Making Room Within Tradition

Written by: Jon Weisberger

Oddly enough, while I’ve been a Nashville resident for more than 15 years, I was in California when Brandon Godman called in January of 2017 to tell me about the effort to get California Bluegrass Association support for a bluegrass-themed float in the Bay Area’s Pride Parade that year.  He and I share some Kentucky connections, some colorful touring memories, and I was among the friends he shared some stories with about the issues he’d had as a gay bluegrass fiddler even before Jewly Hight’s great piece (check it out!) about him in the Oxford American brought them into wider view.  So I took his call seriously.

Though Chris Jones and I had taken part in the Shout & Shine showcase at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass the previous fall, I count this as the beginning of my real engagement with Bluegrass Pride.  I joined the CBA and wrote something encouraging about the project on the CBA website’s bulletin board, but I also realized that I could afford to go out to the Bay Area and be a supporter right there, on the street.  So I did. And that was, not to be too corny about it, a heartwarming experience.

Since then, I’ve thought some about why that’s so, and the answers seem pretty clear to me.  On the one hand, my parents worked to instill in me a bedrock belief in equality that says the bluegrass scene (not to mention the world beyond it) must be genuinely open and welcoming to all on a genuinely equal basis—that everyone has an equal right to bluegrass!  And, on the other hand, I have such a strong love for this music that I believe it, the industry that creates and distributes it, and the audience that sustains it all have something to offer many more people than they currently reach. So what was not to love about Bluegrass Pride—joining pride and equality and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in one glorious mash-up?

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about something a little more complicated, and that is our tendency to link the recognition of diversity in musical approaches to diversity among musicians.  I remember stopping at a fast food joint in Ohio years ago while driving to a festival, and when we told the gal behind the counter that we played bluegrass, her response was, “Oh, you mean that whiny old stuff?”  I found myself torn between wanting to respond, “Hey, it’s not just that whiny old stuff”—which is, of course, true—and wanting to say, “Hey, what’s wrong with that whiny old stuff? It’s great!” Which is also true.

That is, so to speak, the dialectic of bluegrass.  Some of us are drawn irresistibly to a lifetime of digging into the subtleties and richness of the strict bluegrass legacy - subtleties and richness that are often ignored by self-proclaimed “traditionalists.”  For others, building on that legacy by exploring new directions that encompass other sounds and influences is the compulsion. In IBMA-speak, these two approaches are often referred to as the roots and branches of bluegrass, and it’s a powerful metaphor that testifies to the need for both—not necessarily in the work of any one musician or group of musicians, but in the entire body of work that gets called bluegrass.  Without a critical mass of musicians whose passions are most deeply stirred by the classic sounds and a legion of musicians deeply attuned to other musical currents, bluegrass is all too likely to either lose its connection to tradition altogether or to become a museum piece.

But despite this need for some kind of cosmic balance within the bluegrass field, it is clear that the broader roots music scene and the even larger musical industry beyond it tilt toward one side.  The evidence is easy enough to see: artists are praised for reinventing themselves; “edgy” is almost universally accepted as a term of praise; those who break the rules and stretch the boundaries are acclaimed, while those who don’t are overlooked, if not dismissed outright for offering nothing more than the “same old same old.”  Sure, there’s room for the occasional nostalgia act or lovingly detailed retro presentation, but their popularity is often fleeting, while those who face up to the challenge of making new music within older frameworks on a long-term basis find the path to success—even modest success—especially hard.

To put it bluntly, then, traditional bluegrass is disadvantaged; its attractions for musicians are, especially these days, more artistic than commercial.  And that, in turn, means that it must be especially open and accessible, encouraging anyone with a love for those sounds to find their place within the community.  Yet it’s hardly controversial to note that the culture of traditional bluegrass has been and still can be less than welcoming to women; to people of color; to people of different sexual orientations and gender identities.  

Even if one sets aside the fundamental values of fairness, equality, and inclusivity, those barriers are profoundly destructive to the long-range survival of this powerful, distinctive kind of music.  It would be a terrible shame for our bluegrass community to give musicians the message that the only path to genuine inclusion lies through the branches of bluegrass, that diversity of identity can only be found in the more musically diverse end of the spectrum.  Bluegrassers—particularly those of us whose inclinations lean toward the traditional—are fond of saying that the only thing that matters is, can you pick? It’s about time that we start taking that seriously.

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