Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Bluegrass: A History" & Why People Say Bluegrass Isn't Dance Music (Part 1)

Exploring the contentious relationship between bluegrass music fans and dancing.

One of the things I love about the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) conference is how much it reminds me of a large family reunion. A large group of people who are, in many cases, seemingly involuntarily connected to this community of folks who are all connected by a deeply ingrained musical commonality. Everyone there loves "bluegrass" but what "bluegrass" "is" is different for each of them. Because of this, the bluegrass community is peppered with phrases that can trigger extremely contentious arguments in a matter of seconds.

It's difficult to not sound arrogant when making these broad generalizations. If I've learned anything from all of the research I've done it is that "bluegrass" is a moving target full of paradoxes and contradictions. While some people believe that bluegrass should be very rigidly defined and others believe that it should be a completely open definition, I sit somewhere in the middle. And with topics like the relationship between dance and bluegrass, I think there is a strong historical basis for opinions that are and always will be contradicted by exceptions. 

Hippies dancing at Smithfield, Virginia, Pickers' Convention in 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Scottish Traditional Music" and How to Preserve Bluegrass (Jams, Contests, Festivals, and Regional Diversity)

Here's the book I read for this post that will henceforth be most be referred to more casually as "the book"
It might seem incongruous to analyze a book about Scottish music in this bluegrass history blog. But bluegrass music is largely influenced by Scottish music brought to America and many old Scottish tunes have become common in the States today. Bill Monroe was of Scottish descent (though he learned to play music from his very Dutch mother and her side of the family). [Smith] Tunes, fiddling traditions, and ballads that were brought over from Scotland helped to create the musical landscape that birthed bluegrass.

Speaking of Scottish tunes, I'm introducing a new feature with this post. I've created a playlist of music associated with this topic. It's mostly songs or groups that are mentioned by name in the book. For this post there's a lot of great traditional Scottish music. It really is beautiful and unique and worth checking out. It's on Spotify which I know some people especially in roots genres don't like using. I intend to write a brief essay explaining why I think it is acceptable to use streaming services despite the low payout to artists, especially in this case. The short version is that this is for research. The chance of you buying a record of Scottish traditional music on your own is almost zero at the moment, but if you hear something you like, you might buy that song or even the whole record or maybe you'll go out and find something similar that you like. It will expose many new people to music they might not otherwise have heard, much less bought. The link is below.

It's post number two and I'm still working out how to not write so many words. This post, believe it or not, was edited down. For the next posts, I'll try to narrow in even more on a very specific topic so I can try to make these reads a little more manageable.

The conclusion essay is much much longer than the book analysis and goes into various topics related both to my personal experiences learning bluegrass as a child and some preservation efforts mentioned in the book.

Oh also, I procrastinated while writing this by creating a proper bibliography. You can find that at the end of my essay.

Before we get into the article I'd like to thank all of the people whom I interviewed for this post. I wasn't able to use information from everyone in the final version but I really wanted to thank you for being so accommodating. Your input was very enlightening and meaningful. Megan Lynch (in addition to being one of this blog's editors) runs some really really excellent music camps in Nashville with her husband Adam. Isaac Callender used to play bass in Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, but has recently gotten married and is playing more fiddle of the smaller variety. Lori King is the executive director of the Bluegrass Music Association of Iowa and plays bass in Lori King and Junction 63. They recently won many awards at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) Midwest conference, including Vocal Band of the Year and Promoter of the Year for BMAI. Wyatt Harmon also won at SPBGMA Midwest this year and is now the two-time consecutive Bass Player of the Year.  C.J. Lewandowski has recently started the Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association to help revive knowledge and interest in the unique and once thriving Missouri bluegrass scene. They are currently raising money to dedicate a seat in the new International Bluegrass Music Museum Theater to Missouri bluegrass legend, Dub Crouch, who passed away this January. Ian Kimmel is the previous year's SPBGMA Midwest Mandolin Player of the Year and is currently attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Helen Foley is a member of the IBMA youth council committee and is an active member of the California bluegrass scene. Thomas Cassell is a student at ETSU and is the 2016 RockyGrass Mandolin Champion. Alan Tompkins is the founder of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, which runs a number of events in Northern Texas as well as doing community outreach especially for children interested in bluegrass. Jake Workman has won more contests than I can count and is currently playing guitar for Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Stephanie Jones from SPBGMA was kind enough to talk to me about the origins of SPBGMA following the death of its founder, her father Chuck Stearman, this past year.

As always, thank you for reading and showing an interest in what I have to say. If you'd like to help me out through donations, check out the "how to donate" page and if you haven't already signed up for the mailing list make sure to do that. And let your friends know if you think this is something they'd be interested in!

(People have had trouble signing up for the list. I think it might be rejecting autofill, so you'll have to actually type your e-mail address into the box. Sorry for the minor inconvenience.)

What I Thought About the Book

Scottish Traditional Music by Nicola Wood is a brief, pocket-guide introduction to the history of Scottish folk music. It's the kind of thing you would buy in the airport at the beginning of your vacation to Scotland in 1992.

It is published and seems to be part of a series by Chambers' Mini Guides, which, apparently, produced a wide variety of pocket guides for things relating to Scotland, i.e., whisky, folklore, witchcraft, castles, etc. Nicola Wood's Goodreads page would suggest that she's not a particularly well-known author, but has written a variety of nonfiction books about a wide array of topics. For what it is, it is actually very informative.

It reads fairly easily and has a lot of information about historic and more modern events in the history of Scotland's music. It is broken into sections labeled singing, clarsach, bagpipes, fiddle, and modern times. While this makes it easy to find information about those things, the history of each weaves in and out of each other, so a lot of seemingly contradicting and repeated information is presented, giving a disjointed feeling to the book.

Overall, I was really surprised by how much information was packed into such a short book. Published in 1991, it is a little dated but not so much that it affects anything for our purposes. There are a lot of lyrics and mentions of specific folk songs included in the book as well as some other specific information that you might find interesting if you track down a copy.

I can't seem to find any sort of website for the publisher, but you can buy the book here:

What the Book Was About

It is difficult to document the history of Scottish folk music because of how disjointedly it was collected throughout history. Part of the reason for this is that Scottish folk music was often written and played by classes of people that had remained illiterate for centuries. With no way to write down the music they played, they passed down the songs orally and, in this way, only the best-loved tunes of a generation survived while the others were lost forever. The only exceptions to this are the ballads written by professional bards. Bards were employed by clan chiefs and through writings about these chiefs we have knowledge of some ballads and their composers from as early as the 12th century. Bards were expected to undergo "an extremely hard training, involving the memorizing of up to 350 poems and stories. The more they could retain, the higher up the bardic tree they rose." [13] Wood cites the dictionary definition of a ballad as  "a simple, spirited poem usually narrating some popular or patriotic story" but then furthers the definition by describing the form as "very long indeed with short verses and often a chorus to allow an audience to participate. The story itself is of paramount importance and the performer did, and does, not distract the audience with an emotional rendition." [6]

Although ballads were always sung, their collection and preservation rarely included the music associated with the story. It's not until the late 19th century when Francis Child releases five volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads that we see traditional ballads in their original form collected consistently with their accompanying music. While this seems unusual, it could be attributed to the belief that the music would have been so well known as to not need inclusion. More likely, however, is the fact that ballads were often collected by the literate upper class as a novelty and the music was considered base.

One of, if not the oldest instruments in the Scottish tradition is the harp or "clarsach," a slightly smaller variety peculiar to Celtic countries. While it is known that there is an ancient harping tradition in Scotland, there is little physical evidence to support this case. Ninth-century stone carvings featuring the harp have been found and there are literary references to the harp as early as the 12th century. Two harps from the 15th and 16th century survive and reside in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and reveal the traditional shape of this instrument. The earlier of the two is the Lamont Harp, which dates from 1464. Most of the information about lowland harping traditions is limited to indigenous ballads of the 16th and 17th centuries as most of the music was, predictably, not written down. This trait, however, contributes to the interesting tradition of blind people often becoming harpers as all of the instruction and music was passed orally. As with the ballad, we know more about highland harp traditions because harpers were often employed to accompany bards in clans and, consequently, their actions were noted in books and records. As time went on the harp was slowly replaced by an instrument that could be more easily heard in large gatherings: the bagpipes.

