Bluegrass?

I’ve been paying attention to the recent news about Bluegrass Nation–an interesting and potentially very exciting new development for the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). For some more background on BG Nation check out Craig Havighurst’s blog. I salute the folks trying to give the music a boost, but as a young professional in an up and coming ‘bluegrass’ band, I acknowledge that the challenges facing this genre (especially its aspiring acts) are significant. I’m inspired to share some experiences and give my two cents. Hopefully it helps.

When the Infamous Stringdusters were getting rolling 6 years ago, we confronted the obvious question: what kind of music do you play? Ironically, the answer has little to do with music. It’s a business decision, and an important one at that. These days, a young band’s press materials (pictures, bio, web design, etc) reach the world before its music. Given the time it takes for a band to get some momentum (in some cases years), those decisions about branding are key. They set the tone for everything that follows, and the ‘genre’ that you choose for yourself often sits atop the marketing plan.

For us, the obvious answer was bluegrass. There was a fanbase and a business infrastructure intact that was very supportive of us (we are forever grateful). Our instrumentation, songs, vocal style, etc–it was undeniably bluegrass. We met at IBMA, started our relationship with our record label at the conference a few years later (Sugar Hill), and then won three awards, including Emerging Artist of the Year, at the 2007 IBMA awards. Things moved quickly after that. There was an obvious regimen of festivals and bluegrass concert series that we plugged right into, making solid money and growing in profile.

The next few years flew by. We were consumed with the task of staying afloat and keeping our band together (the biggest challenge for any young group). We worked hard on our music, assuming that it would reach the fans who would enjoy it most. But it’s not that easy. In 2009 we started to more closely examine the trajectory of our career. A few shows with Railroad Earth gave us a glimpse into a world that most of us had at one time been a part of as fans, but our band had lost touch with. Something clicked, and everything changed.

With the help of our management, the Artist Farm, we started to think much more deeply about what we wanted. The most obvious questions (how many shows a year? what types of venues?) led to more significant ones (what type of experience do we want to create? what types of people do we want to play for? what types of people are we?), ultimately helping us truly understand what’s best for us as people and as a business. It was a major revelation. Somehow all the hard work of getting a band going distracted us from these important issues (not uncommon). But suddenly we knew much more clearly what we wanted. Big changes to our branding/marketing efforts were imminent, which meant we had to revisit that crucial initial question: what kind of music do you play?

Should we call ourselves a bluegrass band? It just wasn’t so obvious anymore. Newly empowered with a vision of bigger shows, standing clubs and huge sound/lights, we were ready to put our music in a setting where it would come to life. This ideal gig setting would surely bring out the best in us, attracting the right fans, the fans we are after, and the scene would grow. It was obvious that we needed to project something new in our marketing message to the world. We needed to build it. But this was a significant departure from the scene we’d been a part of, and there were real concerns about alienating existing fans. These great new gigs would not be so great if they didn’t make us any money and the band broke up. As we got to know our new fans (this is key) we learned that if we were to create a big party show, it had to be that show every time. At big shows, fans are there to see you but also to be part of the scene. A fan who expects to drink beers and talk to their friends will not be happy if they have to sit in silence at a PAC. That fan might never come to see you again, or they might tell 20 friends if they see you in the right setting/scene.The transition would have to be very deliberate, definitely a leap of faith. Some fans would make the switch with us, and some would not, but that process of natural selection turned out to be a healthy one. We want people who want to be in that setting with us. They are music lovers, and they are a key component to success when they get involved in the shows and get behind the band. So how do we get the ball rolling with these fans and get to this bigger scene that we’ve decided we want to be a part of?

Experience proved that marketing ourselves as the cool ‘bluegrass’ band did not do the trick. In retrospect we see that except for a few anomalies, the term is synonymous with a tiny sliver of the music business, small-time bands and relatively modest shows/income. Big promoters want hype, real numbers and a branding that looks big time. As you grow in size, a huge part of the game is educating promoters in the world you want to to be a part of, putting your truest/best foot forward to get on the right shows, the shows that will grow your band. If they’ve never heard you, do you want them to think you are a bluegrass band? Not if you want to portray the image of a rising act capable of playing huge rooms to huge crowds, because right now that’s just not what bluegrass is, not what it wants to be. Bluegrass is pure musical integrity, heavy on history and culture, but light on business savvy/stature. So we had to change it up.

We were discovering one of the universal elements of any successful business: flexibility. Our music did not undergo any significant or immediate changes, but our branding/trajectory changed pretty drastically. We sought out new business partners who understood our goals and the music world we wanted to be involved in. We were passing on lucrative gigs that we’d done for years, instead opting for the clubs that would pay less at the get-go, but ultimately had no ceiling. There were definite growing pains. We started affiliating with other bands involved in this new scene–grassroots partnerships that really make sense for us. We started playing a bigger show with lights, smoke, effects, less MC work, etc. The good news is that we are finding our fans and we love them. We enjoy every day, and our synergy as people and musicians is stronger than ever before (so so important for a band–another manifesto altogether). We are reinvesting in our business with a big long-term plan in mind, helping to further ensure that our band stays together for many years and achieves its full potential. A clear sense what we want and of the immediate path ahead has helped us in every way. It’s a beautiful thing. But why is ‘bluegrass’ suddenly so uncool? That part was bittersweet.

This is where it gets a little tricky, because I think we are a bluegrass band, and we all absolutely love bluegrass. We never sat down and decided that our music would change in the same way that we decided our branding would change. The Stringdusters still play ‘Fork in the Road,’ Song of the Year at the 2007 IBMA Awards, at many of our shows. We’re a bluegrass band. But then we realize that the term ‘bluegrass’ just has too much baggage to take us where we want to be. To understand this part, and to then consider how things might change, you have to look at the biggest underlying question of them all: what is bluegrass anyway?

Musically, I say it’s wide open–‘bluegrass’ is whatever someone says it is. That’s all it takes, one person. My only opinion is that all opinions count equally. This is not politics, it’s music. But the fans who are most involved with the genre do not share this sentiment. The ‘bluegrass’ world has a small and fiercely loyal fan base, many of whom also play bluegrass instruments. This is a curse and a blessing. While we get to enjoy one of the great oral musical traditions, growing and changing faster than ever before, the fans also take increased ownership over the music. Firm opinions about what is or isn’t ‘bluegrass’ have literally come to define the core traditional community. It’s an omnipresent topic. Stiff opinions breed an atmosphere of exclusivity, and often negativity. And with the huge grey area between fans and professionals, these attitudes pervade the business community as well as the fan base. Of course there are many exceptions, and so many great people in bluegrass, but its reputation has suffered.

Bluegrass promoters, festival owners, IBMA members–their opinions about the music inform the way it is portrayed/presented. They guard the music’s traditional ideals as if they are in danger of being forgotten, which often means alienating more progressive bands like ours. Why? Why would a festival promoter ban electric basses or in-ear monitors (true story)? Promoters need to know their audience, but that means finding bands they believe in that match the fans, creating an environment where that band can be itself, and really do what it does best. Telling them they can’t use one of their regular instruments is the antithesis of good promotion. They should much sooner find another band (or maybe another job). I want to spread the good word about bluegrass, but to be honest these qualities are a MAJOR turnoff.

If we can at least accept/embrace the fact (you don’t have to agree with it) that some people think the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons are ‘bluegrass,’ we’d be doing such a great service to all the bands that are yet to get started. Perhaps IBMA needs to lead an effort to explicitly expand the definition in a public forum (BG Nation), to give the word a cache that it dosen’t currently have. The bands, established and upcoming, would have to take it from there. I think they have to be a key part of the rehabilitation process. Hopefully there is a new incentive to be part of bigger scene while proudly calling themselves ‘bluegrass.’ The best part is, there’s nothing to lose. Traditional bluegrass is not going anywhere. I’m not sure traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music. It’s not about changing all the traditional opinions, but rather acknowledging that they are just that, opinions. We all have them, and none of them are right or wrong.

It’s worth mentioning that this bigger scene I speak of is already well underway. One noteworthy example is the Yonder Mountain String Band, who have been playing for thousands of people in rock clubs all over the place for years, continuing to evolve and grow as a band and business. They consist of banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and vocal harmonies. They play John Hartford songs. It’s bluegrass, even if they don’t call it that. Yonder dosen’t sound exactly like Bill Monroe, but they draw a bigger crowd than every act at IBMA (maybe excluding Alison Krauss), so there’s got to be something worth checking out there, right? After a poor reception at IBMA a few years back, the love is just not there. The traditionalists do not approve. With no incentive and certainly no need, why would they associate their marketing with a genre (they are clearly already already associated in a musical sense) that’s small-time compared to what they are already doing? The gap in stature between Yonder and the legions of struggling bluegrass bands continues to grow, and they haven’t been back to IBMA since.

