This past week, the talented teenage bluegrass performer Carson Peters was eliminated from competition on the music-reality show The Voice. Sad, but what can you expect? The judges, even country star Blake Shelton, are all expecting the next Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding to come on stage looking like a cute white kid.
A few years back, bluegrass band Mountain Faith competed on another entertainment-reality show, America’s Got Talent. The judges were impressed, even the arrogant a-hole Howard Stern (sorry, I just do not like that man). Of course, the band did not make it to the finals.
So why do I bring these situations up? For two reason. First, we bluegrassers need to accept that the rest of the music listeners will always look at bluegrass as a novelty genre. Like polka, tejano, and other culture-centric forms of music, the mainstream music industry looks down on these formats. The possible exception to this is Celtic, with the popularity of Lord of the Dance and other Broadway-type shows highlighting this music. However, in those cases, much of the raw tradition was watered down and reworked with pop-music ingredients (pop arrangements, physically attractive performers, etc.) to make them accessible to the mass audience.
Last week, Billy Strings and his band appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. They sounded great, but they were dressed totally out of the norm. I am used to seeing the band in their usual laid-back jeans and t-shirts. This time, they were wearing Western-style suits and big ol’ cowboy hats. Yes, the song “Red Daisy” that they performed was a lot more traditional bluegrass than their usual fare (and they killed it!), but the look was too hokey! It seemed like they were forced by the show’s producers to wear the suits. They looked a bit uncomfortable, but they got through it. Who knows? Maybe they will start wearing them on stage more often.
This leads to my second reason. Should bluegrass bands and artists succumb to the whims of pop music standards just to get noticed? Did Peters or Mountain Faith really need to go on those reality shows? Knowing how the judges are, and how America’s taste in lousy music is, even Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs in their prime would have never made it past the semi-finals.
The real good and successful bluegrass acts know who their fan base is, and who got them the success that they have. They also know that they are happy and successful with the success that they have achieved. Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, and Del McCoury have all been loyal to the bluegrass fold. If someone from outside of the bluegrass audience takes notice, all the better! However, these acts have no intention of changing their style just to attempt to appease the pop music audience or executives.
Acts such as Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless have had pop success in the country music field, but they (Skaggs especially) have learned to not get above their raisin’. They have come back to an arms-wide-open bluegrass audience and seem totally satisfied.
Yes, Alison Krauss has achieved pop music success like no one else in the industry. And while her bluegrass side of music is limited with Union Station, it still exists. Some from the bluegrass fold may consider her no longer bluegrass. She is still a bluegrasser in my eyes and thousands of others. She did not attempt to get her foot in the pop music field – her talent and voice were so good that it was the pop music execs that came after her! Moreover, at the beginning of her peak of success in the music industry, rather than continuing to work the pop music end, she instead served a big part in the traditional music movie soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Let’s talk a bit about that album. OBWAT was successful, indeed! At the time, it was receiving no airplay, yet sold over 6 million copies. The radio execs were saying that it was a fluke, despite many listeners calling in requests. Twenty years later, where is bluegrass? It seems that it really was a fluke in the pop music industry. However, this was not the fault of anyone but the radio execs. They pushed that “one-hit-wonder” status on the album so much that listeners tended to believe it, and turned away from bluegrass and the other roots music formats. You don’t hear much about it or any bluegrass music on country radio these days.
In short, bluegrass artists should not water down or surrender to pop music whims just to get noticed. Be happy with the loyal audience that you have. If your talent is really that great, others will notice, just like Billy Strings.
Tonight, I go to see a great traditional bluegrass band that didn’t get above its raisin’, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.
Chew on it and comment.