The Lamont Harp

The full history of the bagpipes is not made particularly clear in the book (it is rather complicated, to be fair). What can be discerned is that the bagpipes, logically, evolved from typical reed pipes that supposedly would have already been in use in Scotland by the beginning of the Roman occupation in 43 A.D. The bagpipes are a bellowed instrument that requires the piper to blow air into and inflate a bag, often a sheep's bladder covered in tartan or velvet and rubbed inside with honey to make it fully airtight. Then the piper applies steady pressure on the bag with their arm to force the air into the pipe on which different notes are made as well as the drone pipes, which, in addition to the continuous flow of air facilitated by the bag, gives the bagpipes their distinctive sound.

While bagpipes today typically have three drones, they started out with just one. The third drone pipe, when it was added sometime in the 18th century, did not gain immediate favor and it's known that single, double, and triple drone versions would have all existed at the same time. When the second drone was added in the 16th century, the instrument had become much louder and while this was its main reason for replacing the harp as the popular instrument for gatherings, its new volume came with disadvantages: There was no way to play the instrument softly. To combat this (in a decision that still confuses me), pipers took it upon themselves to learn more complex pieces. At this time, the pipes were used mostly to play dance music or ceol beag (small music). A "classical" form of bagpipe music, now referred to as piobaireached or ceol mor (big music), is said to have been invented by Donald Mor MacCrimmons (1570  1640). This music was much more complex than the dance music being played and teaching it was a challenge. Staff music notation wouldn't be invented until the 19th century, so the MacCrimmons family is said to have also invented canntaireached, an oral form of education in which "a teacher would use a series of vocal sounds, or vocables, to 'sing' the music to his pupil." What's interesting is that the form doesn't seem to have evolved from something more simple. Because of this, it is suggested that piobaireached might have been complex harp music rewritten for the bagpipes. While the volume and harsh tonality of the modern bagpipes are what makes them distinctive, they were likely a much more mellow instrument early in their life when they just had one drone. This is unlike the history of the fiddle, whose early Irish ancestor was much harsher than what we associate it with today.

The violin and the fiddle are the same instrument but, according to this book, at one time there was a distinction between a violin and a fedyl. Before the history of the modern violin begins, lower class musicians in Scotland were making music on other crude, bowed instruments such as the fedyl, rebid (rebeck), and croud. These cheap handmade instruments earned a poor reputation as they were frequently associated with vagabonds and thieves. The church also had a poor opinion of these instruments and the music (frequently for dances) played on them, often associating them with witchcraft. In fact, the first written record of a reel, a popular dance and style of tune, is found in the prosecution of Agnes Thomson in 1591. She was found guilty of "having danced a 'reill' to the sound of the fiddle" [50] and was burned as punishment. In the later half of the 16th century, the viol arrives, likely from France. this new instrument is bowed like the fedyl but is much sweeter sounding and enjoyed by polite society. The viol was made in three sizes which were the precursors to future instruments: the viola da gamba (bass) the viola da braccio (viola) and the treble or descant viol (the violin). After less than a century, the viol is swept away by the popularity of the now perfected violin. "The first violins were made in Cremona by the Amati family in the 16th century" [50]. Violins were soon coveted and replicated by luthiers in Scotland. The name "fiddle" seems to have stuck, though, and is often used synonymously with "violin". It would seem that the only notable difference is that "fiddle" is more often used when describing an instrument playing music meant to be for dancing.

The violin had been used for playing dance music in Scotland essentially since its arrival thanks to a dance fad amongst the upper class starting in 1640. "Folk-fiddling, in other words, became fashionable, and the musician who entertained drawing-room society had to add Scots tunes to his basic repertoire of Haydn and Corelli." [51] Keep in mind that this high society dancing is much more complex than just bodies shaking on the dance floor. Dance-masters were hired to teach these dances and they most often used a fiddle to play the musical accompaniment. The fiddle's familiar sound made it the first choice to use in public dance performances. The use of fiddle and folk tunes in high society also marked a turning point for keeping a record of the music. Now, rather than having to be passed orally, music is notated by the literate and trained musicians musicians of the upper class and is often put into manuals for new dance masters. Public dance clubs begin to open up in the city and spread to the countryside bringing a love for these dances, and work for fiddle players, with them.

This new interest from the wealthy class in dance music is a big opportunity for both fiddle players and fiddle/folk music. By the mid 18th century, Niel Gow has become one of the first professional fiddle players able to make a living playing dance music. Gow is credited with perfecting what is called the "Scot's Snap", a rhythmic device distinctive to music from Scotland. Unlike the professional, high-class, trained musicians that dominated the court before, Gow was largely self taught. This newly popular fiddle music would soon have a serious hurdle to overcome, though. A failed rebellion against the British crown would threatened the ability to create folk music in Scotland.

The failed rebellion of 1745 led to the Disarming Act of 1746 which, in addition to other restrictions including highland dress, banned all instruments of war including bagpipes "as highlanders seemed to habitually go into battle to its sound." [42] Two remarkable situations managed to keep folk music alive until 1782 when the Disarming Act is repealed. Research suggests that puirt-a-beul, or "mouth music" first emerged as a response to this threat to the preservation of folk favorites still largely transmitted orally. Puirt-a-beul is a technique for singing tunes originally written for the fiddle or the pipes. Pipes and fiddles did not fully disappear during this time, though. Fiddles and their music were still found in court and pipes found a place in the army. Despite the nature of the Disarming Act, "since the even less successful rebellion in 1715, there had been semi-official groups of Highlanders paid to keep vague order by hounding their fellow Highlanders, and these groups were now banded together to form official British fighting forces. The first of these was Montgomery's Highlanders, raised in 1757, which had thirty pipers and drummers attached to it; and others soon followed."

The distinction between regional variants of Scottish music is epitomized by the Shetland Isles. These isles, in addition to being separate geographically, have a distinct culture within Scotland likely due to their Scandinavian ties. Shetland was originally part of Norway but was promised as dowry to Scotland in 1469. The annexation did not officially occur until 1612 and the Scandinavian culture is said to linger today. Even within their music there is a strong resemblance to Norwegian "Hailings", some of the oldest dance tunes to be played on the Hardanger fiddle. When mainland reels became immensely popular in the 18th century and the dance tradition of Shetland "muckle reels" was lost, the strong musical distinction of the isles meant that the mainland tunes were often "Shetlandized". "It became impossible in some cases to tell if a tune was [a] traditional Shetland or one that had been adapted." [62] Still, when modernization connected Shetland to the rest of the world, local traditions began to fall out of favor compared to the sounds of the outside world." Ten years into the 1900's saw the islanders with pianos, concertinas, and guitars and beginning to build community halls. It was time for the fiddle to adapt or disappear: … The fiddle became part of a dance-band, which would play waltz and quadrilles as well as traditional dance-music." [62]

Around the turn of the 20th century, despite a wide spread interest in Scottish folk music (within Scotland), there was not a lot of interest in performing it or listening to it in its original form." The bulk of Scottish music available to the public at this time was what Francis Collinson would class as national music, i.e. written expressly for publication." [66] This overly sentimental music would set the scene for a revival of "true" Scottish music inspired by the folk revival brought by Britain from America in the mid-20th century. Now, instead of just untrained fiddlers in dance bands, songs were being "performed and presented for the first time by those who lived the life the songs described". The popularity of these songs about the trials of the working class sung by untrained musicians in regional accents amongst various groups would define this particular revile as "a final acknowledgment that it is all right for everybody, whoever they are, to be interested in folk-music and to meet in the same places to listen to and perform it." [65]