The saddest part about all this is that all the big fringe acoustic bands love the bluegrass scene. They have utmost respect for the quality of the music, and no misconceptions about where they stand. For the most part they are humble, appreciative, and probably willing to get involved and be a part of all this. Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound. But the bluegrass world is tough, and there’s just no solid mutual respect. Unfortunately, bluegrass needs these bands (Railroad Earth, String Cheese, the Avetts, etc–the list is LONG) way more than they need bluegrass. I bet that almost none of Yonder’s fans even know what IBMA is. But that could all change.

I’m not saying that all bands should all follow this rock-club trajectory. Every band needs to find their own path, the scene that they enjoy and that brings out the most in them. Fans will do the same, gravitating toward the scene/music they enjoy. But don’t judge the scene that you are not a part of. Bluegrass people need to stop lamenting the current state of affairs and open their minds. It’s already happening: big shows, enthusiastic crowds and a fun, inclusive vibe that encourages unlimited growth. I would say that in a musical sense ‘bluegrass’ is very healthy, changing and growing faster than ever before. There are younger players, new influences, cool people and amazing original music that’s indicative of a vibrant musical evolution. But the problem is, it’s just called bluegrass less and less. Imagine: the bluegrass world embraces a big band on the fringes, they make the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin along with the word ‘bluegrass,’ and suddenly there’s a intense new vitality for the term and all of its aspiring acts, whether they want to play in clubs or churches. There would be a mobility open to bands, a pre-cut path to one of many scenes, big or small, without the risk of being branded ‘non-bluegrass’ by the fans. The pieces are already in place and it’s waiting to happen, but the traditional fans will have to be a part of it at the get go, even if that just means acceptance. IBMA just has to get the ball rolling.

So how do you promote this new atmosphere of openness, and incite real change? As I said above, we all need to be less judgmental, but it’s naive to think that a new mentality would sweep through the existing fanbase. People just don’t change that much, especially bluegrass fans over the age of 70. But that’s OK. Perhaps IBMA needs to be very deliberate about broadcasting a newer, broader definition of ‘bluegrass’ designed to include the traditionalists AND everyone else. Or maybe they shouldn’t try to define it at all, maybe they should just define a new spirit of openness and let all the related music speak for itself (I think anyone already paying attention has some concept of what ‘bluegrass’ is by now anyway). Then they need a business plan to back it up, with new partnerships that make sense. A band like Yonder could be a good place to start. If they really project a new all-inclusive vibe, many new people will consider themselves fans of ‘bluegrass,’ and there will be more bands to enjoy, more shows to go to, and more opportunities for professionals. And this is where Bluegrass Nation comes in. It appears to be a good first step, and I am encouraged by its emphasis on growing the fanbase. Nobody needs to change, the two groups just need to coexist, and I really don’t think these newer, more open-minded fans will have a problem with it. They won’t take over the Doyle Lawson show, but if they want to check it out at least now they might know about it. Doyle still plays his music to his fans in his desired setting. There just might be a few more folks in the house.

The Stringdusters will always be dynamic in our branding as we grow and progress. Flexibility is now a central part of our business philosophy. IBMA needs to make a similar move, promoting change and openness, and welcoming a new crowd, if they are to promote the growth of this music and the business that surrounds it (clearly stated as their mission at IBMA.org). If they do, the PR kickback from bands who WANT to use that term will be significant, the genre will grow and more attention will be directed toward all forms of bluegrass. This amazing, deeply historical music could really get its due, and we would all have something to celebrate together. If they don’t, all kinds of great music will still come along, but probably very little of it will strive to be called bluegrass, and the genre could shrink as we continue to venture ahead in time, away from 1946. This simple plan of openness is no revelation, but hopefully our experience as a band helps illustrate the challenges that lie ahead, and gives some insight into how they might be overcome. It’s a simple decision to include rather than exclude, for all of our mutual benefit, with no real risks involved. It’s time to ease up on our opinions, open the doors, enjoy some new tunes and share the wealth.

Chris Pandolfi
4.21.11

99 comments

  1. Jordan Klein · April 22, 2011

    Outstanding essay, Chris. You’ve articulated an important, thoughtful perspective on the central challenge faced by many bluegrass musicians, promoters, and professionals. Very well-written, too! I hope a lot of people read this (especially the board members at IBMA!).

  2. Matthew Munsey · April 22, 2011

    You nailed it man! Great job! Everything you said here is what needed to be said in a very constructive manner. Keep up the great work guys! We need more smart professionals like yourselves working in our industry and growing it.

  3. Steve Simmons · April 22, 2011

    Chris,

    You deserve a huge “thank you” for this. I really enjoyed reading this and think you addressed so many of the issues that really need to be addressed. I wish more artists were willing to share like this as it will take this kind of honest discussion for us all to come together under one Bluegrass Nation.

    Steve

  4. Henri Deschamps · April 22, 2011

    Sublime. Very in-depth and thoughtful. Great writing. I’d like to say historic, but for now all we can do is call it Epic :-) Nice Job Chris.

  5. Jess Poteralski · April 22, 2011

    thanks chris. interesting article. we really started seeing this divide a few years back at places like Hardly Strictly in San Francisco. You would have the thousands of folks on their blankets and in their rows of lawn chairs frowning at the few hundred kids dancing in front of the stage. Both groups are equally appreciative of the music, each just in their own way – nobody is right, nobody is wrong. somewhat akin to major league baseball – long history, deep traditions, purists fighting to keep it the same against a younger generation wanting to update/modernize (but certainly not destroy) the game. i think in time, like the ol’ timers who have come to terms with the designated hitter and the wild card teams, the community will change and these bluegrass-ish bands will become more accepted. you cant stop progress, might as well make the best of it.

  6. Van Ramey · April 22, 2011

    I agree completely. I’ve seen it called everything from old-timey to traditional to roots to neo-traditional and everything in between. The fans love bluegrass. They sometimes twinge at some of the changes but love it just the same. As it grows, evolves, changes or whatever adjective you choose to describe it, you see what I choose to call “influence.” I see bands that say they are influenced by the pioneers such as Scruggs or Monroe as well as Skaggs and Rice. I am now hearing teenagers talk of being influences by Kraus Vincent or Dailey/Vincent.
    It is my opinion that this music is “what it is” because of the love between the artist and the fan, nurtured by the willingness of the artists to stay and visit and talk after the shows. This makes the newer musicians say, “I want to be just like him or her. This closeness causes the fans to feel like they are truly a part of the artist’s lives. Sonny Osborn, J.D. Crow, Rick Wasson, Dailey/Vincent,Sammy Shelor (and too many other to name)let you know that you are a part of their lives because you enjoy the craft that is their life. You truly feel like they care even if it’s for just that fifteen or twenty second conversation. This is what makes bluegrass so special. The “heart” part.

  7. Jonathan Bluemel · April 22, 2011

    Wow! I had no idea you were so articlulate! Great job and I agree with you whole-heartedly. Bluegrass folks need to loosed up a bit.

    • Pam Brandon · April 22, 2011

      And he plays the BANJO too!

      Great article Chris, and a really interesting read.

  8. Wes Lassiter · April 22, 2011

    Amazing perspective Chris. I too see the music headed in a direction where the old needs the new more than the new needs the old and I qualify that by a simple fact. Absurd but I believe true. Most of the traditional Bluegrass worlds folks are getting old or are in bad health from obesity, diabetes etc. Many of the folks holding the traditional reigns are not going to be around. Thus the new have the option of embracing the old and blending the new as time rolls on. My only fear is the honesty of the music will be lost in the greed that has taken country music into realms of absurdity with honesty lost.

    I am a banjo player who plays traditional stuff mainly for the crowd I play for loves it and the timelessness of it endures. I think the question is how far are you willing to hold on to the traditional style to keep it fresh and honest so that style of 1 4 5 keeps its existence and is not minimized as the influence of the traditionalists wain with time.

    I am small potatoes compared to you guys but I do observe the cultural changes within the music. I hate to mention this but processed food is going to play the largest role in the musics change simply because so many traditional types are going to die before their time. Sad but true. Go to any festival these days and just look at how unhealthy the core of the festival participants are. I know this whole notion sounds whacked but I don’t really see many of these folks switching to raw vegetables and dropping Sugar salt and alcohol any time soon.

    In summary the ball is in your court and the younger generation now to pave the way and try to save what is good in tradition but new in sound and spirit.
    Thanks for reading this.

    Wes Lassiter

  9. El Ron · April 22, 2011

    Wow, that was a great read! At times, I remarked to myself that you were pulling some of these thoughts straight from my brain. Definitely believe in everything you wrote here as I have pondered such questions myself. Thanks for putting all of this down my friend.

