I’ve continued to chew this last month on Chris Pandolfi’s thoughtful message to all of us in the bluegrass community, to the effect that the Stringdusters, in pursuit of a viable market for their music (so they can continue to stay in business and make a living), are turning to examples like Railroad Earth, whose souped up not-really-bluegrass plays to large audience of boogieing partiers… and would like that kind of music to be called “bluegrass” by the IBMA, so we can all make a viable living in this century.
I don’t want to see what most of us think of as “bluegrass” renamed “traditional bluegrass”, with “bluegrass” (as Chris suggests) becoming the name for what is more aptly called “bluegrass-related” music– some of which I think is pretty cool, FWIW.
Words come into use because they mean something that’s worth having a word for. Real bluegrass is worth having a word for, and the word is already….. bluegrass!
Bluegrass is a word that has meant something (though yes, it’s hard to define, and you know, we don’t really need to) for close to 60 years now. I’d say it’s a word whose meaning is **well-worth preserving** despite and especially in view of the damage that is regularly done to it by such things as a few prominent events being misnamed “bluegrass festivals” when they actually present little real bluegrass.
So… what’s the latest in real bluegrass?
I’ve been to several festivals this spring and am glad to be pretty current on what is out there in bluegrass in 2011. I saw the Gibson Bros. live a couple of weeks ago, and I now think of them as the standard-bearers of “real bluegrass” in the 21st century. Them and the McCourys. No b.s., no hype, but lots of good respect for the music (they dress up, for instance). They are writing wonderful songs, finding wonderful recently-written songs, singing them with feeling and great harmony, and the whole band plays each song as though they really *understand* what the song is about. (Each one sounds different!)
This is some of the best bluegrass ever and a solid answer to people who think a la Pandolfi, that there’s nowhere to turn nowadays for a real bluegrass group to make a living. Leigh told me they are working a lot this year, and things are going well. Yes!
Then there’s the Peter Rowan Band. Not for everyone I’m sure, but man, those guys can sing, and show what happens when great musicians who trust each other, and the material, and the *moment* sink their teeth into great material.
A lot of people seem to forget what we were all taught by Monroe, J. Martin, Flatt and Scruggs, Stanleys….. It is absolutely critical to have good songs and people who can and do actually play a melody when it’s called for. With those elements, and enough talent and personality, bluegrass is not just alive and well, it’s the best stuff out there. Lady Gaga may be setting new standards for marketing (and OK, we should be learning some of that, for sure), but Lady Gaga is nothing compared to the real goods, which is what we have.
The Gibsons have got it down. Love em! Long may they wave.
And… I was positively enthralled last night to check into the new release by Chris Thile and Michael Daves on Nonesuch, “Sleep With One Eye Open”. This will get a lot of justifiable comment calling it the “Skaggs and Rice” of today (interesting, it’s just about 30 years later, and these guys happen to be that same age). Definitely respectful of tradition, with no less than 16 great standards — Little Girl In Tennessee, You’re Running Wild, 20/20 Vision, etc. Again, no b.s., lots of melody, and throbbing with these guys’ hard-won artistry. They’re a lot less understated (exploding with energy sometimes, you might say) than Skaggs and Rice, but this album is cut from the same cloth, and these artists are setting a new standard. Check out the Punch Bros. doing 99 Years on YouTube, and Thile/Daves, bunches of well-shot clips of just two guys singing and playing on YouTube, live stuff from their new album. Truly awesome and uplifting.
Michael’s vocal style at times strays into punkish, but watching it happen live has given me a feel for it. The title cut of their record is a new take on the song, and I buy it with a smile.
I only wish now that these fellas will *write songs from their heart* that we can all understand, and that use the good old chords that are easy for everybody to play. Bill and Lester and Carter and Paul Williams did that for us. Cmon boys, you can do it. Make us proud!