With new technology and new ideas about music and class would come new ideas about performing music. James Scott Skinner, born 1843, would ultimately become the first full-time professional Scottish concert fiddler. A gifted composer and player, despite losing some fingers on his left hand, Skinner would go on to be the first Scottish fiddler ever to be recorded on disc. This new technology would see that "solo fiddling [would] become mainly music to listen to, rather than to dance to, something that persists to this day." [59] (Get this, he actually lost the fingers before he started the fiddle. He was a gardener and, apparently, that's not something you can do after you lose some fingers so he took up the fiddle and became a dancing-master by playing using his right and and strapping a bow to his left hand. This story has a striking resemblance to the theme of a great experimental documentary called "Tie it Into My Hand".) As well as this new era of solo concert fiddlers, a new musical form would be born out of the folk revival in the British Isles. The modern American-folk revival brought both the guitar as a folk instrument and new jazz rhythms to Scotland. The combination of these rhythms and working class songs would come to be known as 'skiffle' which was hugely, albeit briefly, popular in Europe during the 50's. Skiffle music gave a voice to the urban, working-class that would lead to a musical revolution signaling that music and its meaning was no longer reserved for any particular class.

James Scott Skinner

Throughout the 20th century, various musical societies have been formed to preserve and promote the heritage of indigenous Scottish music. Among them is the Traditional Music and Song Association (TMSA), formed in 1966, aimed to promote indigenous arts in everyday life including "organizing festivals, concerts and ceilidhs throughout the country and encouraging the collection and publication of traditional music. … Their energies have been devoted to the whole range of indigenous arts including whistling, diddling, mouth organ and Jew's-harp, as well as the more 'usual' skills." [77] Other, more specific folk art enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to promote their art. In 1903, fearing a decline in the style, the Piobaireached Society was formed with the aim to "publish music, hold competitions and pay for instruction in piobaireached." Interestingly, "they achieved these goals, but they kept such strict control that they almost snuffed out the whole venture. The problem centered on the nature of their rules which had the Society arranging the competitions, publishing the music from which no deviation was allowed and then doing the judging as well. This led, ultimately, to dogmatism and an ever decreasing-number willing to put up with it." Reforms were eventually made and matters improved but people are still sensitive to the perceived elitism of the form today.

Recognizing the importance of instructing children to keep traditions alive in the future, there are now many feisean held throughout Scotland. Inspired by a project started on the island of Barra in 1981, a feis is a summer camp for children that is meant to educate them in traditional arts and is now often used to preserve disappearing Gaelic traditions. Originally, as "islanders had become increasingly anxious about declining interest in the native arts and, faced with an unsupportive local authority, [islanders] decided to initiate … a two-week summer school on the island, [where] tutors were invited from all over Scotland to come and instruct young people, for a nominal fee, in everything from Gaelic song to the whistle." [81] Moreover, it has been suggested that the revival of the house ceilidh will be important for the education of youths. A ceilidh is "a meeting of people in an informal setting, who perform and/or listen to traditional music." Peter Cooke suggests in his essay 'Music-learning in Traditional Societies" that children and youth music education could benefit from the house ceilidh (less formal than the concert version). As Wood says,
"There is no requirement to perform if they are not in the mood, and those who want to perform are encouraged to do so, no matter what their standard is. Here, therefore, is an excellent learning atmosphere for young singers or instrumentalists; they have ample opportunity to study what their elders are doing, in a relaxed and uncoercive environment; they can join in if they feel like it, or go home to experiment on their own with the occasional piece of advice from an adult." [76]
 However these traditions are passed down, it is clear that the 20th century has seen a major interest in folk music both within and outside of Scotland. With the establishment and enthusiasm of these societies, communities, and fans, hopefully, we'll see this trend continue into the 21st century.

TLDR; People have been living in Scotland for so long that it's extremely difficult to track the origins of cultural objects such as musical instruments. We can, however, see the progression, though not locally, of crude instruments like the fedyl (or fiddle) into their modern counterparts (such as the violin). Music was historically passed orally in a folk tradition that only allowed the best or most well-loved material to survive over time. Once a dance fad takes over high-class society, folk music begins to be recorded by people who now have the means and desire to do so. Recording technology eventually changes folk music from something primarily to dance to, to music to listen to. A folk revival, inspired by America, causes a much more focused collection and preservation effort of indigenous music that, despite its increased popularity, is now threatened by globalization and homogenization.


Thoughts on Bluegrass Preservation Part 1 (Jams, Contests, Festivals and Regional Diversity)

As much as anything else, one of the defining characteristic of bluegrass culture seems to be a fear of cultural encroachment that inspires fervent efforts to "preserve bluegrass". Despite the consistent growth of the bluegrass community, the continued appreciation for traditional music, and the ever growing number of young people involved in bluegrass (I could link every word in this paragraph to a young band and still not have enough room), bluegrass fans seem to be convinced that bluegrass music is consistently on the brink of destruction. The perpetuation of bluegrass music is not threatened by a lack of interest in the music or its history. However, bluegrass as a grass-roots culture and folk tradition is threatened by the continued homogenization of the genre and the loss of regional heritage awareness.

While bluegrass, as an inherently nostalgic form of all acoustic commercial country music, did struggle greatly in the late 50's and early 60's following the rise of Elvis and a growing preference in country music towards amplified instruments, cross-over hits, and modernization, it was soon saved by its connection to the folk revival. The traditional music and culture of Scotland has been threatened a variety of times as well but thanks to the efforts of various organizations, traditional Scottish music thrived during their own folk revival and continues to today. While it is my opinion that bluegrass is not in any danger, perhaps we could learn something about preservation by comparing our efforts with theirs. When talking about "preservation", it is important to consider what this term means and what exactly we are preserving. In bluegrass, we have the physical history of bluegrass music (records, instruments, program flyers, etc.) and the cultural legacy (musical style, festivals, jams, etc.).

My impression is that people, generally, are not as concerned about the physical preservation of bluegrass as they are about the cultural. We are fortunate to study a form of music whose history was almost completely captured through recordings and even more fortunate to study it in a time where all discographies and almost all of the recordings are retrievable in seconds from anywhere in the word. Preservation of these cultural artifacts (including music) that are meant for memory institutions (libraries, museums, etc.) can be extremely important ("Grace Koch describes how recordings of Australian Aboriginal music, originally made for scholarship, are now being used as evidence in land claims cases to prove the Aboritines' [sic] rights to their traditional lands.") [Seeger]

However, their preservation can often lead to their demise. Culture is a part of a growing and changing identity and preservation in this sense can only capture a snapshot of a certain point in time. It takes effort from us, those looking to the past, to understand these snapshots in context and apply it to our culture as it exists today. In conversations about our attempts to preserve bluegrass, there is often a tension between maintaining our history and not allowing it to stagnate.

Within bluegrass, the struggle between traditionalists and progressives rages on but rather than an argument about how much we should innovate and how much we should imitate, we often see a contentious argument between those perceived as unwaveringly dogmatic and those perceived as inauthentic and conspiratorial outsiders (interestingly, I'd say both are equally concerned with the preservation of bluegrass but in very different ways). In reality, the history of bluegrass is defined by both tradition and innovation and in my opinion, the preservation (as in the perpetuation) of these traditions, relies on these continued innovations.


One of the unique and intriguing aspects of the modern bluegrass community is the culture surrounding bluegrass jams. While the idea of jamming in and of itself is not unique to and did not originate with bluegrass, the (perceived) low technical threshold combined with the high quality of music created makes bluegrass jams appealing to outsiders. And as anyone who does play music and jams knows, the satisfaction of music creation as a means of connection to a community is very powerful and very fun. The participatory nature of this aspect of bluegrass culture is a powerful tool for the introduction of the genre to new people.