  10. Pete Hatfield · April 22, 2011

    I also agree that this is a well-written perspective that will probably perturb some folks. But life is about constant change. We all need to look at all aspects, not be narrow in our viewpoint.

  11. Tim Timberlake · April 22, 2011

    Chris Pandolfi, the thinking man’s banjo player. Really well done. All of us who love this stuff so deeply are in your debt for your (and the band’s) musicianship and your vision.

  12. Randy Dyer · April 22, 2011

    Remarkably articulate…for a guy who went to Dartmouth and Berkley.

  13. Bill Adams · April 22, 2011

    Excellent, thought provoking article Chris. If John Hartford was still alive, I do believe he would endorse everything you have put forth.

  14. David Lewis · April 22, 2011

    Chris:

    Well thought out, man. Some very good ideas here. I am glad someone is doing so much clear-headed thinking about the music we love but are still figuring out how to define.

    Good work.

    David Lewis
    Belmont, Maine

  15. Chip Haynes · April 22, 2011

    Really thought out and insightful. Amazing what the VA fresh air can do for the mind and soul. I am greatful for being introduced to the Infamous Stringdusters a few years back. It wasn’t the genre, it was the synergy, passion, skills and dedication that got me hooked. Stick to that. My only request is that the small venues where we as fans can help drive the passion in the songs continue to be a part of your tours. Hope to catch-up at Merlefest. Flying back to NC next week.

  16. Lou Clinton · April 22, 2011

    Chris, thanks for sharing this with us. Having seen the band live three times now, in various venues ( festival, “rock club” and a traditional music venue…Stone Mountain Arts Center) and having listened to dozens of live shows which, gratefully, you allow to be posted at archive.org, your comments on branding the band make a lot of sense. Sometimes, it’s weird, as when T Book stated at SMAC ” thanks for supporting the arts” at the point in the show when he regularly says “drink as much as you want, it’s your party.” It’s a delicate line, but the music transcends. My biggest smile of the week occurred when I happened upon your cover of Ceelo Green’s “F11k you” at one of the Colorado shows. yes, “Fork” is a staple and we want to hear that, but the most intriguing moments are in the melodic (for lack of a beter word) noodling that comes back to the strong melody line in a song. I hope it’s not an unintended insult, but when I first saw ISD, I thought back to a show I saw in 1971 (yup, I’m that old) put in by It’s A Beautiful Day. right, the “White Bird” people. Part killer musicianship, part dazzling improv, part balls out passion. Categories and labels suck. I don’t know what Mumford is, but it ain’t bluegrass, but I like it. ISD is music and passion, pure and simple. That’s what most of crave.

  17. MIchael Barton · April 22, 2011

    Awesome job Chris. Sad but true.

  18. Mary Gray · April 22, 2011

    I got a little nervous/itchy/defensive when you started talking about festival owners–I think that’s my grandparents coming out in me! I’m a self-proclaimed lover of “new grass,” and my iPod contains RRE, String Cheese, Stringdusters (duh) in addition to the incredible bands who (courageously) let themselves be pigeonholed into the bluegrass genre which, to many, connotes dusty men in overalls plinking banjos. It totally stinks that bands have to pull away from the “bluegrass” title to find success. You couldn’t have articulated the problem more clearly–love this!

  19. Zach Bevill · April 22, 2011

    Amen, brother. Amen.

  20. page crow · April 22, 2011

    bluegrass: 1. traditional bluegrass 2. progressive bluegrass 3. speedgrass 4. psychograss 5. rockgrass 6. grass\classical (Punch Bros.)

    The old-guard think they own bluegrass. They don’t. If they are stuck regarding the definition of bluegrass being only traditional bluegrass, they are out-of-date.

    Progressive grasser bands (Yonder, Cornmeal, Greensky etc.) got me back into bluegrass. (So did Sirius satellite radio and internet stations access.) And it was these bands that led me back to Del McCoury band, Ralph Stanley and even the Stringdusters, back when you all broke out.

    The dancing festival hippies (your fans) don’t care what you call it. If you can dance to it, it’s gonna fly. “Play it fast. Play it loud.” Jeff Austin… and nobody can argue with Yonder’s success.

    I was encouraged to see bluegrass traditionalists onstage jamming with Drew & Bill. (Never saw Ronnie in bluejeans before.) See? There IS room for old-skool and new-cool.

    No one has got the right to judge WHAT bluegrass IS. It’s all that and more.

    page crow
    4-22-11

  21. Brian Miller · April 22, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more – I started listening to Yonder 12 years ago and their respect for the bluegrass greats that influenced them led me into a passion for Hartford, Monroe, Scruggs, Stanley, Martin etc. I started going to bluegrass festivals and joined the MN Bluegrass and Old-Time music association as a dues paying member. At the same time this was happening I was really getting involved locally and nationally with the amazing and growing progressive acoustic music scene – bands like RRE, YMSB, HBR, TBT, Pert Near Sandstone, Stringdusters and so many more. This was amazing to be hearing so many great artists blending the old and the new and I continued to explore further into the traditional scene as well.

    I was not alone in this trajectory and many of my friends were along for the same musical ride and while we were all attending these bluegrass festivals and supporting the traditional organizations and bands many of us were learning to play and starting new bands that were influenced by bluegrass,rock, punk, jazz, gunge etc. When these new bands tried to become part of this amazing bluegrass scene they were often turned away as not bluegrass or old time and after awhile many of us moved on to new venues and festivals (jam bands etc) that supported these new and progressive bands taking the traditions of bluegrass and making it their own. We have an amazing music scene in Minneapolis for all kinds of music including traditional and progressive bluegrass bands and everyone would win if there were more collaboration and openness between the scenes!

  22. Doug McKelway · April 22, 2011

    Bravo Chris! Perfectly and eloquently stated.

  23. Brad MacKenzie · April 22, 2011

    Lots of good thinking and lots of good comments. Reminds me of the old Allman Brothers lyric from “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”: Well by and by, way after many years have gone, and all the war freaks die off, leavin’ us alone. Radio and television have been revolutionized, not the other way around. Nothing is more clear than that we are all in this together!

  24. Drew · April 22, 2011

    “That ain’t no part a nuthin.”

  25. Gabrielle Gray · April 22, 2011

    Bravo, Chris!!! You have brilliantly articulated what so many of us have thought and worked for and cherished the hope for, for ever so long. I am SO PROUD to have you coming to ROMP this summer. I hope with our very boundary-less line-up we’ll have an outstanding crowd to cheer for you as fabulous musicians, friends, and fellow travelers on a small, interconnected planet with huge potential…if, of course, we include rather than exclude…

    My best to you and all the band. See you June 25th in Owensboro!!
    Gabrielle

  26. Hilary West · April 22, 2011

    Touche Chris.

    As to “there’s nothing to lose” – correct; and as you say: trad Bluegrass isn’t going away – correct too. So: what’s the panic? Onside with not wasting energy lamenting everyone isn’t toeing a common line and getting on with embracing creativity and faring forward. Inertia is death – for anything.

    Cheers

  27. north carolina · April 22, 2011

    Wow. Probably the most cogent analysis from someone on the inside.

  28. Chris Bowman · April 22, 2011

    Really nicely done, Chris…. 

  29. Will · April 22, 2011

    I’ve been seeing the Stringdusters for years now – and was lucky enough to hang out and drink beer with them at the very first Festy (hands down one of the best times I’ve ever had…). This blogpost says it better than most – be flexible, there’s room in the world for more than one opinion, *coexist*, harmonize. Nicely said, Mr. Pandolfi – I’m looking forward to many, many more shows. Love the band, love the music…

  30. Will · April 22, 2011

    I’ve been seeing the Stringdusters for years now – and was lucky enough to hang out and drink beer with them at the very first Festy (hands down one of the best times I’ve ever had…). This blogpost says it better than most – be flexible, there’s room in the world for more than one opinion, *coexist*, harmonize. Nicely said, Mr. Pandolfi – I’m looking forward to many, many more shows. Love the band, love the music…

  31. Cindy Gray · April 22, 2011

    The take-away line of this essay is:

    “Bluegrass is pure musical integrity, heavy on history and culture, but light on business savvy/stature. So we had to change it up.”

    thanks, Chris

    Cindy Gray
    TRAMP, Inc
    Americana Festival (americanafest.org)

  32. Henri Deschamps · April 22, 2011

    Sublime. Very in-depth and thoughtful. Great writing. I’d like to say historic, but for now all we can do is call it Epic :-) Nice Job Chris.

