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Americana Music Bluegrass Music Music Industry

Billy Strings & The Grammys / Tom Stevens RIP

The Grammys were last week, and guitarist Billy Strings won the Best Bluegrass Album Category for his recording Home. I don’t watch the Grammys, but I congratulate him winning the award. He totally deserves the recognition.

So as expected, there would be those that claim an amount of unfairness. When the news was posted on the Bluegrass Today website (https://bluegrasstoday.com/2021-bluegrass-grammy-winner-announced/), there were a few that stated that, not only was Billy Strings NOT bluegrass, but neither were the other nominees. That list included:
Man On Fire – Danny Barnes
To Live In Two Worlds, Vol 1 – Thomm Jutz
North Carolina Songbook – Steep Canyon Rangers
Home – Billy Strings
The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol 1 – Various Artists

The complaint was that there were no “real” bluegrass artists in the list. Of course, the debate began, with about an even amount of Billy Strings is/isn’t bluegrass. I sided with the “is” party, mostly because I feel that I have a bigger acceptance of what the format entails. There will always be the debate of what instruments can or cannot be included in a bluegrass ensemble. Some feel that if there is no banjo, or if there is an electric bass, or if there is any type of percussion or keyboard, then it is not bluegrass.

I look at bluegrass not as a structure, but as a feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of bass is playing in the background, or if there is a banjo on the song. A bluegrass song moves me in a different way that a rock song, or a blues song, or a jazz song moves me. Doc Watson played guitar either solo or with his son Merle. What Doc kicked out may not be bluegrass to some, but it sure was to me.

My problem with what one person said on the discussion was that others knew nothing about bluegrass, including calling out another participant who has won numerous awards for his bluegrass songwriting and journalism work. This person continued to state certain ideas, then a few entries later would say that he never said that. He continued to post statements that only a few people know what bluegrass is, and that others just follow bad examples.

Bluegrass music, in fact, all music, is not mathematics. There is no definite answer to what is good or bad. There is no definite answer to what bluegrass music is. As I stated in that discussion, no one person, no small group of people, not even organizations such as the IBMA or SPGBMA, can truly define bluegrass music. It is up to the listener. There can “perhaps” be some directional suggestions, such as “may have a three-finger banjo picking” or “lack of drums,” but those should only be suggestions. The Steep Canyon Rangers have a percussionist, yet their songs have a groove that is definitely more bluegrass than any other format. The Lonesome River Band often uses an electric bass. I haven’t heard a single LRB album that cannot be considered bluegrass.

Maybe what Billy Strings is playing, or Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Mile Twelve, or Hawktail isn’t nuance for nuance a Bill Monroe version of a song, but I would hate for that to be so. Do not clip the wings of the young.

I just learned today while writing this that Tom Stevens, bassist for the Long Ryders (one of the best and most underrated bands of the 1980s), passed away in late January. I don’t keep in touch much with my connections in the old days of cowpunk/Paisley Underground, so I am disappointed in myself that I am just learning the news.

If you never heard of the Long Ryders, you should have, especially if you are a fan of the Americana music format. The band was keeping alive that country-rock/electric folk sound in between the days of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons and the early stages of Americana/alt-country of Uncle Tupelo/Jayhawks. They had their fan base in California where they headquartered (although members were form different parts of the country), had cult followings around most of the rest of the US, but were highly revered in Europe. There were a few bassists that passed through the ranks, but Tom was the one that remained closest. He wrote many of the band’s songs as well as shared lead vocals with guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy. His bass playing was totally in the pocket. Tom left the band in 1988, and the band broke up shortly thereafter. They reunited in 2004 and 2019, put out another album, and toured the US and Europe. I stayed in touch with Tom for a while in the 80s and 90s, but as with most relationships in the business, they sometimes drift apart.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see the reunion show here in Detroit two years ago, as I was out of town at a music conference. I am still kicking myself for that. I was able to talk s friend into going to the show, and he was totally floored by the band. They were not flashy, but were straight-ahead rock-n-roll. The band also had a great sense of humor. I was a member of the Long Ryders Fan Club, and upon the breakup, the band sent their fans a cassette called Metallic B.O. (tip of the hat to Iggy Pop), which contained a number of their outtakes, demos, and banter that is just hilarious. I still have that cassette, and I cherish it.

