new blood: a morass of (self-described) “Folkies”, who hated acid rock, psychedelia, the “hippie” movement, etc. (Basically, the pretentious, Coffee-house “hipsters” who tended to bitch about the Kingston Trio before they glommed onto Bluegrass for its supposed “authenticity”).
From my (admittedly limited) experience, these “folkies” tended toward a certain level of ‘self-segregation”, snobbery and pretense: they the were ones most likely to bring huge, overstuffed binders full of “folk ballads” collected by people like Alan Lomax.
At the same time, there was always this edge of winking inauthenticity, in that most of these “traditionalist” folkies tended to be college educated, and openly antithetical to the “folk process”, itself:
For exaple, I personally witnessed one of these “Folkie” women literally throw a tantrum (complete with crying-jag) over the fact that a performer used the “garbled” version of the lyrics to Wildwood Flower, as opposed to some pretentious (and totally unknown to the rest of those at the particular jam-session) version of the lyrics, originating from some 19th-century “broadside” or other:
See, that’s the problem right there: Pretentious, elitist, “Musicology” dick-heads who insist on prattling on about the (supposed) “virtues” of (purportedly) “oral” traditions – and then shit themselves when the products of those “traditions” refuse to be ENCASED IN “TRADITIONALIST” AMBER.
“Traditional” Bluegrass (every bit as much as so-called “authentic” folk music) amounts to little more than cultural fossilization, or some sort of “reenactment” based on (false and garbled) “nostalgia”.
As such, even the most “progressive” Bluegrass musicians cannot substantially deviate from the “Bill Monroe Fossilized in Amber”-paradigm, to any genuinely significant degree.
When they do attempt such things, you either end up with something which is stylistically indistinguishable from the “Gypsy Jazz” pioneered by Django Reinhardt over in Europe (decades before “Bluegrass” even existed) — the Tony Rice/David Grisman axis – or idiocy of this sort:
The weird thing about the above is: it somehow manages to play on the worst stereotypes of Blacks and Whites — picture “Cletus the slack-jawed yokel” from the Simpsons attempting to be a “Gangsta rapper”.
At its “best”,the “tradiitonalist” axis ends up with stuff like this:
Either way – both variants exhibit the following characteristics in common:
- Bluegrass tends to be both racially and theologically homogeneous: Virtually no non-Whites, and (at least musically) a drastic over-reliance on “religious” material which treats Fundamentalist/Evangelical, Protestant Christianity as NORMATIVE.
There really aren’t any “Bluegrass” scenes anywhere else – except possibly as as a sort of “parody” of U.S. pop culture. Such Non-U.S. “scenes” tend to be, if anything, even more rigidly “traditionalist” than the most “Traditional” U.S. groups:
The above strikes me as little more than an exceedingly clumsy caricature, on the level of The Beverly Hillbillies.
The thing is: I have infinitely more respect for what these folks over in Thailand are doing, than I do for some Latte-liberal “Hipster” dickhead. Several reasons:
- They appear to genuinely love what they’re doing (IE: there’s a quality of earnest, deadly-serious sincerity to the whole thing, which utterly lacks that winking meta-parody which goes on among far too many non-mainstream music scenes.
- They are daring enough to attempt to do something which originates outside of the demographic/geographic/cultural constraints which imprison so many others – of all ethnicities/racist/subcultures.