I hope that all of the readers are having a safe and peaceful Thanksgiving. I’m putting this blog out a bit early because I’m just sitting around lazily on this holiday. I had AMAZING pie from my friend Nik Sanches who owns Rock City Eatery in midtown Detroit. These pies are works of art. The chocolate pumpkin was pure Heaven. If you are in the Detroit area and want a pie for Christmas that will take you over the top, contact Rock City Eatery at the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rockcityeatery/.
OK, now down to business.
There will always be the continuing argument about “what is bluegrass.” Many will tell you that it isn’t bluegrass unless it has a banjo and upright bass. I will be the first to debate that, as I feel that bluegrass music is not a physical structure, but a structure of the heart and soul. Bluegrass is more about the feeling that it gives the listener, whether it be the lone guitar and vocals of Doc Watson, or a full-blown Flatt & Scruggs type ensemble.
This leads me to my feeling of what is “not” bluegrass, despite the physical structure. For the past dozen years or so, CMH Records out of California (https://www.cmhrecords.com/) has put out a Pickin’ On series of recordings that cover various pop, rock, and country artists and put them in what it feels is a bluegrass format. At this time, CMH has 73 albums offered with this series, and a true bluegrass fans will definitely scratch their heads as to why the record company would waste the time and energy with most of the titles.
The series started with typical choices to cover, such as the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. However, it soon became what seemed to be an obsession. Albums covering Metallica (which became its second biggest seller), Creed (really?), John Mayer (you are kidding?), and Taylor Swift (Jeez, there’s even a volume 2!) have popped up. WTF?!?!? A bluegrass tribute to Swift? Who buys this stuff, let alone listens to it? I never heard any of these cuts when I had Bluegrass Junction on SiriusXM, nor on any of the bluegrass programs that I catch on the radio. In all honesty, it sounds more like a bluegrass ensemble (yes, banjo and upright bass) trying to be hip by showing off that they know all of these tunes.
I’ve punished myself by listening to some of these tracks. About 10% could qualify as palpable bluegrass tunes. The remainder literally sound like bad experiments, or at best, acoustic interpretations of pop songs BUT NOT BLUEGRASS. The following is an example that led to this rant. A few weeks ago, I was on YouTube when this video came up as a recommendation:
A cover of the A-Ha pop hit “Take On Me.” Uh, OK. So it has the same instrumentation as one would find with a bluegrass ensemble. However, where is the theme that most bluegrass songs have (lonesome feeling, mother, coal mines, farming)? Where is either the 2/4 clogging tempo or the 3/4 country waltz? And if you are going to tell me that falsetto at the end of the chorus is the “high lonesome” sound, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell you. Seriously, if a bluegrass band were to perform this to a traditional bluegrass audience, the best that they would get is stares, if not heckles. On the flip side, most jamgrass audiences would consider it a joke (I could be wrong, but try me).
In short, if one is going to put up the argument of “it ain’t bluegrass unless it has a banjo,” then one can easily offer up that “just because it has a banjo doesn’t automatically make it bluegrass.”
Chew on it and comment.
RIP Hal Ketchum.