Categories
Bluegrass Music

Where is the Next Bluegrass Generation?

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.

Categories
Musical Instruments

Lutherie: My Coronavirus Stay-At-Home Therapy

Last week a buddy asked me to check out a mandolin online that he was considering buying. I gave him the pros and cons, and he eventually passed on the deal due to the asking price for its condition. That got me motivated back into one of my old hobbies – basic lutherie, or stringed musical instrument repair, building and maintenance. Ever since my first bass guitar (a Magnum short-scale Jazz copy that I re-wired with a 3-band EQ), I’ve always loved working on guitars and other stringed instruments.

I could kick myself that I did not pursue that interest when I was younger. I always saw myself with a small guitar shop that people would come to try out my work and perhaps have jam sessions on a Friday night. But alas, I went the college route, got a degree that proved useless, and have bounced around at various white-collar jobs ever since.

However, I continued my love on a small scale throughout my life, repairing electric guitar electronics, minor amplifier jobs, building effects pedals, and stringed instrument setups/maintenance. After the above talk with my buddy, I got to thinking that, because of this stay-at-home virus situation, I should do some basic lutherie work again. All of my current instruments are in good shape, and as I have mostly acoustic instruments, there’s not a lot of electronic work to do.

I went on eBay and found a Rogue A-model mandolin that needed some work done on the back of the body. I bid on it, my highest price being something that I thought no one would come near as the mandolin’s shipping cost was pretty high. I won the auction, and the total cost came out to about what would be average – $41.95 – not a bargain, but not killing the wallet either.

The mandolin arrived a few days later via FedEx, and when opened, I got to see the actual damage. About 1/3 of the back had snapped out of its joining with the side, which made it look like either the back or the side was shaped wrong. Inspection showed that the glue joint was bad, very little glue was used, and the wood joints were dry. At first I thought that I would have to re-cut that part of the back and glue in a 2nd piece, making it look like something the Three Stooges would have built.

Fortunately, before I pulled out the tools, I wedged my fingers into the soundhole, flexed the back a bit, and it snapped back into place. I carefully removed that part of the back again, put in some hide glue, re-snapped it in, clamped it, and let it dry overnight. Voila! It held, and all that I have left is to clean off some glue residue, check for any rough spots on the finish around the repair site (it may need some sanding and re-laquering in spots), and re-install the bridge for set-up.

This has motivated me to go back to eBay, and the internet in general, to start looking for repairable guitars, mandolins, and violins. It’s not that I want to have an arsenal of low-end stringed instruments, no way! What I would like to do is repair them and make them available to kids that want to learn bluegrass and folk music on the cheap. Making a non-playable guitar playable again is an emotional reward. I don’t see me making even a part-time wage from this. And even this simple repair and maintenance stuff takes time and some money.

It has got me to thinking that perhaps I could help start some form of non-profit group that repairs string instruments and donates them to a charitable music organization such as Junior Appalachian Musicians, which helps teach music to kids (if you haven’t heard of this group, you need to check them out at www.jamkids.org). Or perhaps starting a JAM type group in my area (I have discussed this idea with the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, as well as local multi-instrumentalist Aaron Jonah Lewis). Or at least do it on my own one instrument at a time. Hopefully some of the free time I have now can be used to research such an idea.

I would love to see young people in my area spend a lot less time by themselves in the basement playing XBox and more time with others (hopefully with a lot less social distancing) creating art and music. With technology taking over our everyday lives, now more than ever, I would hate to see creativity and socializing become a thing of the past.

Chew on it and comment.