A few years ago, when I was still part of Leadership Bluegrass, I was involved in an online discussion with other members about bluegrass bands performing original versus cover material. The discussion led to the band the Earls of Leicester. I stated that I would compare what they are doing to what tribute bands like Beatlemania are doing. I then received lots of backlash for my statement, after which I asked what the Earls are doing in relationship to Flatt & Scruggs compared to what Beatlemania (or any other Beatles tribute band) is doing with the Beatles’ music and image.
I never got a definitive answer, only that it is a different situation. I stood by my statement, and still do. I left Leadership Bluegrass shortly thereafter for other reasons. However, this is just one of many ideas that leaders in the bluegrass industry tend to keep a closed mind to. What’s wrong with the Earls being labeled a tribute band?
Dobroist Jerry Douglas purposely formed the Earls as a tribute to the 1950s-era lineup of Flatt & Scruggs. The members of the Earls also serve in other bands doing original material. The Earls dress the part, play only those songs that F&S did during that time, and even take on the vocal inflections of the original singers. The Earls won the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award at least once, and for good reason – they are extremely entertaining! However, to put them in the same category as, say, the Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, or Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder is apples and oranges. These other bands are performing mostly original material with a traditional sound. It would be wrong to think of the Earls as moving bluegrass into new territory.
There is nothing wrong with tribute bands. Besides the Beatles and Elvis, there are hundreds of other tribute bands imitating (aurally and visually) such artists as the Rolling Stones, the Smiths, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra and many others. These tribute bands give the audience a different kind of escape. They help some people remember what it was like with a past musical experience, or show off to others what they may have missed the first time it came around. They are living versions of old photographs or concert films. They are imitators, many excellent at what they do, but are not originals. For the most part, they accept that.
The problem is when I see professionals in the bluegrass music industry, those who should realize the importance of their positions as they relate to bluegrass music fans, that do not look at if from this perspective. The Earls won a Grammy a few years back. Why? A recording of a dozen or so songs originally done by F&S re-done nuance for nuance like the original should not be considered pushing the genre forward. Yes, the Bluegrass category for the Grammys is not that big of a deal in the overall music industry, and those that voted most likely didn’t recognize the other nominees. But part of that is the fault of the promoting from within the bluegrass industry.
I hope that promoters of bluegrass will start looking at originality as a major factor in giving attention to bluegrass talent. It is the one way that others will see how much we want bluegrass to be a viable and competitive format going forward.
Chew on it and comment.