18 thoughts on “IBMA Keynote Address

  1. Chris! You did a truly wonderful job (i’m not surprised in the least bit). You absolutely nailed the issues and highlighted the steps we all can take to finally move on from the “bluegrass dilemma”.

    As a member of a band with the word “bluegrass” actually in our name, yet one that has felt totally unwelcome at IBMA for years (yet also happened to play festivals like Bonnaroo and other big rock and jam festivals and do very well for ourselves last year thanks to the enthusiasm of fans from all genres), your speech makes me want to consider re-enrolling our membership and seeing what the future may hold at IBMA and what we can do to help. Thanks for your diligent work, my friend!
    -Anders

  2. Chris, thanks for being the voice of reason. I’ve been involved in Bluegrass for 52 years, and I’m still expanding my horizons. You made an eloquent statement for all of us who have one foot in the past and one in the future. It’s time for the Bluegrass Police to disband.

  3. Chris,
    First of all, I really appreciated your keynote address, which I viewed thanks to the marvels of the web and digital media. Clearly, you put a tremendous amount of thought, time and research into it.

    I wanted to offer a few of my thoughts on the notion of “preservation,” largely from the perspective of my position as the State Folklorist here in Virginia.

    I have personally never been comfortable with the term “preservation” when referring to art or culture, even though it is used quite often in my field. To me, “preservation” suggests that the music or any other type of traditional expression is a kind of fixed, static object… one that can be kind of frozen or canned and kept behind glass (I’m equally uncomfortable with the term “cultural conservation,” which draws from what I think is an equally problematic environmental metaphor.) As you pointed out, art and any other kind of traditional expression (I’ll speak to my thoughts on the word “traditional” in a moment) is always dynamic, it is not a kind of “object” that can simply be “passed on” from one person to another unchanged. As you pointed out, art only exists when it is enacted… in the hands of the artist. So, when we think of a musical expression as being “traditional,” we are not so much saying that it is some kind of fixed or frozen replica of some ideal type, but rather that the artist is drawing upon his/her own sense of the history of the music, often in direct or dialogue with an audience (either face to face or mediated/ real or imagined) in a unique historical time. Music is, in this sense, an “enactment,” it is something as you said that happens, in real time, by a living breathing author, who can only add his/her own style, personality, ability and voice, whether he/she would like to or not.

    Many in my field, and I suspect in IBMA as well, often operate as “authenticity police.” That’s never been my bag. Yes, I LOVE the traditional stuff… I love the stuff that stays close to the original feel and texture of that “high lonesome sound..” but I also dig what the young (and not so young) folks are doing.. where they’re taking it. I run a stage at Floydfest that focuses on traditional music played primarily by amazing but non-traditional musicians.. but at night I love to go out about the festival and take it all in.. whether the music is coming from lap steels or laptops… For me, the gold standard in the end is genuineness. Are these artists representing themselves in a genuine way? Are they trying to be something they’re not. There’s little that turns me off more, for example, than to see people pretend to be from Southern Appalachia when they’re actually from New Jersey.(this is NOT to say that I have a problem with people from New Jersey playing bluegrass by the way, so long as they keep it real… see David Grisman, Tony Trischka..)

    So, with this dynamic perspective of tradition, the word “preservation” does not hold much currency for me either (and the word “authentic” is problematic as well.) That being said, I do question a number of your points on the matter. I am generally not in full agreement with your suggestion that “musicians will always find each other,” or that if everyone just supports the music they love, that there won’t be some really precious art forms that will be lost. Perhaps I am more skeptical of the free market/ let the fans/musicians decide thing (and I understand that this is a more simplistic drilling down of your point). But my feelings here are drawn from 10 years of experience in the field working with traditional artists as director of the Virginia Folklife Program, as well as working with traditional artists from throughout the United States.

    The fact of the matter is that, like you pointed out, for a very long time the music industry has been anything but a democratic place. While we are blessed to have a substantial catalog of recordings from folks like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, etc. there are so many incredible musicians out there, many of whom never had a chance to record, play music for a living, or for that matter even play in front of audiences.