  33. DysfunctionalUncleDan · April 22, 2011

    I happen to be on the IBMA Board. As a Board dude, i have to be careful when and where i speak about the Board because i am not the spokesman for the Board. But i believe it is ok – in fact, constructive in this forum, to state that the Board has many members who have identical or similar opinions to what Chris has so masterfully expressed. If you look at the list of Board members i think you will find much reason for optimism about Bluegrass living under a “big tent.”

    I am so appreciative that Chris took the time to craft this manifesto. This was a major effort. Keep the faith!

    Yours for bluegrassity goodness,
    Dan Keen

  34. Guadalupe C. Miercoles · April 22, 2011

    I once read an essay by Mark Twain about how when he first experienced the Mississippi river, he was suffused with its beauty. Later, after he’d traveled its length and explored its shores, he knew every aspect of the river in very scientific terms. By then, he could no longer experience the raw beauty of the river, for it was heavy with labels, analyses and associations.

    Ah, to be so saturated.

    Thanks for the essay.

  35. Mike Rowe · April 22, 2011

    Let me throw a few thoughts back at you. I come at this from the perspective of someone who saw Phish rise from popular bar band in Burlington to one of the most profitable and enduring bands of the last 30 years. You may not like them, but they have a lot to teach about how to be successful in the music business. And they did it their own way.

    First of all, stop talking about your marketing plan. There is no quicker way to alienate music fans than sounding like an MBA, who was probably too dumb to make it as an engineer. The key to marketing yourself is your music. That means make every show different and memorable. Not just different solos, but different setlists, different ways of playing the songs, different ways of moving from one song to the next, every night. Stretch. Fall on your face, make an ass of yourselves, but push yourselves every night. Give the fans what they want, but cultivate fans who want something new as well as the classics.

    If you don’t want to alienate bluegrass fans, keep the traditional repertoire handy, but stretch it hard. Don’t ever forget that Bill and Earl were pioneers, who took traditional music and took it new places. But play songs straight once in a while to show that you’ve got the chops.

    You guys have a big step up on this because you already have fans. But build that fan base by playing the same venue a lot. Build fans who revolve around what you are doing. Let them record your shows and distribute the recordings. Word of mouth is the best marketing plan. Make your fans know how much you appreciate them, how they are onto the best secret in the world.

    If you are not big enough to pack in the stadiums, consider package tours. Team up with Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, McCoury Brothers. I’d suggest Yonder Mountain, but they don’t have the talent of you guys. Create a scene. Become your own genre. Again, reinforce that feeling among your fans that they are onto the next big thing, the cutting edge, the secret that’s about to explode. Do a festival with these guys, and see if you can get Bela to come.

    I know it’s easy to drive from the back seat. Just my $0.02. But really, keep the music in the forefront and the rest will take care of itself. And you are hardly the first band to face this dilemma.

  36. Lucien · April 22, 2011

    Absolutely spot on Chris. Very, very well written. We have several bluegrass clubs here in Florida and we see these same attitudes with our members. Can’t tell you how many times I have heard “that isn’t how Bill Monroe played it”. So what? That is the beauty of music, go explore a little. I really like bluegrass of all genres and frequent music festivals. Hate to say it, but I skip most of the local bluegrass festivals because they only book traditional acts. Those of us who grew up on rock, jam bands, disco, country…etc (you all know at least one disco song you like) are open minded enough to appreciate what you do no matter how it is categorized. Keep it up!

  37. Mr Sippy · April 22, 2011

    Ok, checkin’ my dates. You wrote this on Wednesday right? Well surmised and summed up Chris. We been having these thoughts and complaints for ages. What is there to lose? Yer soul boy, yer soul!

  38. Tug · April 22, 2011

    Great perspective. Here in Tampa we have wondered for years why the local community radio bluegrass night still won’t play any Grisman. If it wasn’t for Monroe’s original innovation of combining the different genres of blues, scotts irish fiddle tunes, jazz, and gospel there wouldn’t be any bluegrass. Why stop there? The tree has to grow, or wither and die. I have never understood the folks that circle the wagons when you play dixie hoedown with a minor chord in the B part. Mining that rich seam that combines any and all musical influences is as American as apple pie. It may not be your cup of tea, but you know when it is done well…nice job Chris. I mean, where would picking be without the friggin’ flat 7th?

  39. Mark Jukich · April 22, 2011

    People are quick to forget that Bill Monroe had to find a sound outside of what was “traditional” for his time. I can think of a few past groups that have skirted that tradition. New Grass Revival, Bella Fleck, Peter Rowan, and Hot Rise played with the fringes of the traditional and we now consider them part of the tradition (whether you like them or not). That attitude is what defines great musicians, and we (bluegrassers) should embrace it. There is much good about the current traditions that I like, but I enjoy a step of the traditional just as much.

  40. Gordon Strout · April 22, 2011

    My hats off to you Chris, incredibly insightful and well said…there is no doubt that “open-mindedness” would go a long way in propelling blue grass music (broad definition) towards a much greater audience. Thank you!

  41. Tonie Ott · April 22, 2011

    Wow! I agree with so much of what you said Chris. I think that some pretty so much of what is holding Bluegrass back to a wider audience is in the hands of a few, and those few are operating out of fear of losing their control….. they like being big fish in a small pond. They have carved out a kingdom for themselves, and they are threatened by the potential influx of music and changes to which they may be unable or unwilling to adjust.

    Just look at the names in the liner notes of most “big-time” bluegrass CD’s. You will see the same names over and over. When I say this it is not to discount the talent of those individuals, but I find it hard to believe that there are not other talented, deserving artist who could bring a new, fresh perspective to the music that we all love so much.

    ~Peace to you Chris.

  42. RJ Beyer · April 22, 2011

    Nice article and I enjoy your music! I detect a tone that you may feel the traditional bluegrass folks are some how responsible for holding you back from larger venues and younger fan bases. There is nothing wrong with taking the bluegrass style of music in new directions, but at the same time be mindful to respect the Bluegrass traditionalists for not wanting to change their ways to accomodate your vision of what the music and the fan base could or should be. I personally don’t care to hear an electric bass at a Bluegrass festival, anymore then I care to hear drums, keyboards, bagpipes, or electric guitars. If I want to immerse myself into progressive music then I’ll go to a “World Music” Festival, where everything is expected to be experimental and progressive.” I totally respect your decision to try to take the bluegrass syle of music in new directions. But if you want to use the “Bluegrass” label for your business model then at least show “respect” to those traditions and formulations laid out by the fathers of the music. Also pay respect to the festivals and folks who are striving to keep the tradition of this unique American music style alive, as this music has never been about popularity, wealth, or fame. Quite the opposite actually.

    ~ “electric ain’t no part of nothin’

    • Rob Miller · April 22, 2011

      Chris, This is a great addition to the conversation. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I’ll spread it around.

  43. chrispandolfi · April 22, 2011

    Love all this feedback–thanks so much to everyone for reading. Please, discuss…

  44. da Flower Punk · April 22, 2011

    A superb rumination on a long-running trend in bluegrass: traditionalists v. progressives. So strange that a form of music that was essentially only born in 1946 got such conservative “traditionalists” almost immediately. The only thing missing from this otherwise excellent analysis is a bit more historical perspective.

    New Grass Revival, for example, faced exactly this dilemma over thirty years ago. They charted a course through it even as Bill Monroe slammed doors in Sam Bush’s face. (Especially harsh since Sam loved Bill’s music.) Some festivals embraced it. In the late 70s I saw a fest that featured both Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, but the best music of the weekend (imo), the largest crowd, and the hugest roars of approval, were given to the New Grass Revival on their headlining Saturday night set. Truly stunning music it was. Telluride Bluegrass, of course, embodies this expanded version of what “bluegrass” with incredible success.

    David Grisman, on the other hand, developed and presented Dawg music with explicit contractual clauses that the word “bluegrass” could not be used in promoting it. He definitely didn’t want to rouse the ire of the traditionalists, and he was also acutely aware that what he was doing was not bluegrass. He charted a pretty good career through that minefield as well, though when he does present bluegrass rather than Dawg music these days, he’s quite the traditionalist.

    A last example is the one-time Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan. Rowan seems to have taken a pretty psychedelic approach to categorical boundaries: he both ignores and blurs them. He left the Bluegrass Boys because that musical conservatism reflected a wider social conservatism. In the era of Civil Rights and Vietnam, he couldn’t live with that. In the meantime, country music, reggae, Tex-Mex, and other forms found its way into his music. Despite all that, his project with Dawg and Garcia, Old & In The Way, was the single largest selling bluegrass album of all time for decades. Traditionalists be damned.

  45. Ned Luberecki · April 22, 2011

    Well said, Chris. Thank you!

  46. Henri Deschamps · April 22, 2011

    I think there are three significant considerations at play here:

    For people to whom bluegrass is less about the music and more about the socio-economic ideology, the music matters less than the ritual of gathering at festivals like going to church with like minded believers, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tradition is a good thing.