A tradition once hidden in backstage areas, bluegrass festivals in the woods, and behind the closed doors of private parties, the organization of open public jams has become more prevalent in the past 15-20 years. One of the great examples of this is the Lyons Jam held every Tuesday for the past 14 years at Oskar Blues in Lyons, Co. Jams like these usually take place in restaurants, bars (both in this case), coffee shops, etc. These public performances of improvised (though more structured than they might seem to outsiders) music provide what seems like a polished performance to the usual patrons of that business. I used to live in Lyons and would go most weeks in the winter. While talking to some of the regulars, I found out that there were people who heard bluegrass for the first time at that jam who were inspired to pick up an instrument so that they could come to the jam and play. These same people now go to other jams, to festivals and concerts, and are an important part of the bluegrass community.

In addition to being a great place to introduce and educate adults to and about bluegrass, these open public jams are a great place for children to learn. Many of the people I interviewed mentioned weekly jams at places like pizza parlors and coffee shops as part of their early bluegrass experiences and in fact a lot of my early bluegrass training came from a weekly bluegrass jam (seemingly modeled after the Lyons Jam I would later find out). My father and I would drive nearly every Saturday morning up to the Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe, NM for the weekly jam hosted by Sharon Gilchrist. There were usually about a dozen regulars and in the summers there would be what seemed like nearly two dozen more.

As I've traveled, I've noticed different "rules" (unspoken and sometimes very explicitly spoken) about jamming in different parts of the country (an exciting topic that I intend to go into great length about at a different time). I should qualify that this jam, like many in the West (or at the very least the Southwest) are very egalitarian in that the jam moves in a circle. Someone picks a familiar or easy to follow song or tune and briefly describes it, that person starts the song and then leads the jam. In this context that mostly means making sure the adjacent person is paying attention because everyone gets a chance to take a solo, though jammers can pass if they'd like. There are few exceptions to this rule regardless of how many people are at the jam so while most bluegrass songs are usually between 2-4 minutes, at these jams songs can take 10 or 15 minutes to get around the circle. Open means open to all levels so there is a bit of accommodation so everyone is included which often means picking simpler songs and keeping tempos lower than usual. While this might not always sound like the most thrilling environment, it often is pretty exhilarating to perform improvised music with strangers (and eventually, friends). Beyond this, it's an excellent place to learn how to play. I both learned to improvise and gained confidence in my improvisation by watching others and playing at the Cowgirl every week (and I maintain that I learned chord positions so well because I essentially spent two out of three hours playing chords).

In the book, there's a peculiar mention of a similar group event known as a ceilidh. The author's usage is strange because it describes a ceilidh almost like a more formal, performance based jam whereas most information online indicates that at the most basic, a ceilidh is a social gathering but in most modern contexts it could be thought of as more like a barn dance or square dance with a practiced band playing for dancers. [What's a Ceilidh] The book describes a "house ceilidh" rather than the more formal "concert ceildh" as an event where "there is no requirement to perform if they are not in the mood, and those who want to perform are encouraged to do so, no matter what their standard is." [76] This is brought up in the context of creating an environment specifically for children to learn traditional music in a nonthreatening, less formal way than is often taught in schools. "Those who have a gift for music are very fortunate, and should be encouraged; but then so should the less gifted, who in the school setting can be made to feel completely inadequate."

While there is not much in the way of kids learning bluegrass in schools (though not to say there aren't people teaching it in schools. I even played mandolin on two separate occasions in public school orchestras.), the idea of bringing "house ceilidh" ideas into the the world of public open jams is intriguing. I happened to read this section right after someone posted in the local bluegrass Facebook group if there were any jams that were appropriate for her child who was interested in bluegrass, to come and watch but not play. The answer  was a resounding "yes" but here in Denver, we're fortunate to have a massive number of jams happening all over the city every week. Other places, however, are not so lucky.

While I was growing up, I was fortunate to have my Dad to take me to the Cowgirl jam nearly every week. It was an hour long drive away but it was on a Saturday morning and didn't interfere with school. My parents have since divorced and my brother who is still in school has become a pretty good guitar player. He doesn't drive and my mother works full time to support them. There are a couple of jams closer to the house but they happen late on school nights and one of them is downtown. My brother gets by because people like him and support his playing and are happy to drive him to the jams but my point is that while jams provide a really excellent place to learn how to play, few are tailored to actively encourage kids to play (though very few, as in ones in bars at night, would actively discourage them).

While these open jams have and will continue to introduce bluegrass to both kids and adults, they can sometimes, rather than preserve the history and sounds of traditional bluegrass music, create musical traditions of their own. Ira Gitlin offers a very succinct overview of this topic in general in his piece The Parking-Lot Vernacular (PLV) in which he examines the growth of regional bluegrass styles based on jam etiquette and styles rather than a direct lineage from professional bluegrass artists. The folk boom of the 60s and the increased popularity of bluegrass festivals in the 70s (not to mention the considerable influence of Jerry Garcia) led to a situation where for the first time since its creation, people were more likely hearing and learning bluegrass from sources other than first generation bluegrass bands like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs or the Stanley Brothers. Starting here was the phenomenon of people being first exposed to and learning bluegrass in jams like we would eventually see at the Lyons jam. This led to a variety of stylistic changes that Gitlin goes into more detail about but generally says that
"jam-session song arrangements often exhibit features not commonly heard in classic bluegrass recordings. Such features can usually be interpreted as responses to the special requirements of impromptu performance. For example, in recordings, a single break after each chorus (except the last chorus) is the norm, but in jam sessions extra breaks are often inserted in an effort to allow every willing instrumentalist an opportunity to play a solo.... In a similar vein, when jammers play an instrumental piece, it is not uncommon for every soloist to take a turn... before the first soloist gets a second turn. This contrasts with the approach heard on old recordings, in which the starting soloist usually alternates with the other soloists."

The long-term effect of this, in my opinion, has contributed to the belief that bluegrass is "old guys singing the same old songs." The core shared language of parking lot vernacular comes from bluegrass recordings from the 40s to the 60s. A diverse variety of songs exist in this era and have been added to the the bluegrass tradition (in true folk music style where only the best loved pieces survive) but in jams,
"song[s] must be easily learned and played by amateur musicians of average ability. Well over half of all bluegrass songs—some estimates run as high as 80 percent—can be accompanied using nothing more than the I, IV, and V chords (tonic, subdominant, and dominant). This enables a large number of musicians of modest harmonic sophistication to participate competently in jam sessions. In fact, bluegrass players often refer to any chords other than the I, IV, and V as 'off-chords.' .... Many experienced jammers, and even some professionals, cannot reliably and accurately recognize the less common chords, so pieces that use these harmonies are less likely to be learned, and therefore less likely to be played in jam sessions." 
The effect of this, as Ira continues to so accurately put it, is that "professional and semiprofessional musicians performing in ad hoc 'pick-up' bands often resort to the familiar PLV default habit to flesh out their tunes. (Veteran Baltimore dobroist Dave Giegerich has seconded my opinion that this has its roots in jam-session conventions.) It has shown up in commercial bluegrass recordings, too."

When these structurally and harmonically simplified or altered versions of songs enter into the professional world of bluegrass, the stylistic changes can sometimes lead to misconceptions about the "true" nature of bluegrass (this is somewhat inevitably vague in this context. PLV varies with taste and region and therefor some traditions might be closer to bluegrass than others, some might be more technically complex than others. It's hard to make sweeping generalizations about something so broad. For a more in depth look, please check out Ira's paper. It is really wonderful and is part of what inspired me to start learning about bluegrass history).


