So four years ago, I like many of you, came to the Bluegrass program here at ETSU with eyes wide in excitement at the prospect of learning all there was to know about Bluegrass music. I had been involved in the music for over thirty years when I came to the program and so my perspective may have been a little different than many of you, but the enthusiasm for learning what made up this music was present, as was a desire to better be able to define this music we love so much.
Now I am not writing this to bash the program, so I do not want anyone to misinterpret what I am about to say here. But what have we learned really?
After these four years, I find myself more confused than when I came to the program about what Bluegrass music really is. When I came to the program, I had a vision of what comprised Bluegrass in my world. Having had access to the professional side of the business for the better part of my life had given me some insight, right? Maybe to some aspects of it, but the controversy surrounding what was or was not Bluegrass music never quite emerged for me in the manner it has here in the program.
I think this has brought to light for me a bigger issue that is revolving within the Bluegrass community, and that is one of identity. The community as a whole has yet to concretize what is or is not bluegrass. There is a clear division amongst the ranks of the community, and we see it from the highest levels of the community, to the smallest jam sessions.
So where does that leave us as musicians, academics and professionals within the industry? Are we to fight a never ending tug of war which only serves to hurt the industry. AS an industry, do we need to concretize the definition of what is or is not Bluegrass?
In my recent interviews with Allen Mills and James King I heard them describing how in being themselves, they became considered traditional. They spoke of taking the music from the back porch to the stage, and the choices they made in doing so. Many of these choices were determined by their own personal tastes, and influences not those of the industry. These are two greats, who by any standard could be considered some of the traditional stalwarts of the industry. In my interviews, they seemed to value being true to yourself over being true to the industry, the rest will, as James put it, “all fall in where it’s supposed to… your influences will show through and shape what you create, but you have to create something new.”
This was a point Allen spoke to as well stating, “when we started we were progressive, then ten years later, we were contemporary, ten years after that we were traditional, but all that changed was what people perceived us as and called us. Our music stayed the same.
With that in mind, I think this idea of being Bluegrass is something to be reflected on after the fact, rather than something used as a compass for our musical efforts. Don’t let the constraints of others determine who you are, just be yourself and let those who listen decide for themselves.
So we have now spent four years studying a subject which, even by professionals and academics can not be defined in a concise or consistent manner.
What are we as the industries new authorities on the subject going to do about this? How are we going to define something controlled more by perception than hard and fast parameters, and more importantly how will hold together a community that is increasingly divided by these perceptions?