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.