The idea of folk music competitions is much older than the genre of bluegrass and even after bluegrass is created and established its connection continued to be peripheral for many years. While fiddle and banjo contests have been happening in this country since at least the 1800s [Linn, 3-4. Gibson], instrument contests in conjunction with bluegrass events are a newer phenomenon. There was cross over between the two worlds early on but more in isolated incidents as opposed to their widespread popularity today. Since the creation of the genre, rather than a definitive start point, the creation of a contest tradition within bluegrass was likely a process over time. One of the earliest "bluegrass" contests I know of is the annual 4th of July banjo contest held by Alex Reed at the New River Ranch Music Park just outside of Baltimore.

The park opened in 1951 and the contest began a few years later since at least 1958. Like other older (and Eastern) contests, the decision was made by audience reaction. Stakes were relatively high as they gave away a new Gibson Mastertone five-string banjo to the winner. Professionals competed in the competition too but since audience applause was the deciding factor things usually evened out as they would often root for the underdog and locals often brought out a contingent to pack the audience and cheer loudly. Interestingly, despite an (essentially) definitely bluegrass style banjo being the prize, all styles of banjo were allowed in the contest. Baltimore legend Russ Hooper recalls an instance of a tenor banjo player from a nearby navy base winning the contest and promising to learn how to play the five string by the next year. [Newby, 142]

Some other early points of crossover would appear in 1960 when the Greenbriar Boys (with a different lineup than in this video. I just really like Frank Wakefield's hair in this video), a bluegrass group from New York, won the old time band contest at the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention. Union Grove held a famous and long running fiddle contest as well but this was more in the old time fiddle tradition rather than bluegrass. Other fiddle contests such as the one in Galax, Virginia have long since attracted bluegrass fans and musicians as part of the unofficial parking lot activity. These connections would grow into the crossover seen later.

In 1973 when the Rocky Mountain Festival (later to become RockyGrass) started it featured both band and instrument contests. I couldn't find much information about those early contests and I suspect the instrument contests might have just been a fiddle contest. Still, Mark O'Connor (who by the end of the decade would greatly influence contests, jams, and how people generally approached playing their instruments) won in 1974 and Tim O'Brien (who also by the end of the decade would begin to play with and help establish Hot Rize as one of the greatest Western bluegrass bands of all time) won in 1975 so I think it's appropriate to say that the "cross-pollination" of bluegrass artists and contest players had begun to overlap by this point.

There's often a negative stigma revolving around the mixing of music as art and contests as competitions but the an inherent competitive nature has been attributed to bluegrass through its frequent descriptions via baseball analogies. This isn't nearly as arbitrary as it sounds (Bill Monroe and his band/crew frequently doubled as a baseball team as part of what was effectively a marketing stunt) and Rosenberg uses the metaphor to describe various aspect of closely-knit group events involving high technical skill proficiency.
"Like the music, it was a team activity requiring practiced coordination and a series of standard roles, each with special skills. It too was performed before an audience; the diamond was a kind of stage.The bats and gloves were, like musical instruments, tools of the trade in which young men invested and traded. And [getting to the point] it had a strong element of competition, which according to Bill Monroe (a lover of baseball), was also apart of the music: 'All the way through, bluegrass is competition with each man trying to play the best he can, be on his toes. You'll find it in every group. You'll find it in one group and another group following him. It works that way.They'll still be friends, but they'll work hard to be better than the other.' Like music, baseball was a manly art which held some promise of fame and fortune for the very best and most persistent.'" [Rosenberg 20-21] 
Bill Monroe doubled down on this idea when he started his own Hall of Fame in 1984. He was quoted in Bluegrass Unlimited as saying "I think the bluegrass people, the entertainers, need that... It would give them something to work for". [Smith, 250]

People frequently dismiss this notion of mixing competition and art (and Rosenberg's - maybe tongue and cheek - use of the heteronormitive langue "manly art" subtly betrays the excess of bravado, testosterone, and misogyny in bluegrass) but all of the artists I talked to who played in contests as kids talked about how the competitive aspect is part of what drew them to music to begin with and how the skills they learned in contests training helped them play complex music, like bluegrass, later in their life.

I used to compete almost every year in the Arizona state mandolin championship which ran concurrent to the (or perhaps just "an") Arizona state fiddle championship (which I'll henceforth refer to as "Wickenburg" after the town it's held in.) These contests inspired me (and lots of other young musicians) to work harder and get better. According to the official rules, the purpose of the contest is to "perpetuate traditional and old time country music." [36th Annual] The story about how I started going is a little more complicated but I kept going (or at least every three years) because the prize money was pretty good (my dad won many times over those years). "Prizes are offered to encourage and stimulate contestants to perform at their very best." Before I played bluegrass, I played in contests and the discipline necessary to win provided me with the skills necessary to play bluegrass well later in my life.

Highly decorated (The award categories in fiddle contests are very confusing to me. She's won the National Fiddle Championship seven times in multiple age categories and won the Grand Masters in the traditional division and has been a judge for the nationals.) fiddler, Megan Lynch, shared similar thoughts about the technical proficiency required to play in fiddle contests. "The chops I gained from my contest pursuits have come in handy for an increasingly technically proficient genre like bluegrass" says Lynch, but when asked further about her personal connections with contests and bluegrass, she goes on to qualify that "as far as musically and creatively, I would feel comfortable saying that it worked much more the other way around. Bluegrass helped my contest playing."

The book, as previously mentioned, is rather brief and only gives a superficial glance at a lot of the history. While there might be contests of all different sorts today, the book only historically mentions bagpipe competitions in any detail (fiddle contests are mentioned but only tangentially. There actually isn't a ton of information about the history of Scottish fiddle contests but there is evidence of annual fiddle contests in Scotland as early as 1850 and stories of one-time events even earlier than that [Gibson]).

It's important to distinguish that we're not talking about just regular piping but specifically piobaireachd. Essentially, Piobaireachd is to regular (dance) piping what classical violin is to fiddling. Piobaireachd (or ceol mor, or big music) has, from what I'm to understand, a fairly set structure that is essentially a theme of one of three categories (the salute, the lament, or the gathering) followed by variations of increasing complexity followed by the theme once again [The Piobaireachd Society].

When the Piobaireach Society was founded by pipers in (perhaps unfounded) fear of the decline of ceol mor in 1903 (though their website says 1901), "their aims were to publish music, hold competitions, and pay for instruction in piobaireachd." [Wood, 44] The society was quick to achieve these goals (and continue to, today) but nearly snuffed out the whole venture based on their tight hold on control. According to the book "the problem centered on the nature of their rules, which had the Society arranging the competitions, publishing the music from which no deviation was allowed and then doing the judging as well. This led, ultimately, to dogmatism and an ever-decreasing number willing to put up with it. Reforms were made and the Society began to operate through the Northern Meeting, instead of holding their own competitions. This did improve matters but, as has already been discussed, something of the reactionary spirit remains to this day."

Old time fiddle contests are less strict than these piping contests used to be but there are a lot of rules (at least in the West) and the laid back nature of these events might have been lost in translation as the tradition traveled west. Contests have a long history in the South, mostly as gatherings with informal activities surrounding the event being just as, if not more, important than the contest itself. "Judging was often simply based on a poll of audience reaction; if there were judges they were rarely trained in the fine points of the music .... None of it was taken too seriously; even the contest was just entertainment."

While the informal contests activities still thrive (I'd frequently go back to Wickenburg on years I couldn't compete just to visit with friends and jam. A lot of musians will travel to festivals only to meet up with their friends and jam in the campground and never set foot in the actual festival grounds), the contests themselves can sometimes seem very limited. With strict time limits, tune requirements and an unspoken rule of stylistic choices (that varies contest to contest), these events can seem to be the antithesis of musical events.