    In these cases, I believe the work of folklorists has been so valuable. We know of Doc Boggs or Elizabeth Cotton and others thanks to the dedicated work of the late Mike Seeger… and I can go on and on naming some of the heroes of this field… the Lomaxes, Roger Abrahams, Archie Green, Joe Wilson, and many others. These folklorists were not only responsible for recording these people, but for putting them onto festival stages (the folk revival is actually a very instructive model for what you are advocating at IBMA.. to bring this music out into the larger world… think Newport here… bringing, say Leadbelly to the same stage as Bob Dylan and so forth.)

    Most folklorists didn’t and don’t do this work on their own. There are organizations, most of them non-profit that are still doing this work. In Virginia, there is our program, the Virginia Folklife Program (www.virginiafolklife.org) as well as other institutions doing really heroic work like the Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum, or the Blue Ridge Music Center outside of Galax. There are largescale initiatives to help traditional musicians with an emphasis on old time and bluegrass musicians like the Crooked Road.

    I guess what I’m saying here is that I think we should remember that sometimes there needs to be more “support” offered than the fan-driven market. I’ll leave this with one quick example… How many folks on this blog know of bluegrass fiddler Buddy Pendleton? Buddy recently retired after a long career as a postal mail carrier (a line of work that has a remarkable number of amazing traditional musicians over the years, by the way, including Wayne Henderson). Buddy is an absolutely dazzling fiddler from Woolwine, Virginia near Meadows of Dan in Patrick County (Sammy Shelor’s home). Buddy has been a multiple champion of Union Grove, Galax, etc. He was a member of some really fine regional bands such as the Highlanders, but never enjoyed travel. He even was offered a stint with Bill Monroe, but left before it barely began because he was homesick for Woolwine. Those who know Buddy know that he has a style that is completely unique — his version of Florida Blues is, for those who have heard it, the signature version. But how many people have heard it?

    The mission of the Virignia Folklife Program (much like other state folklife programs across the country) is to present, document, celebrate and support our state’s rich cultural traditions. Thus, we have worked to help support Buddy and ensure that his music is felt and enjoyed for generations to come, serving as creative inspiration for new and old players alike. So, we worked to receive grant funds from sources like the NEA, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and others, to produce a CD of Buddy, pairing him with many of the finest musicians of the region (like Sammy, Wyatt Rice, and others.) We brought Buddy to such prestigious festivals as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington and the National Folk Festival in Richmond. We supported a project with grant funds in Montgomery County to put on a summit and concert in honor of Buddy with a workshop on his legacy. And lastly, we paired Buddy with a young apprentice, Montana Young, for a year long apprenticeship.. and you can hear that Buddy flair in her version of Florida Blues too. This work is not easy… it takes hard work to get the funds to do it… and it’s important.

    Lastly, I wanted to add my thoughts to your suggestion that traditional artists go out “into the larger world” and play at things like jam festivals, etc. I agree fully that there are welcoming and receptive audiences there, and that playing for these audiences can only serve to expand ones fan base. That being said, I think we need to remember that this is something that is easier for some than for others. Again, so many of the incredible musicians that I know have not been able to make the leap between “regular jobs” and playing music full time for a living, which is often what it takes to go on the road… many have families to support, mortgages to pay, etc. But more than that, I’ve found in my work at festivals that it is often those artists that are, in a sense, most similar culturally to these new audiences that succeed, while those that are less familiar with these audiences (those who perhaps are more deeply rooted in the communities from which this music originally came from and where it is still such an integral aspect of everyday community life) do not fare as well. Don’t get me wrong.. the Stringdusters, Punch Brothers, Yonder, etc. are amazing and that’s what in the end carries the day, but there is also the fact that the members of these groups more often than not tend to come to places like Telluride, etc. with a keener understanding of these audiences… their aesthetics.. their sense of what is cool and what is not… I realize this is a gross generalization and many will take umbrage with it, but it’s just something I’ve often seen… the groups that are most successful while possessing dazzling virtuosity, often are what we could call interpreters of the music, in that they often do not arise from communities like Galax, etc where it is part of everyday life, but rather from a similar social world and cultural aesthetic of these new audiences. What I’ve always tried to do at the Virginia Folklife Program is bring groups from these regions that one of your interviewees says rarely exists.. bands from Galax, Damascus, Fries, Bristol, etc. and get them onto stages like Floydfest, Merlefest, etc. Again, this isn’t always easy, as these groups often don’t possess what these festivals typically need (press kits, ryders, sound samples, etc.) Again, this is the work of the folklorist, and can also be the work of the IBMA.