    For people to whom bluegrass is more about the music and less about the ideology,I think a taliban like fundementalism has really taken no hold in their spirit. Innovation and creativity is a good thing.

    Between the two you have the overwhelming majority of people who really believe it is important not to lose the bluegrass soul, which is truly important to all of us, to stay well grounded in the roots, maintain a real familial consensus, sibling and generational harmony, and the spirit of community. This need to be done while reducing a culture of poverty or a culture of mediocrity by endles repetition of the same ole same ole… and above all would like to see the music, artists and business architecture of bluegrass honored and economically successful. As in all generational shifts it is as inevitable as it is challenging and disruptive to some. One expects wisdom from elders, and for the most part that seems to be the response. Del McCoury is an elder, Sam Bush is now an elder, Tony Rice is an elder. These legends to name a few among many, do not get stuck in dogma, and nurture rather than punish.

    I think these issues are resolving themselves as we speak. I have seen a great openess emerge over the last few years that did not exist before. The factor most leading that charge is mutual respect, courtesy, understanding and listening… both to the music and to the artists who make the music. I am quite optimistic about the future of Bluegrass. Its success on a much deeper and broader level is inevitable and strictly a matter of time, and this because the music is real, solid, and the folks in the community cherish it as they do few things. This is all a conversation between a family, and how rare and valuable that is.

  47. Ryan Cavanaugh · April 22, 2011

    Wonderful insight Chris! You’ve put in to words what I’ve been thinking for years! Hopefully things will change. The future is now.

    ~Cheers

  48. Dan · April 22, 2011

    Wonderfully put, and very informative. Everyone has ideas of the type of music they want to play, in other words, what moves them. And just as “Country” music has evolved into what ever it is today, Bluegrass music may do the same. I saw a “Bluegrass” concert with a prominent group from the Nashville area. I was very dissapointed. Not that what they played wasn’t good. They are a very talented group, and they did a wonderful job. It just wasn’t bluegrass, it was Americana. I personally think the biggest boost for main line traditional bluegrass is the erosion of country music. There are still people out there who like the older styles that make traditional bluegrass what it is. There may be room for everyone at the table, but please don’t season everything with the same spices.

  49. Leon V. Lobos · April 22, 2011

    Hi Chris,

    Good luck. I wish you great success. You guys are plenty talented. I saw you playing at the Wagon Shed in New Freedom, PA. Small venue. You used one mic. I sat four feet from the stage. The acoustic blend was heavenly. I have seen you at larger venues also. Of course, the smaller venue was better, but this might be comparing apples to oranges.

    For your new direction, just remember, there is two kinds of music – good and bad. The five “T”‘s are still necessary – especially taste. Some of today’s jam bands lack these qualities. You guys have it!! Don’t lose it as part of your “new branding”.

    As far as marketing, I can give you this advice: Your “new” market should have:

    1) the willingness to pay
    2) the ability to pay (this is the thing usually missing)
    3) product demand should be as long as possible

    Baby boomers of my “time” fit this characteristic.

    Be careful of how long of of a product life cycle you choose. Short term bucks for the “wrong” audience may stain your reputation as creditable musicians. Mass marketing, economy of scale approach usually dictates a lower quality.

    For example, I have been playing and following bluegrass/acoustic music since the early seventies. (Grew up on 60’s rock and roll). I would easily pay $50.00 to $ 100.00 for a ticket to hear Bela, Tony, Sam, Flux, Stewart, and Mark. Product life cycle for these guys is infinite. They still have the five “T”‘s. You guys have the same potential.

    Be careful on your choices. I hope they lead you to the “success” you seek.

    Best wishes,

    Leon

  50. AGuy NamedJoe · April 22, 2011

    Do you think that the ‘traditionalist’ do not know that WE [the fans of the Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth, Cornmeal, Greensky Bluegrass, Hogmaw, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and David Grisman, Bill Nershi and on and on] know of and respect those who came before? I got to where I am today [loving all of this GREAT ACOUSTIC (bluegrass) music] because of Old & In the Way and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – who honored those who came before them.

  51. Richard Burkett · April 22, 2011

    Chris,
    Great article! As both a musician and visual artist I have often seen this gulf in both worlds: the division between those who value and draw from the richness of tradition, and the traditionalists who seem to want time to be frozen at whatever moment they have chosen as their own vision of the ideal. Tradition and traditionalism are very different things. Indeed we’re seeing a lot of these same attitudes in politics and religion as well. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope that we can all move forward in more ways than just the music.

  52. M Pronchuk · April 22, 2011

    Well articulated.

    “We are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones.” – Werner Herzogg

  53. C cox · April 22, 2011

    Chris, you have captured what my husband and I have experienced so often in the bluegrass music world. We would definitely be characterized as embracing the progressive forms of the genre while still listening to and enjoying the founders. But, what kind of group or institution survives if it doesn’t allow creativity and new inspiration to flow within it’s members? We have also often discussed how disgusted Bill Monroe would probably be at the “keepers of the flame” – be they satellite radio or festival promotors or the attendees themselves – who are not allowing new forms and musical explorations. He is known for starting something new…why would he have wanted that to end with himself? I think the IBMA must change, but don’t expect them to…from my perspective, a new genre is inevitable.

  54. Doug Gilliland · April 22, 2011

    Well written, and thought-provoking to say the least.

    I’m not in a position to counter anything you’ve said with actual data, but I was under the impression that “bluegrass music” is growing faster than ever; and that bluegrass “fringe” bands fall under the “Americana” umbrella; which, I thought, is also growing incredibly fast.

    Doesn’t Jesse McReynolds have an electric bass player? Do people complain about that?

    XM Radio has the “Derailed” program, and I’ve never heard Chris, Ned or Kyle “dissin'” on the edgier bands.

    As I said, I can’t dispute or argue with anything you’ve said, as I don’t make my living in a bluegrass band. As a fan, and I thought a fairly well-versed fan of all sorts of “bluegrass,” I’m just very surprised to learn of this issue.

    Thank you for taking the time to voice your concerns so eloquently.

    I wish you luck and good fortune in all of your pursuits!

  55. Michael Kennedy · April 22, 2011

    This is a good and practical approach to accepting change. Times change, the arts change, people change and society changes. I love Bluegrass, however, I don’t worship Bluegrass. The moment any art form is voluntarily locked into an unchanging paradigm it shoots itself in the foot. Celebrate the music we created, the music we have, and the people who make it. However, celebrate the courage to explore and grow. Like it or not, if something doesn’t grow, it dies.

  56. Johnny Grubb · April 22, 2011

    Thought 1 – They must’ve thought the “State of Bluegrass” wasn’t big enough when they decided to go with “BG Nation” as a name. Something about this effort coming from the IBMA rather than you guys makes it significantly less appealing to me, especially considering you guys had this exact same idea a year and a half ago.

    Thought 2 – I’ve never given a rip about the IBMA. I’ve had a successful bluegrass career and will continue to have a successful bluegrass career not giving a rip about the IBMA. The vibe I get from the IBMA is sort of like an old church with a really bigoted group of church elders. They had a good run by being the church that attracts other bigots, but the pool of available young folks with minds as closed as theirs is dwindling and now some young person has come in and made it clear to the elders that this will affect their bottom line. And now they want the same groups whose eyes they’ve been sticking their thumbs in for the last 30 years to help them out of the ditch? I’ll be over here making music and continuing to not give a rip about the IBMA, but I wish them the very best of luck.

    Thought 3 – I love you, man, and I love your band. I know how difficult it is to get a clear perspective from inside the bubble, but popular perception outside the bubble is that you guys are happening. The main thing that most bands outside the major label machine don’t usually get is that to really, really get somewhere takes a lot of time. Yonder’s been around almost 15 years, RRE 10, you guys 6? It would appear that you guys are pretty engaged and hungry in the business development side of things. To consciously take a risk with the business in the pursuit of really fulfilling your vision and potential is an experience I wish I could’ve had. Hats off to you and your mates, bro.