Isaac Callender (who is also highly decorated winning 2nd Place in the Grand Master Fiddle in 2011, multiple time state and regional champion, and nationally certified judge), championship fiddler from Montana further explained these regional differences in our interview.
"The Northwest contest scene is what I grew up in and was a direct fallout from the Texas and Oklahoma scene. That being said the Northwest scene definitely is different from the Southern contests. They love their rules in the Northwest and they impose time limits (four minutes) which limits what you can do musically, they sequester the judges, and are a bit more uptight about what you can play.... In Texas contests are much more informal and crowds are more involved, in the Northwest because of time [limits] crowds are discouraged from clapping during the performance. "

Isaac also told me a brief story that sheds some light on overall homogenization felt in contests today.
"Dick [Barrett] was pivotal in the development of the contest style. I was once told by one of the organizers of [the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in] Weiser that Dick changed the whole contest in the 60s because he was the first person to play perfectly. According to him, before that people were very sloppy and had individual styles. When Dick played he was trying to play perfectly in tune, time, and still improvise. The problem with that was that most of his students just learned his improv and didn’t do their own. They only learned the perfection part and not the necessary skills required to make up their own."

Megan Lynch describes being aware of this trade off, even as a child. I asked her whether her inspiration during the contests of her youth was more artistic or utilitarian.
"It was, most likely, a mixture of both. However, I will qualify the artistic side of that answer by saying that I never really focused on creating music that was my own style or interpretation (at least growing up) as much as I was intent on executing my choices perfectly in a competition setting. I learned versions of tunes, note for note, from my heroes and then endeavored to play those versions as perfectly as possible. I made the trade off of creative freedom for guaranteed contest success. It was a calculated choice, even as a child. I was determined to win everything I entered and really enjoyed the strategic nature of that process."

While I've won a few contests, my inability to separate my desire to win from my desire to express myself often greatly limited my overall success. Contests are not the time to play musically clever arrangements of obscure tunes. Contests are the time to string together as many technically impressive variations as you can and execute them perfectly.

It didn't help that in 2011 I met Steven Moore who won the RockyGrass banjo contest that year with such ease playing in a way so dramatically different than I'd ever seen in a contest. He proved to me what I'd heard about people like Dave Peters. It is theoretically possible to play music in a contest and still win. Steven had already won the National Banjo Championship when I met him and would go on to win it again in 2015.

Regardless, it would be ridiculous to say that playing in contests in and of itself somehow stunts musical growth. Megan and Isaac are both wonderful musicians and composers and their work alone would validate that point for me. But there are countless others including one who I grew up playing with in contests. I met Jake Workman when I was probably 12 or 13 and we played against each other in many subsequent mandolin contests (including if not specifically, Wickenburg). Now Jake plays guitar for Ricky Skaggs in Skaggs' band, Kentucky Thunder.

But Jake didn't get started in bluegrass through contests (it was weekly jams, actually). While his competitive spirit and perfectionist attitude tuned him into an amazing guitar player and a great contest player, it was really seeing bluegrass played live at festivals that got Jake interested in bluegrass. "I got a banjo for Christmas when I was 14 and that got me thinking about it and listening to bluegrass a little, but the excitement for it didn't start until I saw it played live.  It was six months after I got the banjo that I was able to see it, and see it done well."


When bluegrass festivals began to appear in the mid to late 60s, they quickly gained popularity. Enough of the interstate highway system had been completed by the late 60s to facilitate traveling long distances and fuel was cheap. A renewed interest in camping and travel put more tourists on the road and facilities began to appear to keep them entertained. Bluegrass festivals provided a camping experience with the family entertainment of live country music and "in April 1973 Mademoiselle [a fashion and lifestyle magazine] included bluegrass festivals in a list of ideas for fashionable vacations" [Rosenberg, 272].

The first multi-day bluegrass festival did feature some elements of premeditated preservation (beyond workshops). The Story of Bluegrass was a special concert and prominent feature of the first multi-day bluegrass festival put on by Carlton Haney in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. A joint effort between Haney, bluegrass enthusiast and historian Ralph Rinzler, and Bill Monroe, the Story of Bluegrass "concert was supposed to show how Bill stood at the center of bluegrass music, interacting with various musicians who added their personal ingredients to it." [Rosenberg, 209]

The Story of Bluegrass concert started with Bill playing Mule Skinner Blues, the first song Monroe performed on the Opry, with original Blue Grass Boys guitar player, Clyde Moody. The show then continued on with the band changing in chronological order playing songs of their respective tenures as members of the band. Many of Monroe's former band mates had started similar bands following their departure from the Blue Grass Boys and many of these bands were present at the festival. In this way, the evolution of the bluegrass sound was shown with Bill's involvement prominently featured. (The extended context of this is that the popularity of Flatt & Scruggs had greatly surpassed Monroe's at this point and in the growing folk community they were being propped up as the masters of bluegrass. Their greater acceptance of this new fan base and the business sense of their manager, Louise Scruggs, had made them and their accomplishments much more prominent in the public eye than Monroe's. Ralph Rinzler, a folk revivalist and historian, sought to give Monroe the respect and attention he -Rinzler- felt Monroe deserved.)

The creation of bluegrass festivals also contributed to preservation in a less intentional way. In a time where country music was becoming more and more like rock, acoustic bands weren't popular, and some acts were too unknown or too country to play for folk festivals, the popularity of bluegrass festivals created a circuit for bluegrass musicians to consistently play and make some money. Beyond this, festivals introduced fans and newcomers alike to bands and history of which they may not have been aware. Many people who witnessed that first Story of Bluegrass recall the experience of seeing Monroe play with each different incarnation of his band to be revelatory and in addition to introducing them to the music and history of Monroe, introduced them to a whole world of bluegrass that was under-represented in the growing folk scene.

The experience of seeing bluegrass played live is often the moment of inspiration that inspires people to take up an instrument or take it more seriously. For Jake Workman, this moment of inspiration came at the California Bluegrass Association's (CBA) Father's Day Festival (people just call it "Grass Valley") held every year in Grass Valley, California. Grass Valley has been one of the most prominent festivals in the enthusiastic bluegrass state of California for at least 40 years and has introduced generations of children and adults to bluegrass through their exceptional line ups, family atmosphere, great campground jams, and extensive youth outreach and education (I swear they're not paying me to say all of this, they're just great).

Festivals are most often run by bluegrass organizations (rather than being privately financed) with the express goal of promoting and preserving bluegrass through various events. The festivals put on by organizations I grew up going to in New Mexico and bordering states greatly influenced me as a kid by sponsoring contests and workshops and giving me the opportunity to see and meet world class musicians that I might not have heard otherwise. Like the CBA for Jake, the Southwest Pickers are largely responsible for inspiring me to play bluegrass.

One bluegrass organization (with a slightly more [obvious] name when it comes to preservation) is the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation (BHF) operating out of the Dallas, Texas area, was started by Alan Tompkins to help stimulate interest in bluegrass in North Texas. For the past nine years, they've worked towards this goal by putting on a litany of festivals, giving out preservation awards, producing an award-winning documentary about kids in bluegrass, and running an instrument lending program. I had the chance to talk to Alan who told me that "preservation is done primarily by the perpetuation of the music - i.e., getting someone who can play in front of others who may love it, may never have heard it before, or may want to play it." A lot of their events "which are done in connection with cities and their various founders' days/summer celebrations, etc." introduce bluegrass and bluegrass history to a wide audience. Then, they continue to foster this interest through jams, contests, and community outreach.

One of their efforts is the Bluegrass Star award. Rather than similar "hall of fame" awards (of which, as previously mentioned, there all already plenty)
"The Bluegrass Star Award ... is intended to honor bluegrass artists who do an exemplary job of advancing traditional bluegrass music and bringing it to new audiences while preserving its character and heritage. Our award is a relatively low-cost and high-impact way of (1) recognizing the artists that we feel honored to present because of the contributions they've made to our music, and (2) highlighting to our festival attendees - many of whom may never have heard bluegrass music or J.D. Crowe before - that this person is a legend in our music." 
(Crowe won the second Star award in 2011. The specific mention comes from the way I phrased my question. Crowe is in all three bluegrass halls of fame, has been nominated for a Grammy, and has a lifetime achievement award from the Lexington Music Awards. It seemed weird to me, on its face, to give J.D. Crowe some relatively unknown new award and I betrayed this stance in the way I asked the question. But the purpose seems to be, rather than recognizing Crowe, again, in the bluegrass world, introducing a significant figure in bluegrass to people who may not be aware of his contributions and history.)

