Friday, May 27, 2011

Big Tent Or 3 Ring Circus?

With the announcement of the IBMA's Bluegrass Nation project, there has been a great deal of talk about the nature of bluegrass, & the concept of the "big tent".

The traditionalists would argue that Bill Monroe's 1949 Opry performance was the Big Bang of bluegrass music.  All bluegrass should thus be modeled after this performance -- from instrument selections (mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle) to song selections (chosen from traditional sources or a limited repertoire of original material).

As is so often the case, this is in fact a rather selective viewing of the historical record.  Musicians firmly within the bluegrass pantheon broke the rules as they saw fit.  Drums!  Accordions!  Beatles songs!

The "Big Tent" advocates argue that for the health of the genre, there should be recognition of music further down the branches, away from the traditional roots of the bluegrass tree.  Let all the cousins sit at the dinner table, it's not just for the nuclear family.  The argument is that embracing the younger, more tangential bluegrass influenced artists will ensure the continued vibrancy of the form as well as winning new fans for the traditionalist bands.  The active fan bases for artists like Yonder Mountain String Band or the Avett Brothers would not only learn about the influence of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers et al., but would be given a real reason to explore the world of traditional bluegrass.

While this idea has been embraced by such prominent musicians as Ron Block & Chris Pandolfi, the traditionalists are, in the words of Rose Tyler "not amused".  But why?  While their rhetoric says they only care about the purity of the musical form, a look at the history of the situation indicates other factors may be more significant.

As mentioned earlier, there is a convenient collective amnesia about the more experimental recordings of the bluegrass patriarchs.  And there is a gradual acceptance of recordings into the canon that were at best transgressive upon their release.  For example, in the 1970s JD Crowe recorded with drums, electric bass and steel guitar.  Was this a country band with banjo & mandolin?  Given the musical lineage of the band members (& the undeniable quality of the music), these recordings are accepted into the bluegrass canon.  Tony Rice's Manzanita album is another example.  Fully acoustic, yet -- shockingly-- there is no banjo!   Yet this is accepted as part of the bluegrass canon, even by the "you must have the 5 string banjo to play the bluegrass music" crowd.  (In fact, Manzanita is used as the exception that proves the rule.)

So if the traditionalists do in fact show fluidity regarding the actual music, what then is the real issue?  Why such strong reactions?  Could it in fact be more about culture than music?

To be continued.