  57. Tony Markey · April 22, 2011

    Really appreciate this Chris – great thoughts. It comes to mind that Bluegrass may be holding ITSELF back from mainstream popularity. And on purpose. That being said, I really have to disagree with RJ. This isn’t about a lack of respect for what the more traditional bluegrass lovers and festival promoters are holding on to in terms of the music. This isn’t a respect issue – it’s an artistic issue, and frankly the lack of respect is from those who are so narrow as to believe that Bluegrass bands consist of four instruments and three chords. While that may be rarer today than it was in the past, it still very much exists – and I am always surprised to hear of such sentiments even in the local jamming community!
    This is felt in all types of music- and art -the struggle between the traditional and something more. Between what we know and what we don’t. Music isn’t a static thing, and frankly, a lot of people appreciate what lies on the fringe of art simply because it adds spice to an otherwise familiar recipe. It’s comical to “hunker down” into your familiar melodies and declare that this is what this music is and anything else is that newfangled kids stuff that no one should listen to. Well, comical and sad. The appreciation many of us feel for these envelope-pushing songs isn’t to the EXCLUSION of a more old-timey sound, but is supplemental to it(See “Fork in the Road” comment). There’s a place for 1,4,5, but it can be pretty exciting when someone throws a minor in there(OHMYGOSHWHATWASTHAT!)
    Earl Scruggs was radical. Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and a thousand others have and are stretching our definitions of, indeed creating new musical categories. Is it anyone’s place to narrowly define what this music is? Well, based on concert attendance, it is if they don’t want Bluegrass associated with mainstream music. But please note that what is in the mainstream is there because people um, like it.
    It will be interesting to see how history treats this topic. Are Yonder Mountain and the like(Stringdusters!) the “Elvises” of Bluegrass? Are they fighting a myopic, traditional establishment that snorts at their “newfangled” music?
    YUP.

  58. Leah Ross · April 22, 2011

    Chris:
    You do not know how much I needed your voice at this time. What a loud voice and one that should be listened to. Go Dusters!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  59. Mark Newton · April 22, 2011

    Very well said Chris. Informative and articulate. Great Job.

  60. John Arnold · April 22, 2011

    great read and a WHOLE lot of truth Chris! Soooooooooo true!

  61. Well said Chris Pandolfi. As a long time fan of the music, and new to the “industry” side of things, I appreciate your ability to articulate the common ground, the challenges and the possibilities for the industry, today, and in the future.

  62. My Friend Fats · April 22, 2011

    I am a fan of your music – your band is talented and you guys have “the magic” that I love to experience at a live show. Raw Power. Praise be. Lawd-a-mercy. Wa-Jah-Jah.

    You commented about these topics – music, marketing, and “the scene”.

    I love pure music that has “that magic” I was talking about. You know its magic when it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up upon hearing it. Here are some bands/artists that have it – Stringdusters – RRE – Del and his sons – Wood Brothers – Hendrix – Pink Floyd – GD – Aston Barrett – tool – Howlin’ Wolf – Son House – Sonny Rollins – Keith Jarrett – Chet Baker – Robert Fripp – Shakti – Rachmaninov – any tuvan throat singer- the list goes on and on….

    As you can see…this list of artists that have “the magic” transcends all genres/instrumentation/time-period. They dont “try real hard” to bend things around to conform to some genre, scene, or marketing plan. They just forge their creativity into fine tempered steel that lasts for AGES. No shelf life for any of those guys.

    On the other hand – you have bands that balance their scales a bit differently…

    These are the bands that put marketing over music. Scene over substance. Trend over talent.

    Bands like Yonder, Avetts – sure they have the popularity and bankroll that you wish you had…but the fact of the matter is that their music does not even come close to what you guys are doing. They both pander to a different scene…Yonder has played thousands of shows for the “jamband scene”…building an army of loyal fans – but honestly if you talk to a lot of the yonder (yawn-der) fans, they are not very musically diverse in their tastes. These folks are mainly herdsmen…sheeple….following the whims of what “the scene” presents them, and not really thinking for themselves…just following, not finding out what they really like. True…they come to shows and spend $$$.

    Avetts really exemplify this. They are a showy, arrogant, bluegrass boyband. The magic is not there. The money and marketing of a cool “indie-folk” pop group is.

    I love new innovative music…to me, thats what the stringdusters have always been about. But PLEASE always remember never to sacrifice you music, talent, creativity to fit the mold of some fleeting trend or festival “scene”. I can tell you guys have been going down that road a bit…calling your own festival “the festy” is one OBVIOUS attempt to attract some of those “jamsters” into your fanbase.

    Dont try so hard – play from your heart – dont let your scales tip to the marketing/scene side of things…keep it MUSIC STRONG!

    I also loved that Werner Herzogg quote in the comments – he is an amazing creative individual – “We are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones.”

    I believe this wholeheartedly…but there is a definite difference between marketing and music/art. We deserve new ARTFORMS – not new MARKETING GIMMICKS.

    Here is a quote from one of my favorite musicians – Danny Carey – the drummer from tool…an uber-talented guy that has been in the industry, and playing by his own rules since the early 90’s:

    “If you are playing music to get signed, please do me, yourself, and the whole world a favor and quit right now. The last thing this world needs is more shit to filter through when we are looking for sincerity and inspiration in art forms. If you are playing in a band in your local scene and not developing a following, then you don’t have a voice or a message that needs to be heard. That’s not to say you should quit. You should just quit trying to please other people and play for yourself. Tool only played 7 gigs before the sharks were circling, looking for fresh meat to rob and exploit. The reason for this was every time we played, our friends went home and told their friends about the next gig, who told their friends about the next gig etc. until by the time we had done 5 shows, the clubs we were playing in were packed. You either have a chemistry that taps into the current or you don’t. There is nothing wrong with playing heart felt music that is not trendy or popular but there is nothing worse than someone bastardizing or compromising their art for the sake of popularity and money.”

  63. aburtch · April 22, 2011

    Well put! Insightful and from someone who has experienced the industry first-hand. Bluegrass music would benefit from opening up and taking a “big tent” approach.

  64. John McGann · April 22, 2011

    Yeah, Chris! Well said.

  65. Tim · April 22, 2011

    Yonder is what I call “Colorado Bluegrass”. Fans of “bluegrass” out here often don’t care for country music creating a style of string players that play bluegrass instruments, listen to bluegrass records, but what comes out strips off the “country” that Bill Monroe’s music contains. After all these aren’t country folk, or southern folk, there young hippies who love the banjo. They don’t write or sing rock, bluegrass or not, it is what gets called as bluegrass in the Colorado Mountains. And no you won’t hear it at the IBMA.

    I love both. I grew on country, and Flatt & Scruggs LPs were the some of the first albums I owned. But Chris is right, some of these young banda play amazing music and at times the more progressive side of the Stringdusters is about the same type of music, music I love, as Yonder or Railroad Earth. I don’t know the genre, but Bill Monroe’s spirit is found at those shows.

    I found Chris’ noted about less MC work to be interest. In a modern shows the songs blend together not allowing the vibe music creates to be totally lost to a 4 minute commentary on Scruggs’ five fingers. There is less talkin’ and more pickin’ and that flow of sound is something I like. Can’t wait to see the Stringdusters take on less talkin’ and more pickin’!

    For all you Colorado fans don’t miss Infamous Stringdusters at Red Rocks opening for Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth. A night of what current (mostly) acoustic music sounds like from three of the best.

  66. Pam Warren · April 22, 2011

    This was a timely post for me. I just finished writing a novel about a woman who is a progressive bluegrass mandolinist and a lot of these issues came up in my book. I think it can be difficult to be successful and progressive and reach out to new fans for bluegrass music without turning off the fans of the more traditional music. I’m not sure why it’s like that. There should be room for all kinds of music. I remember being at a bluegrass festival and hearing traditional fans complaining about Chris Thile. I was thrilled that he was there, even as I enjoyed the more traditional bands. Also, just want to say hi to you, I was one of Howie Tarnower’s mandolin students and I played with you at the Skellig once. You left me in the dust of course, but it was fun.:-)

  67. Matt · April 22, 2011

    Jeeze Chris, if you get too famous, I won’t be able to see you guys play at Andy and Rachael’s place!

    Well said. I’m one of those older guys who likes traditional bluegrass but that’s what it is, traditional. I guess I’m for what ever format allows you guys to create such amazing music. Call it whatever you want. Generally, what I like about bluegrass is the tight rhythms, the instrumental viruosity, great harmonies, amazing arrangements etc. If that needs to be called progressive bluegrass or whatever, it doesn’t really matter to me. Just as long as I get to hear it.

    As far as smoke, lights and fancy shows, I guess I really don’t need that. I’ve seen y’all several times and will again. I suppose the younger crowd has come to expect that sort of thing.

  68. Kirk A · April 22, 2011

    Kudos to Chris for a well-thought missive that will surely produce some good (already seen) feedback for all to read, whatever side of the “tradition” divide you might be. Lots of good ideas in there, and realistic, too.

    Love the Stringdusters! Saw you guys live in Pittsburgh, have your records, downloaded your concerts – just great stuff. Love Bill Monroe, too, and the traditionalists. Hopefully we can have our cake and eat it, too.