Another outreach effort from BHF is the Play it Forward! ™ (PIF) program, an instrument lending library that currently has about 70 instruments in circulation to young people (ages 8-21) learning bluegrass. For most instruments, a playable instrument of decent quality that will last a while will usually cost at least $300 which is often too much for a family to commit to. Programs like this (There are a few. The California Bluegrass Association runs a very successful one.) help foster musical literacy in musicians who might not have the resources to pursue music otherwise. The original PIF recipient received a banjo when he was nine and is currently pursuing a career in music from South Plains College (one of the first places to offer collegiate courses in bluegrass originally taught by Joe Carr).

The original bluegrass festivals were almost completely improvised but in the 53 years since the first bluegrass festival, successful patterns have been discovered. The festival that Bill Monroe started at his country music park in Bean Blossom, Indiana is the oldest continuous running festival. Started in 1967 at the insistence of Carlton Haney, this will be its 51st year. Despite the current success of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation and other similar organizations and the popularity of bluegrass worldwide, some festivals are disappearing due to changing audiences and the inherent difficulties in running a large annual event.

Alan was kind enough to tell me about some troubles that he had running a festival before starting the BHF.
"In Jan. 2006, in conversation with one of my bosses, I suggested that we should have a bluegrass festival at the stadium [we were building] and that I would organize it.  They gave me budget to do it, and we had the first Frisco Bluegrass Festival on Oct. 22, 2006 (Ricky Skaggs & KT, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Williams and Clark, Cadillac Sky).  It was an operational success (about 800 bought tickets) but a financial loser (big time) due to high stadium operating expenses.  We did it again in 2007, but again it lost money and so the plug was pulled on bluegrass by my employer."

Thanks to Alan's resourcefulness, this wasn't the end and he was able to parlay these early disappointments into the start of a very successful bluegrass organization. Other festivals have not been as lucky. I've heard stories of great festivals collapsing, watched long-standing festivals go under, and even in my short lifetime played at festivals that only lasted a year or two. Similar to Alan's story, the problem is always money-related and whether it be a problem with marketing, budgeting, or vision (or all three), spending more money on bands than is possible to recoup is the demise of many festivals.

I was able to get in touch with Stephanie from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America who clarified for me (albeit in a vague way) that they "have helped other organizations get started with festivals" and that they "host a promoters meeting at the Nashville convention every year." So someone is doing something. But if we're truly concerned with the preservation of bluegrass music, perhaps supporting the local organizations who actually make these events happen is the first step in ensuring the perpetuation of our traditions. While big, national scale festivals can be life-changing events, small local festivals can hold the same power just by hosting live bluegrass music. The Cherryholmes family supposedly got inspired to take up bluegrass on a trip to a "local" festival (I've never heard which one but the story I heard claims it was "local" to the L.A. area though I thought they were from Arizona). I played for a while with a family band who, similarly, got inspired to take up bluegrass after an incidental camping trip that happened to coincide with Wickenburg. And a family I met recently told me a similar story about their family's bluegrass discovery (the family theme is coincidental here I suspect).

In addition to keeping the overall tradition of bluegrass alive, a vibrant live bluegrass scene (festival-based or otherwise) also leads to the support and perpetuation of regional bluegrass traditions.

Regional Diversity

Country music is, or at least was, a regional genre of music. This is inherently true due to the nature of country music as a folk genre. As in Scotland, songs and tunes were rarely documented and mostly passed down orally. In this way, only the best-loved tunes survived. However, the Southeastern United States, the birthplace of country music, is a broad geographical region with various cultural regions occasionally defined by striking geological features (mountain communities outside of which families did not frequently travel). This could be compared to the distinctions between lowland and highland Scots music and the distinct sounds of places such as Orkney or Shetland.

There was a great migration of rural workers during the Great Depression in the 30s to city centers in search of work. This further expanded these cultural pockets that were only then starting to communicate through radio and records. This led to even more distinct regional playing styles that are commonly grouped state by state but it is not uncommon to have various playing styles connected to very geographically close areas.

The interest in rural folk music discovered after the release of a 45" by Fiddlin' Johnny Carson on OKEH records in 1923 inspired other record companies to start recording "hillbilly" music which eventually led to the now historic Bristol Sessions in 1927 (I realize this is a slightly lofty claim. Atlanta had a great music scene and probably looking for an excuse to go to Georgia and scout talent, Raph Peer was persuaded to record Carson. The quick and surprising success of this convinced Peer to invite Carson to New York to record more sides. His next recordings sold over a million copies. At this point, there was a growing interest in old time music but old time string band music was still emerging. Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were recorded by Colombia in 1924 before the release of Carson's million seller which would suggest the record executives may have been considering the string band market before this). [Erbsen; Fiddlin' John Carson; Country Music]

The creation of Billboard's country "Territorial Best Seller Charts" in 1952 indicated that D.J.'s were aware of these regional distinctions and were attempting to communicate this. [Rosenberg, 97] But country music as a record industry could not rely on regional popularity and was always trying to find and promote the most broadly appealing version of country music. This (lofty claim alert) could have been inspired by the somewhat unprecedented success of Jimmie Rodgers who was able to appeal broadly to nearly every music market and be simultaneously worshiped by country music fans and covered by pop singers (record companies often retained publishing rights so crossovers with broad cover potential have also always been highly-coveted).

While there's not really much in the way of a "bluegrass recording industry," there has been a similar homogenization over the past 15-20 years. With the increase in popularity of national bluegrass radio, awards, and internet publications (Bluegrass Junction, IBMA, Bluegrass Today, Cybergrass, etc.) and the decline in their regional counterparts (this would obviously vary region to region and is a subject for further study at a later date. WAMU's Bluegrass Country very narrowly avoided going off the air after 67 years though), bluegrass is experiencing a time of its greatest cultural exposure and lowest sonic diversity (I don't think I've ever talked to a single person who doesn't think every band on Bluegrass Junction sounds exactly the same. (Broad strokes, I know and that statement would not include the Sirius/XM shows True Grass or Derailed. Another topic for further research. As always, feel free to refute this claim in the comments).

Scotland was faced with a similar threat to their heritage as globalization and pop culture threatened the extinction of their more regional traditions. Gaelic music, dance, and speaking traditions were not being taught in schools and fearing the loss of their heritage, the community on the island of Barra organized the first Fèis in 1981 (seven years after the first SPBGMA convention, for anyone else who finds that intriguing).

Fèis (plural Feisean) is a Gaelic word meaning festival or feast but in this sense it refers more to a sort of summer camp for Gaelic arts education. The result was a huge success. The original intent was to draw in kids from all over the Western isles but the idea had such a demand that it was filled with just children from Barra. "Inspired by the success of this first Fèis, many other communities throughout Scotland established similar events. Today there are 47 Fèisean, each one community-led and tailored to local needs. Volunteers still form the core of most local Fèisean." [What is a Feis]

It's worth noting, despite being slightly off topic, that in order to get the kids interested Gaelic, they used popular media from that time. The 'Gaelic rock' band Runrig was pretty popular at the time and were known for pioneering this modern form of Gaelic music. Runrig faced early criticism due (from what I can tell) to the fact that Scottish people in generally were a bit lukewarm on Gaelic in general. [Harvey] However, smaller communities like Barra treasured their heritage and the first feis was largely a community-encouraged and perpetuated event. Younger generations were interested in the music of Runrig and the organizers of the first feis used their music as a way to present old Gaelic songs in a new, more relatable way. [What is a Feis?] (All of this stuff about the near loss of Scottish traditional music and even more the use of modern music to inspire young people was touched on by Nick Forster (although I think he was talking more about Irish music if I remember correctly) in his keynote speech at IBMA in 2015. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a transcript or a video of the speech.)

