Sunday, December 15, 2013

Change or Die, Musically Speaking

Recently we abandoned the term "bluegrass' from our band description and decided to not add many more bluegrass tunes to the music set, but instead freely indulge in the new, creative outlets that have always thrilled us as musicians, regardless of whether or not we will doom ourselves to poverty by not playing by the rules, never to play another festival. Of course, some of these creative outlets may occasionally sound a lot like bluegrass, but that is simply because bluegrass has a lot of potential for awesome, has been awesome in the past, and we do happen to like awesome. However, bluegrass is having some growing pains, and some of that is because very many want it to freeze in time, applying a lot of rules to the sound in order for this to happen. I understand why, and sympathize with their reasoning, but as a family and a band, we do not have those same goals.

Last night during our Christmas show (which is further away from bluegrass than our standard set), an older gentleman asked if we do bluegrass, because he loves bluegrass. We said we do about half bluegrass during our regular sets. He proceeded to tell us about how he's been to so many bluegrass festivals but the young artists coming up keep trying to change it and he feels like it's getting away from its roots. He doesn't like that. 

I am personally glad to see the diversity the big labels are starting to embrace, but sadly, the opinion of this gentleman appears to be the predominant opinion among a lot of small bluegrass festivals and promoters on the local level, which shuts us out, because we never had a desire to sound like Bill Monroe. He was revolutionary, but his followers have now refused to allow that same revolutionary creativity among his progeny. 

A recent festival we attended had four headline bands, consisting of all middle age men, and all with a very similar sound. I honestly could hardly tell them apart unless I was looking at them and listening near the stage. We will never manage to be a headliner in a place like that, unless we get much better at conforming. The festival promoter knew this tendency we had and wanted to be sure that we would use our time on stage to play *bluegrass*. Don't pull out a fife, a hand drum, or anything modal, or do anything prior to the 1940s, and do not do anything too far after that either, unless it follows the rules. Sigh. We mostly complied. Ok, we sneaked in the fife once and did an artistic modern arrangement of a historical tune, but it was only 450 or so years off the date and we didn't do any Irish reels!  

I do understand that one must have a sold, basic sound or the audience really doesn't know what they're getting from one song to the next. We do, actually, which is probably why we never got that old time bluegrass sound right, because our bluegrass sounds a lot like that artistic modern arrangement of the four-hundred-and-something-year-old tune. Our reels all end up molding into the sound too, so I'll expect a big snub from the die-hard Irish folks as well. We're used to it by now. 

Well, are the new kids pushing it too far and ruining bluegrass? I can't help but to think, "DUH." Why would he expect the new generations to want to get frozen in time, never allowed to grow, expand, and create, in the same way your generation was allowed? You don't have to like their stuff. Heck, I can't stand half of what I hear on the radio, and that's strictly from the sound, even minus the common immoral lyric issues to which I object. Even so, I don't ask them to fit into my old box. Who wants to keep the sound of Duran Duran and David Bowie anyway? Once was enough, thanks. Long live the 80s. 

Folk music has always been far more open. There are over 100 variations of the old folk song Barbara Allen that can be downloaded from the Smithsonian archives. New music lovers would adopt the wonderful tune and make it their own, then share what they came up with. 

I remember reading about how Bach's music was largely forgotten within a generation of his life. His own sons, two of them being quite respected composers, didn't bother playing his music. They wanted to create their own. Thank goodness they didn't, because had their generation stuck with his style we would never have had Mozart. Many tried to freeze the style popular during Mozart's life, but thankfully Beethoven ignored that and busted out on his own, leading too all kinds of mischief by many Romantic composers. Some stinkers later showed up in the 20th century, (Schoenberg anyone?), but you can't blame Bach's son for that. We're thrilled Bach lived, and we're thrilled some people still love to play Bach. I love Bach. Sean loves Bach. The rest? Not so much, but I don't really expect them to just play music like Bach. Go find your own amazing. One Bach was special. Generations of Bach is just sad.

One Bill Monroe was special. Generations of Bill Monroe is just sad. 

Some people who know we've dropped bluegrass from our band description (though not completely from our sound and set lists) ask what we play now. I say we play "American Acoustic Music". Most of our music is from the varied sounds of America, a country rich with diverse sounds, and all of our music uses acoustic instruments. Maybe someday we'll create our own specific genre though. Wouldn't it be great to be like Bill Monroe after all? 

1 comment:

  1. I'm excited or you guys, as you forge a new path. I think it is interesting that we can all pick out music according to its decade, up till now. 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s music all had a distinct enough sound that you could nearly always say, "Oh! That's from the 60s" even if you'd never heard the song before. I'm hearing some new stuff, but most of what I hear on the radio seems to mimic a prior style. I don't mean mimic in a "retro" kind of way, but in a "This is the music I grew up listening to and I don't know how to create anything different" kind of style.