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.