“There is a difference between rock and rock & roll; beware of inferior imitations (avoid contact with any musician who doesn’t know how to play Chuck Berry music).
– Cub Koda (The Book of Rock Lists)
Ask 100 bluegrass fans to define “bluegrass” and you will probably get 101 different answers. Some are reference book styled that are definitely written by someone who has never really been to a bluegrass festival (check out this computer female voice defining the music on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9EVJOLSfhQ). California fiddler Kat Bula goes on and on in her 13+ minute video to describe bluegrass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCC3XPEx7D4&t=167s), of which I personally disagree with a lot of her statements. There are many other definitions out there on the internet, be it a blog, video, or excerpt from one of tons of books on music.
But why does bluegrass need a concrete definition?
Define a “house.” Four walls? Roof? Doors, windows? But if you gave a dozen people a pencil and paper, and told them to draw a house, there would be 12 different interpretations. So, it is the same for bluegrass.
What gets my goat is the fact that so many people attempt to make these concrete definitions, even in the most minute form, to state what bluegrass is:
- It must have a banjo (and only Scruggs style)
- It should not have an electric bass
- No drums
- No horns
- Singing must be that high lonesome sound
- (Insert your favorite bluegrass gripe here)
Yes, in 1945, Bill Monroe had “something” when he walked on stage with Lester, Earl, and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys. It would knock everyone who was listening on their butts. But he didn’t call it bluegrass at the time. It took more than a decade for the term to get established by people in the music biz so that they could market it as such. Once that happened, bands suddenly were or weren’t bluegrass, despite how audiences reacted previously.
Bluegrass isn’t baseball. It shouldn’t have a certain amount of players or use specific instruments to make it acceptable to go forward. Bluegrass, like really any musical format or genre, is based on the attitude and emotion it creates and how the listener reacts to it. Bluegrass can include guitar, banjo, mandolin and so forth, but there are plenty of instances where those “rules” are broken and the “feeling” of bluegrass is still there. How many times did Dr. Ralph Stanley sing a capella? How many times did you hear Doc Watson play solo or maybe with a second guitar? Some would argue that these instances are NOT bluegrass, but don’t these instances bring forth the same listener emotions and responses as the typical bluegrass band performance?
Bluegrass music, like any art form (be it music, painting, sculpture, architecture, or whatever) has styling, but should never be put into a concrete position. It should be allowed to continually grow and experiment. Bill Monroe tried accordion and xylophone into some of his recordings. The Osborne Brothers had drums and electric instruments throughout the 1970s. One of my favorite “bluegrass” bands of today, the Steep Canyon Rangers, has a percussionist. If it weren’t allowed to grow, the dobro would not be a part of it. Nor would lead breaks by guitars be acceptable. Pickups on instruments, even the use of separate microphones for each band member, would be prohibited. What about the songs? If the subject matter wasn’t dealing with a farm or coal mine or mama praying, it would be scrapped.
In short, the bluegrass society needs to stop putting the music into a box. It should be allowed to breathe, try different sounds, explore outside of the three chords. Who cares if there’s no banjo? As long as it still moves me the same way other bluegrass songs do, then it’s bluegrass. Try to refrain from using the words “must,” “should,” “never,” and “supposed to” when talking about bluegrass music.
Chew on it and comment.