    I have one complaint about many of the “newgrass” (hate the labels) bands playing these days – the use of pickups. Ugh. The sounds is at times so unnatural that it’s embarrassing to see a player playing a pre-war Martin or a great mandolin, only to have it sound like a $400 Alvarez (or worse). Can you new generation agree to invest in high-quality mics to generate high-quality tone from your high-quality instruments so we listeners can hear the music as we’re supposed to? I see Punch Brothers do this often, and others should do. It’s in service to the music, and in service to those who pay for the music, us, the fans.

    Keep playing!

  69. Will · April 22, 2011

    Seems like there’s two things going on here:

    1. What is bluegrass? Not sure, and it doesn’t really matter to me.
    2. What are the Stringdusters going to do with themselves? Not sure, but it DOES matter to me.

    I think I’m mostly with this guy (although I do think the Avett’s have written a few interesting songs): keep it music-strong, and whatever you do, please don’t start pandering to the lowest common denominator. One of the great tragedies of the music biz is that is not a meritocratic in its rewards system. Hell, life’s not fair – what’s new? The machinery (pick just about any genre) pumps out garbage that is wildly successful from a commercial standpoint, while most folks have never even heard of, say, Darrell Scott. Or you guys…yet. I’m not asking you guys to remain unrecognized and uncompensated for your HUGE talent, just for the sake of not “selling out.” Do what you feel you must. But I must say that I’m usually suspicious of anybody that runs Yonder up a flagpole. They’re really nice guys, put on a fun show, and they do what they do pretty well. But you guys are so, so, SOOOOOO much more talented and interesting and creative (and did I mention talented?) than Yonder. Somebody upthread recommended taking the long view, and I know that history will be far kinder to the Stringdusters than YMSB. As a Stringdusters and Pandolfi fan, I can’t imagine why you’d hold them up as an example of anything to be strived for (other than commercial success).

    You know Chris, I gotta admit, I’m a bit confused as to the whole point of this article. Who’s the audience, and what EXACTLY do you want? Maybe I just don’t know enough about the pressures you guys are facing from the IBMA side of things (I don’t know the first thing about BG Nation), but I get the impression that you’re concerned about potentially alienating large chunks of your current and potential fanbase. You say yourself that Yonder doesn’t need the IBMA, so what makes you think you do? I’m confused. There’s some curious internal-struggle undertones going on here. Just do your thing. Or perhaps you’re just wishing that folks wouldn’t put music into genres. Good luck with that. Not really sure why that matters (ultimately) either, but clearly it’s a marketing/promotion concern for you now. I suppose I struggle with the same thing with my little local bands. I always cringe a little bit when folks call us “bluegrass,” ’cause it just doesn’t seem right according to the nebulous definition floating around in my mind. Like when you said the Stringduster’s vocal style was bluegrass – not to my ears. I’ve always felt that you guys had a much more polished Nashville country sorta thing going vocally. So clearly I have a vague sense of what I think is bluegrass that doesn’t conform to what you think is bluegrass, which doesn’t conform to what the IBMA thinks, or the vast majority of knuckleheaded Yonder fans or… So what? I’m sure the hardcore traditionalists abandoned you guys long ago. The point is, I don’t CARE what you call it, just keep doing it. And far more importantly, regardless of what you call it, please don’t go all lame and simple and stupid for the sake of broader appeal. That’s my selfish plea.

  70. Ian · April 22, 2011

    Chris, love the thoughts throughout & agree totally. I can’t understand the dogmatic mindset in any context, and it makes the least amount of sense in joyful enterprises like music making and appreciating. Keep making music and we’ll keep coming!

    Also, come to Europe. If you need a street team in Zurich, I’m your guy.

    -Ian

  71. Kathy Boyd · April 22, 2011

    Well written Chris!! It is all very interesting, and I have to agree that the biggest shows we’ve played have been at non-bluegrass venues. (75,000 people at last years 100th Annual Pendleton Roundup being at the top of the list!)

    The difficulty I find is that promoters tend to want a specific “label” to the music. We do a lot of work with the Roots Music Association, but more often than not get asked “What does that MEAN?”.

    My answer is generally somewhere along the lines of we have great respect for our roots, but use that foundation to give us wings to fly and make the music our own.

    Thanks for an excellent blog, and some things to really think about as I start my day.

  72. ken farmer · April 22, 2011

    Chris,
    Your blog is the best thing I’ve ever read about the picker’s dilemma.
    Your comments really stirred some old and new thoughts for me.
    30 years ago I played in a band called Upland Express here in SW Va. Our fiddle player was Rickie Simpkins and the bass player was his brother Ronnie.
    We all know what they’re doing today.
    In the late 70’s our music was at a great level of performance and musicianship.
    We just couldn’t get paying jobs. Mainly, we weren’t managing our business, didn’t have a goal except to play and we messed around and let things slip away. We were big traditionalist fans but also loved Sam Bush, etc. and incorporated rock songs into our song list:ie, Honky Tonk Women, etc. The traditionalists couldn’t stand that stuff.
    Your comments about playing to bigger crowds and tapping into a bluegrass related fanbase are right on the mark. You cannot survive playing for musicians only with an average age of 60. By the way, I am 60. There are many more young people out there looking for an entertaining evening or afternoon. They want music with energy and vitality. The Stringdusters are a perfect example of that.
    My oldest son is a singer/songwriter and plays in a band named Blue Moonshine.
    Everyone writes songs and the music is very appealing to lots of interest groups . There’s not a banjo player(my apologies to you) in the band but I would certainly call the music cool acoustic and bluegrass related. They are starting to get jobs more like what you discussed.
    My son has also taught me to play music for the joy of it and forget about the uptight perfection approach that so many bluegrass musicians are afflicted with. We should always enjoy what we’re playing and remember–no matter how fancy and crazy you can solo there’s always another picker coming along who will blow you away and the average person could care less.
    take care,
    Ken Farmer

  73. John Butler · April 22, 2011

    This is very good , and a discussion that every musician will eventually have . The folk song revival has been through these heartaches time after time , and in the end , everyone must find their own limits , and tolerance is the only way forwards . What is important is that you’re true to yourself : if you’re keeping the flame of tradition alive , you are unlikely to get rich . If you’re happy to deal with the money men : go for it , but you won’t take everyone with you. Music is a journey , but it doesn’t have a railroad . Love to all , Johnny.

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  77. Brian · April 22, 2011

    I enjoyed reading this blog and appreciate your willingness to speak openly about the business side of Bluegrass. I’m not sure I share all of your opinions but the conversation is interesting and valid. Brian

  78. Adam Paul · April 22, 2011

    Howdy from TX…

    Here are a couple thoughts…

    Monroe didn’t want to be called country so he called it Bluegrass after his native home. The Stanley’s called their music mountain music. Flatt and Scruggs called theirs country music with overdrive. It is so cool that the consept of bluegrass has warranted respect for its practitioners styles.

    There is a quote of when a friend of mine interviewed Monroe in ’79. “Bill, what do you think of David Grisman?” Bills reply was, “David has kindly left Bluegrass hasn’t he?”. There was no judgement on whether or not David could play Bluegrass it is just he doesn’t play it any more.

    Why is it only possible for Monroe, Dawg and Bush to create a new Genre. When Bela fleck was nominated and granted Banjo player of the year, years back, he graciously got on the stage and said, I am not a bluegrass Banjo player. That is respect for the genre.

    You guys and the like have so much talent… you can make your own genre up! To have that capacity to actually play a whole new style of music is a wonderful thing. It is also inspirational the respect you have for bluegrass to want to hang on to it. You don’t have to, though!

  79. KingFool · April 22, 2011

    Chris, well stated. “Bluegrass” as a genre is limited, Perhaps a new genre such as “Blue Sky” or “Blue Yonder” could help the music soar to new heights. Keep up the good work!

  80. Charlie Downey · April 22, 2011

    great Direction and insight from one of the hottest young Players on the scene. “Our Music” will always be originated from our appalchian friends and their influence will Always be there… It “IS”… in our music. Look how much its changed so far… as an aspiring Banjo Player it’s great to be able to wip off Foggy Mt Brkdn AND some string Dusters. Pick it solid Chris and Rip it up. if anyonme was at GreyFox this past weekend… You know exactly what I mean and what Chris writwes about .
    Nice work Chris. see you at Osippee. Charlie Downey

  81. Oren Paisner · April 22, 2011

    Don’t worry chris! even though all the old folks will die and bluegrass will take a new form….. i can still sing and play a vast repertoire of traditionals. And im 19 so im not going anywhere anytime soon.

  82. Claudia Daguer · April 22, 2011

    Bluegrass, and whatever genre you can think of, will always have its underlying problems. But I think that the problem is more pronounced nowadays when the music is not intended to inspire anymore but to make money instead. That is why it is called the music business, because the music (most of the time) is just business nowadays. There used to be a time when I loved listening to the radio. Now even the radio is polluted by these so-called “musicians” who are always on autotune. Sad, but true.