A recent interest in the preservation of regional traditions has created a few notable works. For example, Tim Newby's book on the somewhat forgotten history of bluegrass in Baltimore examines not only the careers of the many famous musicians (and many who never made it big) from Baltimore but also discusses the major impacts that the folk and bluegrass scene in Baltimore would have on american pop culture as a whole.

Another important local preservation effort can be found in The Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association (MBPA). I was able to speak with C.J. Lewandowski (of Po' Ramblin' Boys fame) who founded this organization and ask him about his goals and motivations.

C.J. is originally from Missouri and learned how to play music from many of the now largely forgotten first generation bluegrass musicians of the area. Missouri had similar migrant populations and similar music tastes as the Southeastern states. there was once a vibrant music scene in Missouri and, according to C.J. "A 1973 commentary in The MABC Ramblins (Missouri Area Bluegrass Committee newsletter) notes Missouri as [one of the] top three states for Bluegrass Festivals, under NC and VA... There's a vital importance that Missouri has in the history of our Music. Bill Monroe was quoted as saying 'The Ozarks jump started my music.'"

The MBPA "seeks to preserve the traditions, styles, stories, people, and music of Missouri Bluegrass. Particularly focusing on the roots of the genre, and exposing people the first generation of Missouri Artists." While most people are familiar with the Dillards, the most famous bluegrass group to ever come out of Missouri (unless you want to argue about John Hartford), fewer are familiar with influential musicians such as Don Brown, Jim Orchard, and Frank Ray.

Traditional Missouri bluegrass does have a distinct sound that has started to disappear over time. That sound grew in the Ozarks and had a distinct feeling in each of the instruments. These Ozark bluegrass bands would then move to St. Louis or Kansas City and eventually, the entire state had a musically distinct style that was heard in bands such as the Booger County Ramblers or Dub Crouch and the Bluegrass Rounders. "Bits of 1946 Nashville influenced the Ozarks, then the Ozarks inspired the rest of the state."

As time has gone on, some of these names have been forgotten and the regional Missouri sound is less and less identifiable. Missouri remains an important and vibrant bluegrass state but as time wears on, these connections to the first generation of bluegrass music can be forgotten. "The most important goal of the MBPA is to keep history alive. A lot of folks my age and younger don't even know the rich culture of Missouri with bluegrass music. We want to give the opportunity to people to learn their heritage while keeping the original [musician]'s names alive and important."

The goals of the MBPA are not very different from other bluegrass organizations. While still very new, they currently lack the resources to put on events but their number one priority is to present their "Pioneer of Missouri Bluegrass Award" to as many living first generation pickers, singers, promoters, radio personalities, etc. Their efforts will hopefully yield a rejuvenated local Missouri bluegrass scene as their goal is "all in all [to] spread the love of bluegrass, as a whole, with a little more emphasis on the Missouri side of things."

The perpetuation of bluegrass music is not threatened by a lack of interest or access to the music. The history and sounds of bluegrass have been captured and continue to be played today. But the continuation of this music is threatened by stagnation brought on by turning this cultural idea into a museum piece. Without room to grow and without embracing the differences within the genre, bluegrass will not be able to hold its appeal. Musical tastes grow and change and in the same way that thousands of people who became pickers, singers, promoters, and fans of traditional bluegrass after being introduced to the genre through the Grateful Dead or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the youth of today will be inspired by bluegrass new and old as long as they have the opportunity to experience it. In the seemingly paradoxical nature all too familiar to bluegrass, by allowing the sounds to modernize, the traditional sound will be kept alive.

Works Cited
Callender, Isaac. "Isaac Callender Interview." E-mail interview. 17 Jan. 2017.
"Country Music." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. <>.
Erbsen, Wayne. "Samantha Bumgarner: The Original Banjo Pickin' Girl." Native Ground. Native Ground, 05 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. <>.
"Fiddlin' John Carson." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. <'_John_Carson>.
Gibson, Ronnie. "Fiddle Competitions." Scottish Fiddle Music., 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2017. <>. A brief history of early mentions of annual fiddle contests in Scotland which may have started around 1850. Something to return to later.
Gitlin, Ira. "The Parking-Lot Vernacular." Ira Gitlin. N.p., 10 Sept. 2005. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <>.
Harvey, David. "Hebridean Cultural Renaissance." Celtic Geographies: Old Culture, New times. London: Routledge, 2002. 198. Print.
"Instrument & Band Contests - RockyGrass Festival." RockyGrass. Planet Bluegrass, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <>.
Jones, Stephanie. "SPBGMA Interview." E-mail interview. 24 Jan. 2017.
Lewandowski, C.J. "Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association Interview." E-mail interview. 13 Jan. 2017.
Linn, Karen. That Half-barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1991. Print.
Newby, Tim. "High on a Mountain." Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound and Its Legacy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &,, 2015. 141-42. Print.
Lynch, Megan. "Megan Lynch Interview." E-mail interview. 21 Jan. 2017.
The Piobaireachd Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2017. <>.
Seeger, Anthony. "Traditional Music in Community Life: Aspects of Performance, Recordings, and Preservation." Cultural Survival. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Dec. 1996. Web. 29 Jan. 2017. <>.
Tompkins, Alan. "Bluegrass Heritage Foundation Interview." E-mail interview. 17 Jan. 2017.
"WHAT IS A CEILIDH?" Licence To Ceilidh. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017. <>. Descriptions of different types of ceilidhs from what appears to be a the British/ceilidh equivalent of a wedding band.
"What Is a Fèis?" Fèisean Nan Gàidheal. Fèisean Nan Gàidheal, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. <>.
Wood, Nicola. Scottish Traditional Music. Edinburgh: Chambers, 1991. Print.
Workman, Jake. "Jake Workman Interview." E-mail interview. 16 Jan. 2017.

Lingering Questions

Is bluegrass music written solely for publication?
[this comes from the book where there was discussion about the distinction between folk music and national music. Music that was written specifically to be published was not considered folk music]

Are times of popularity for bluegrass related to times of national pride?
[More about national music vs. folk music. This question isn't meant to exclude the thousands of international bluegrass fans.]

What is the nature of the potentially harmful cultural myths about bluegrass that are perpetuated from within the community?
[In the book, there was discussion about overly sentimental Scottish songs that weren't particularly Scottish but largely popular. This like. Wagon Wheel. But within bluegrass, there are cultural myths surrounding the idea of hillbillies and the role of primitive Appalachia in the creation of bluegrass music. Old time music certain has its roots there but bluegrass was a pretty overt move away from that image and Monroe really refused that image when he played on the Grand Ol Opry. But today, those myths are perpetuated and used to promote bluegrass. Why is it a selling point for some people and does it do more harm than good?]

How do other countries divide their folk music genres?

Is modern bluegrass jamming more formal or informal music making?


Thanks for reading this month! I am really working on making this more accessible and I'm going to try to make next month's post much shorter but still as informative as I can. This month's book is obviously not about bluegrass but we can consider it a source of expanding our overall knowledge. Next month's book will be about bluegrass and we can really narrow down and focus. We'll probably alternate between expanded knowledge and focused knowledge for a while. Please please free to contact me with any thoughts, comments, or suggestions. I've gotten so many wonderful remarks and gifts from people this past month and it's been very encouraging and helpful. It really does mean a lot. Be sure to sign up for the email list if you haven't and let your friends know about this project if you think it would interest them.

Until next time,

(People have had trouble signing up for the list. I think it might be rejecting autofill so you'll have to actually type your email address into the box. Sorry for the minor inconvenience.)