The Future of Bluegrass Music
Words & Photos By J-man
We know where bluegrass music originated. We know all about Bill Monroe's contribution, Del McCoury's longevity and Garcia/Grisman's building of a bridge to jam/improvised music. But what about the future of bluegrass? Where will it go from here? With the gaining popularity of bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, Cornmeal and Greensky Bluegrass, what's to become of the traditions of this roots music? Moreover, what's going to be the next musical innovation within' this genre?
For answers to my questions, I turned to guys like Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth), Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass), Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon/Great American Taxi), Del McCoury, Sam Bush, and Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band).
In order to discuss the direction of the music, you have to establish a reference point in which to work from. When asked about the future of Bluegrass music Anders and Vince both responded by referencing Bill Monroe.
"First off, its really hard to talk about "traditional bluegrass" and really know that we mean the same thing. To me, "traditional bluegrass" means straight ahead, old school bluegrass music that sounds exactly like it did when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs started it" Anders stated.
"Bluegrass was created out of old time music for commercial radio use. It's Bill Monroe's vision, his boogie woogie" proclaimed Vince.
Our reference/starting point for the discussion about the changing and adapting of this music would be Bill Monroe's early material throughout the mid forties and fifties. We'll work from that point on. In the beginning the music was raw, acoustic based mountain music with quick tempos, high tenor harmonies and a preview of what was to come in regards to instrumental virtuosity. With the addition of Earl Scruggs' three-finger banjo style to Bill's band, the music started to take shape and adapt. With the folk revival of the 1960's, many college students and young people were turned onto Bill's music. The innovation in his music was apparent immediately when Bill began recruiting forward thinkers/pickers like Bill "Brad" Keith and Peter Rowan.
Through the decades the music began to change and strengthen in both popularity and compositional respects. With the increasing popularity came an influx of folks playing Bill's music, but with their own personal touch or spin on it. From there, the music began to morph. By the time the 70's rolled around, there were a couple of major influences to the changing of bluegrass and the beginning of the Jamgrass/Newgrass movement... Newgrass Revival and Old and in The Way.
Old and in The Way was a band comprised of Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, David Grissman and John Kahn. They put their spin on a number of traditional song, including "Uncle Pen" as well as covers such as the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses", to originals such as Peter Rowan's "Panama Red". Their ability to bridge rock and bluegrass with a hint of improvisation jam music fueled the creative fire within' the genre.
Newgrass Revival bred a new form of progressive bluegrass styling that pushed the bounds and raised the bar for what became "Newgrass" music. This may have been the single biggest leap/progression within' the genre to date. With guys like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn, progression was inevitable.
Now let's bring this current and gain some perspective on where traditional bluegrass music stands today within' an ever expanding genre...
"Music will reflect the times and it's no longer 1952. As long as the music happens in a community of friends with an eye on roots and tradition, it will evolve just fine" Vince stated.
When asked about the future of bluegrass, Tim Carbone said "I travel a good bit in the south and all around the country. A month doesn't go by that I don't hear some young phenom playing the fiddle, guitar, banjo or mandolin. It can be quite annoying... just kidding... sorta. The future of traditional bluegrass music is in good hands. There will always be the pure stuff."
I took comfort in knowing that Vince and Tim felt the future of the tradtions were in good hands. I wondered about bands that implemented outside musical influences and what their take would be on the value and continuation of the traditional sound. For that I turned to Anders Beck.
"I think that the future of bluegrass music is going to continue to evolve away from the strictest definitions of the music as more of the younger players (and I'm talking anywhere from fifteen to forty year olds) begin to meld all of their other influences into the music. That's what we do in Greensky... not because we are really trying to specifically do that, but because we all love bluegrass, but we also love other types of music like jambands or 80's music, etc."
I reflected on the growth in popularity of Newgrass and Jamgrass music. I wondered if the more traditional folks viewed it as a threat? For that I referred back to my interview with Del McCoury from this past summer at Grey Fox.
"I always felt, and Bill felt this way; People have to play what they like to play, or like to sing... and if it's Jamgrass, well I'm all for it. If it's Newgrass, that's fine." Del said with sincerity.
He went on to say with a smile, "I remember when Sam Bush, he's my old buddy... I remember when those guys started with that. They were kind of one of the first popular bands to do "Newgrass". And I liked it! I didn't find it in myself to do it, But I liked listening to them do it. It gives another branch to the music."
One of the most traditional men in music today, supports the branching and more progressive approach to bluegrass. I appreciate so much, to see guys like Del McCoury, who are traditional in nature, supporting innovation and progression.
I went back to something Anders said about Newgrass/Jamgrass and his introduction to bluegrass. "I absolutely see it as an aid to the longevity and security of bluegrass music. It catches people's attention who may not have ever liked bluegrass in the first place and brings them into the fold. Using myself as an example, I got into bluegrass because I was a Deadhead and learned that Garcia played in a bluegrass band. I figured I would check it out and bought "Old And In The Way." I loved it first because it was a new side of Jerry that I didnt know, but then began loving the vibe and energy of the music. Fast forward a few months and I'm buying Earl Scruggs albums and lots of other roots of bluegrass type stuff."
I then turned to Sam Bush. I was curious what drove him to the progressive side of bluegrass music. "It really is a matter of growing up around bluegrass style music, or country music in general. This is music about playing it the way you feel and obviously certain things are traditionally handed down in certain styles. So I learned certain fiddle tune styles, but also at the same time you have to realize that while I was watching country music shows and Grand Ole' Opry shows as a kid, I was also watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. At the same time I was lovin' bluegrass, I was also (when I was in high school) playing electric guitar in rock bands. It was all just music to me. I don't really think about what type of music it is or what genre it is it. It just either appeals to me or not." Sam told me.
We know that bluegrass music is changing, we know what's motivating and driving the progression, but what will be the next innovation? "I don't have much of a clue. You have so many sub-genres within bluegrass. Newgrass, Jamgrass, Jazzgrass, the Classical Grass of the Punch Bros., etc... I would hope more and better songs." Tim said.
"... Besides anything technical like better gear to get acoustic instruments to sound better through huge PA systems or something like that, I really think that the only innovation can be in the creative process. I think the only big change or innovation that I can see happening is people putting their own creative stamp on the music and therefore making it different than anything before it... While the traditional folks probably won't admit it, and you might get crucified for saying it at the IBMA conference, Yonder Mountain String Band has done more for bluegrass than any other band in a long time. They are the new Old and In The Way in that they turn huge amounts of people onto bluegrass music who may have otherwise never discovered it." Professed Anders.
I wondered what Yonder Mountain's Jeff Austin thought? "As long as bands like the Stringdusters continue to get respect, I have hope." He went on to say "I don't play in a bluegrass band, so I feel weird having an opinion either way."
"I personally think people should relax. It's that super smart shit that will destroy the vibe of community music... Can't wait for Justin Bieber's grass record myself." Vince told me.
After all of the insight, I felt better about the security and productive continuation of bluegrass music as a whole. I wondered what it would take for some of the defenders of tradition to see the light and value in the increasing popularity of their music based on change, adaptation, innovation, and ultimately in the end; respect. It seems counter productive to deny or turn a blind eye on innovation. What some view as the downfall of traditional bluegrass music, may in the end be it's savior.