    So, I guess what I’m saying here is that we’re all in this together.

    Thanks for the provocative thoughts.
    JL

  4. Jon–
    You make a few great points. I am definitely talking about the working bands out there. The resources/motivation/knowledge needed to make it today will preclude many rural gems from ever emerging on the working/touring scene, and that’s ok. That’s why you do what you do, and it’s great. It’s a catch 22, because the more they get out, the less rare they are–so remaining small time almost make them what they are. But the bigger movement going on at IBMA is not really about that. I see them as two different worlds. We are immersed in the ‘fan funded economy,’ fighting for the attention of thousands with daily business operations just like any small corporation. ‘Folklorist’ activities don’t seem to affect the work/success of me or my contemporaries. That said, we deeply appreciate what you do.
    It’s so true that many of the new young bands including my own could be considered ‘interpreters’ of the music because we are from NY and not Galax. But I don’t think that’s a strike against us. Music is music. I play music because it’s a feeling–something I need to do to express myself. Yes, my surroundings are not similar to those of Hazel Dickens or Bill Monroe, but I believe that I am as deeply connected to what I do as they were to their art. Remember, Andy Hall played in Earl Scruggs’ band just a few years back. Our connection to the origins or our music are very real. Some genres (pop country) don’t carry the musical weight, but the bluegrass world is made of it. We will always marvel at the authenticity of the more obscure artists you mention, but don’t compare them to the young bands you mention just yet. Music gets better with time. This is just the beginning for our generation…
    Thanks,
    Chris

  5. Thanks Chris,

    Just a few quick thoughts… one, I’m not sure that “Folklorist activities” don’t affect the work of your contemporaries… all of us working as folklorists work hard to provide opportunities for young artists… ask someone like Sierra Hull if our work with the National Council for the Traditional Arts has been important to her in her career… ask Micheal Cleveland.. (in fact, as Alison Krauss… the NCTA hard her on the grant funded national fiddle tour when she was about 14.. her first real serious gig… Ask Jerry Douglas, Sammy Shelor etc.. about our work as well… I think you’ll find that we might be making a contribution. I always do my best to provide a stage that is not often offered by the current festivals for some of these amazing young folks coming out of Berlkee, etc. I’m really not writing this to be defensive, just to let you know that there’s lots of levels here.

    Sorry if my post (I’m not much of a blogger) seemed to imply that I was comparing any artists’ sincerity or connectedness to their music over another… in fact I was really trying to express that I do NOT come from that perspective, so I must not have succeeded. I wasn’t saying that being from NY (hell, I’m from NY, and extremely excited about Cano’s grand slam jack he just hit as I write this!) means that anyone isn’t connected to their art, or that it should be a “strike against” anyone. I was just pointing out an observation that I’ve had over the years that I’ve found interesting about which bands do better “crossing over” into the jamband market than others. And I realize my post took a turn to focus more on non-professional musicians and that isn’t really who I’m actually most talk about.
    At any rate, keep up the provocative stuff and the fantastic music, J

  6. I, as a longtime fan and picker of Bluegrass I understand the desire for
    wide exposure of musicians to varied audiences and strongly believe artists should express themselves in any form they feel is best for them…… What I don’t understand is the desire to broaden Bluegrass to allow all acoustic styles to belong and then say it’s not redefining Bluegrass.
    Harmony singing once attributed to Bluegrass Music is fast fading away, the newer music sounds like it came out of Julliard played on acoustic instruments with fast tempos and never ending scales or painfully slick and boring.
    Regardless of artist reaching new audiences, to claim kinship to a genre
    certain attributes of that genre should always be incorporated to lessen
    debate ,controversy etc;.but you say the music is only just a matter of opinion and you’re not redefining the genre?
    Therein lies the pushback because there is no consenus of what is and
    what isn’t Bluegrass Music and it’s hard to fully support anything with undefined attributes. Would that have anything to do with declining W.O.B
    attendance and the desire to widen acceptance of non-Bluegrass performers?

  7. Chris,
    Listening to your speech was like looking into a Crystal Ball into the future and your voice will be a leading voice for our music. Another fine moment you shared with all of us.