  83. Chad Jeremy · April 22, 2011

    Chris, I’ve thought long and hard about this debate for the last 6-7 years. I’ve watched the audience in my particular region change as time marches on and it grows smaller. A pair of clubs that we would play on a regular basis, became more out of respect for those left to enjoy music they love in a setting they also love. I started seeing more notices on the wall of people who have “passed to the other side” and less people in the seats. It was something my band talked about numerous times.

    However it wasn’t until I was at SPBGMA last year that I made a real discovery. And though I do not claim to have the answers on the complex questions on this subject I do have some ideas.

    SPBGMA, was this last year as it always was, fun and a long weekend of jamming. It was also home to some great music on the stage. And as I waited outside the doors to the convention area, while our dobro player went in to buy a new capo, what I saw was this. Most of the folks in the 20 minutes I waited were older. Many, white haired and past the age of 55. Please don’t think that I’m about to bash anyone older than 55 for as each year passes I find myself becoming more of an “old man” than a young one anymore. But I did make a point to think about the fact that those fine folks were bluegrass listeners and the younger folks, under 45 were out jamming.

    To me I started thinking about how a music like ours is unique in that many listeners and also players. And seeing the shift in people’s desire to jam instead of be in a seat listening to music struck a chord.

    A point you make about fans desire for an experience is totally in the bulls eye! I have been part of the jamband scene to a small degree, but I feel a stronger pull than I used to to travel closer to that bank. I’m a die hard traditionalist for the most part, but I see the need for music, fans and those involved to evaluate this shift. I have also talked to promoters and bookers about these particular things. They’ve noticed as well!

    The trend I think I’m seeing is that there are two sometimes heated camps. Die hard traditionalist, and the younger more new age camp. This has always been there. And while I feel there is a change in this music now, such as never has been. It can be scary, as change most often is. But I think the answer is right in front of our face.

    The “Festy” is one of a number of festivals that cater to both camps very well. As is Delfest. Why do you ask? Because it’s an opportunity to please everyone, the shotgun approach if you will. I also feel that more venues need to understand the need to blend this format for a bigger more consistant draw. I sure do love bluegrass music, and all the great people in it but I’m not nervous about the future. Our musicians are truly amazing in their appreciation for the roots of this music and I think it’s in great hands.

    Stringdusters Fan Since 2008

  84. Janice · April 22, 2011

    I’m a fan of bluegrass. One wonders is being a fan is enough for my comments and opinions to carry any weight in this debate over the bluegrass sound. The bluegrass world has existed for years before I purchased a festival ticket or a CD. My main exposure to this music had always been from a gospel point of view. Family reunions and things of this sort when friends and family would jam together. For years this was my only impression of the musical style. My parents had bluegrass LP’s. I love the traditional sound. This being said, as a consumer, I don’t thumb my nose to innovative takes on the classic traditional sound. Bluegrass changed the first time it was recorded on vinyl and promoted for profit many many years ago. From the little churches and family front porches a style of music formed. Early bluegrass bands who took the music from the porches and churches into the recording studio altered the simplicity many years ago. Thus, creating a larger fan base. Now, so many years later, who can put a choke hold on a generation of musicians wanting to broaden an audience base. My hat is off to the musicians of old. The bluegrass industry should realize the alteration began many years ago. There is a generation of fans who are eager to listen to new interpretations of what this music is.

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  88. liberty kral · April 22, 2011

    Chris it is a tricky rock to be in with Bluegrass, I would like to cite Ricky Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent as case Studies for you. I don’t think either one of them are considered Bluegrass anymore, nor would they be entirely welcomed wholely by the community should they come back to FanFest.

    Bluegrass has a root that must not be left. While there are routes that may be addressed and enjoyed they may be considered “pet” projects and alternative projects and those should NOT be reviewed as those as Bluegrass by any standard. While bluegrass has had a very lax standard in the past of pushing limitations of acceptabilities for who and what we deem in our community the very core essence of what it is, in my humble opinion shouldn’t be left behind, and to do so, really then the artist should choose willingly so, to leave us. We wouldn’t want you at that point.

    There are reasons why Bluegrass is important to keep wholly important to it’s craft. Breakaway from it like Ricky, leaving and going off to TBN and becoming on his walk with God is perfectlly fine, as is his choice. That is GOSPEL.It should be contained under such terms in my opinion he should make a decision. Going all over the board is confusing. In this world of high tech, we choose to weigh the pros and cons, and cuts and losses. When you are all over the map you are spreading yourself too thin. Even a talented artist at thier very best cannot be the best at a genre devotee because they are losing the core of it by moving on to other interests. Ricky has had this problem from the beginning. Country Boy Album, then on to bluegrass, hiring and firing bands, Taking on after Mr. Monroe, Being absent at his 100 year celebration, he is spread too thin.

    With Ms. Vincent. Rhonda is getting known to be the diva that no one wants to work with. While she may be the one that Martha White is sponsoring, who wants to see somebody who wants to take and make a break from bluegrass and become the next Reba McIntyre? We don’t! Vincent and Dailey made the right choice in breaking away from her, simply because they stayed on the course. Now while it is true that you can grow as an artist, there is so much that people forget, so much has been forgotton, even at our ages Mr. Pandolfini. I’m only 35.

    Ever hear of Memphis Minnie ? I’m addicted to her right now. I think the past reborn sometimes in a new light and twisted is an interesting view. I know the hard thing for you boys is making a mark on your own, as well as copywrite,and paper don’t hurt either. The thing about bluegrass however is that it is the story of our history as americans. Right now you should be able to write hand over fist, because, not only do you have the wars, (like the civil wars) you have the depression(aka recession) and we have all of it we are living in. The question is, are you going to document it for our future bluegrass generations, because, in my opinion; that is how most of the history of the south was remembered, was by song, and certainly by the appalaichains when they couldn’t read. It is our pre-history that needs to be preserved with artisans, not ditched because of alternative desires. Take it or leave it. You’re an amazing Banjo player, I have mad respect for you and your thought processes. But the HISTORY of bluegrass, why it should not be tainted or thought of an a break in medium is distasteful to me. I’m not saying that you think that by any means, I think that you may feel the constraints of the medium, as well you should, but I think that if truly devoted to the craft it should ultimatly make you and the stringdusters delve more deeply and confront what is and has been the origional Blue ridge line.

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  90. Marcy · April 22, 2011

    Great, thought provoking article. Hopefully, as you guys forge ahead, you’ll come to the realization that your true fan base (the ones who spread the Stringdusters Gospel to the natives!) doesn’t require a marketing plan. The Dusters having a “marketing plan” makes me wonder if the strong emotion your music brings out in me is just a fabrication of the promotors and ad men. I go to your shows because you guys are excellent musicians and make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. How can you jam your creativity into a business plan? A lot of the other bands that you mentioned in your manifesto, in my humble opinion, are WAY beneath you guys as far as musical talent and for me, it’s the music that will keep me coming back…not the light shows, smoke or any of those other gimmicks. Best wishes!

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  93. steve mcgrath · April 22, 2011

    Chris, Thanks for the article, it’s very thoughtful. The tension between the conservative and progressive bluegrass elements is as old as bluegrass music. It’s unavoidable. My take on the ‘Dusters has always been that the band is able to find the space between the bands that seem to have the ghost of Bill Monroe in the back row and bands that have been to too many Phish shows. The Stringduster sound seems to honor the tradition of acoustic music while playing in the 21st century. Thanks.

    With regard to gigs, my counsel is to be careful. I think too many ‘bar’ gigs may not be a good thing. I was looking forward to seeing The Stringdusters in Missoula this winter, but it turns out the gig is at the Top Hat, and it starts pretty late, and really that’s not for me and my wife. So no go, which is too bad. I know finding places to play is always a challenge, and I respect whatever choices the band makes.

    Thanks again, see ‘ya at the Fox tonight.

  94. Steve · April 22, 2011

    My regret isn’t where you are taking the music–I really enjoy your work and the live show we saw last year was excellent. I recommended your winter shows to people in Colorado and Montana. My regret is the venues for your limited live shows in New England. We planned to take in a show in NYC or Boston or both for my birthday weekend until we learned we would be standing the entire time on an open floor with the stage at one end and a bar at the other. Some of your fans are not 20 and 30-somethings who can stand for hours sandwiched among people who are moving around and pounding down brewskis. Nothing against it, we did our share of that in the day. But now we are just into the music. But you gotta do what you gotta do to earn a living, and the best of luck to you.

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  97. danny · April 22, 2011

    The only part of the essay had anything to do with bluegrass is when you said “Earl and Ralph.”

    Keep playing those U2 songs pandolfi.