Tom did some solo recordings as well as appeared on other artists’ albums (a lot of his stuff is available on YouTube and other sites). He moved back to his home state of Indiana, got a computer degree and job, raised a family, and became a regular guy for the most part. I do hope that he knows how much his art and talent was appreciated by those who listened. You will be dearly missed, Tom.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Where is the Next Bluegrass Generation?

This weekend I attended a meeting for the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (http://www.smbluegrass.org/). While discussing elections of new board members, we talked about the age relevance of the membership. Of those attending, I was one of the youngest at the meeting, and I’m 55 years old!

Why aren’t younger music fans attracted to bluegrass? There are a lot of negative factors, I suppose. It is not like there are not enough young bluegrass players making names for themselves. Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings and Sierra Hull are three of many that come to mind. However, it also matters how the older crowd reacts to them as well as how they are promoted within the community. The three above can easily perform any bluegrass standard asked of them, but they also look outside of the box, performing more progressive forms of bluegrass, which traditionalists tend to shun. A tree that is not allowed to grow will eventually die.

I have mentioned the Junior Appalachian Musician program (www.jamkids.org) in an earlier blog, and I must say, this program has its ear to the ground! Right now, JAM has satellite programs throughout the Tennessee/Virginia/South Carolina/North Carolina area. However, programs like this need to be in other areas of the country where bluegrass is popular (Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northeast, California). Young students would truly appreciate people who take the time to teach them music as well as encourage them to learn about their culture.

It could be that bluegrass still has that stigma of being “old folks music.” The stigma is heightened usually by these older people turning a cold shoulder to the younger crowd. I used to see it a lot when I attended a monthly jam session in Flint, Michigan years ago. I haven’t been there in years, and hopefully the attitude has changed. But in all honesty, I don’t see much of that “transfer of knowledge” from older generations to the next. I am always reminded of that scene from Fahrenheit 451 in which an older man on his deathbed is reciting the book that he memorized to a child so that the child can continue the book’s importance.

How many older bluegrass musicians are actually sitting down with a youngster to show him/her the beauty of the bluegrass sound on a guitar, banjo, or mandolin? Does apathy live in the senior, the youngster, or both? One can learn to play an instrument from hundreds of videos, either purchased or on YouTube. There are thousands of teachers at music stores. Of course, that costs money, and are you getting a bluegrass guitar teacher or one that teaches rock, jazz, blues, classical and other genres? Whatever happened to the joy of seeing a student successfully learn and play an old folk or bluegrass song and that serving as payment received?

With the Coronavirus pandemic still hanging above our heads, festivals that include workshops are pretty much cancelled for the summer and into the fall. Social distancing is another thorn in the side as far as teaching music. We cannot let these evils kill any enthusiasm that may come from an interested youngster with bluegrass music. We need to do what we can to encourage the younger generation that appreciates bluegrass music. It could be free basic lessons, free performances, showing them a bluegrass documentary and helping with references, setting up jam sessions just for kids, but mainly, showing how great the music really is.

It is rare that these youngsters will actively search out bluegrass mentors. They have that comfort zone of sitting in a basement and playing video games when not in school. We as the mentors have to be the active ones! Make yourself available, look for ways to get their attention (flyers posted at music stores or strip mall bulletin boards), reward those kids that DO show an interest and improve on themselves. These kids will decide the future of bluegrass music.

With that said, I want you to see this video of my friend Brittany Haas, along with Lauren Rioux, showcasing a young fiddler named Claire.

Chew on it and comment.