    Ronnie McCoury

  8. As a fan who got to Red Rocks early to make sure he got to hear the Infamous Stringdusters, I agree 100%. I love bluegrass, but it’s an odd and narrow scene. I never quiet feel conformable at a place like Swallow Hill that you’ve played as I do dancing at the Bluebird. Some music is sit down and listen to music, but for bands that swing you need to reach the swingers. They are wanting getting their groove on, not wanting to sit down and listen to each note like a music class.

  9. Excellent discussion Chris. I read your Manifesto several months ago and have thought about it many times since. From an intellectual perspective, this is a fun discussion. You make a very compelling argument for the evolution of bluegrass and tapping into a larger market.

    But the pragmatic side of me says there is a fundamental problem with the big tent concept – the culture of the fan bases. No matter how good the music or how close it stays or doesn’t stay to the roots of bluegrass, fans are looking for a particular experience when they go to a show and need to feel, at the very least, not alienated by the culture of the group and audience. It seems to me that fans respond when the experience and the music match up just right for the fan.

    More specifically (and probably too bluntly), one audience likes an extreme visual and sound experience, which often includes lights, smoke, loud volumes, partying, dancing and otherwise having a big time, preferably listening to bands that aren’t considered part of the “major music biz” (reminiscent of the 60s counterculture). I believe this is the jamband audience. The acoustic jambands fit their vision of counterculture and give them an experience that they find entertaining.

    Another audience enjoys a more traditional environment and would be put off by the volume, crowd noise and activity around them at a jam festival. As Jon mentions above, the audience will resonate with music that resembles their own culture and gives them (or at least doesn’t detract from) the experience they are hoping to get from the show. This is the conflict between bluegrass and acoustic jambands – not the music, the culture.

    A fan may love the Stringdusters music and embrace the concept of mixing a wide variety of musical influences to make new and interesting music. A fan may listen to, buy and even play that kind of music, but may not go to a jamband show because the fan culture and atmosphere is so different from what they enjoy. On the flip side, the typical jamband fan will probably feel very restricted, bored and maybe even offended by the culture at a traditional bluegrass show.

    And lastly, mainstream bluegrass artists could probably gain some financial advantages by exploring the jamband scene, but there is a risk. If they become too closely associated with the jamband culture, they could alienate their current fanbases, not necessarily by anything related to the music but by the cultural association. For some bands, maybe the financial and cultural aspects are a better fit in one than the other, but it’s hard to see a band embraced equally by both cultures. Mountain Heart and Monroeville are probably the closest to being entertaining enough for jamband fans but not too far “out there” for the traditional bluegrass audience. And then there is also the idea that maybe a band could become very good at presenting themselves as what any given audience wants without becoming closely aligned to the culture of either.

    So, the real question here is not about embracing new bands or innovation in the music. I think everyone can embrace, or at least tolerate, new acts and some level of innovation. It’s really about getting two very different cultures to coexist under a common umbrella. That’s a pretty difficult thing to do.

  10. Well said, Chris! Thank you for the thinking, the analysis, the dialogue, and the outreach you have contributed. As someone who has been following the scene for almost half a century, let me add a few observations.
    1) This is not a new conversation. I am reminded of “posts” that John Duffey and Sonny Osborne made to Bluegrass Unlimited in the 1960s, explaining their rationale for seeking broader fan bases and the value to the bluegrass industry of a big-tent perspective. One of Duffey’s pieces is included in “The Bluegrass Reader,” 2004, edited by Thomas Goldsmith.
    2) I find it helpful to distinguish among three “spotlights” that organize the phenomena of bluegrass in usefully different ways. A lot of confusion and unnecessary friction arises from conflating them. A mature perspective understands that all three are valid, each reinforces the other, and none could survive without the other two. There is “bluegrass the industry,” an economic phenomenon for which IBMA is the principal integrator. There is “bluegrass the art form,” an aesthetic phenomenon, for which the International Bluegrass Music Museum functions as a visible integrator. And there is “bluegrass the community,” an affiliative phenomenon, for which Bluegrass Unlimited functions as the principal integrator.
    3) There are interesting generational patterns that appear in many human enterprises. I’ve explored them with respect to professional bluegrass musicians in a talk I gave at the Bluegrass Symposium at Western Kentucky University in 2005. The data and outline are at http://www.fredbartenstein.com/bluegen.html and I’ll send an unpublished paper to anyone who writes me at fred@fredbartenstein.com .
    Fred Bartenstein

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