logo Enthusiasms No 10
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Bluegrass: the enigma

I was recently sent an album to consider for review in MTThe Broken Road is Jeff White's second album in his own name, but he is also known as a member of Vince Gill's band.  Gill has an extremely high profile on the commercial country music scene; he is the seemingly permanent host of the Country Music Association's annual televised awards show, and was himself voted Male Vocalist of the Year, several years running.  He contributes some high vocal harmonies to Jeff White's album, and plays mandolin throughout.  The packaging contains three posed photographs of Mr White, and the production credits include a make-up artist.  All in all, then, pretty mainstream stuff.  I was bound to conclude that the album was unlikely to be of great interest to this magazine's readers.

What was interesting - to me, anyway - was the account given of these musicians and their endeavour, by Jon Weisberger, who wrote most of the accompanying booklet.  He is keen to persuade the prospective purchaser that these celebrated country musicians are also committed to bluegrass.  They have 'real and longstanding bluegrass credentials', by which he means simply that they have played bluegrass for some years, and had hits in the bluegrass as well as the country charts.  Nevertheless, we're not to run away with the idea that the two accomplishments are entirely separate.  'In today's compartmentalized music scene,' he warns us, 'country and bluegrass are too often thought of as opposites'.  Jeff White's songs, on the contrary, 'illuminate the connections between country, bluegrass and old-time music'; his work represents 'the interplay with classic country music that has been pervasive throughout the history of bluegrass'.  The sales pitch, in short, is that you will like this record whether you like country music or bluegrass.

For someone who is not a card-carrying member of either faction, this is all rather odd.  This record is apparently aimed at a market which is only dimly aware, if at all, of 'the connections between country, bluegrass and old-time music'.  If such people ever think of country and bluegrass as opposites, that surely is too often.  Where, I wonder, does western swing fit in, or Cajun?  No doubt there are many other strictly discrete categories, of which I remain blissfully ignorant.  Any connections between them, it seems, are incidental, and certainly less significant than their differences.  Heavy metal, presumably, is only as different from either country or bluegrass as they are from each other.  All three, after all, have 'connections' with the blues.

What a splendid irony it is that, of all the obviously connected genres, the least overtly rural - indeed, the one that has striven to live down its hillbilly and redneck associations - is the one they call country.  To the innocent bystander, the mere listener who feels no urge to don tribal insignia, it seems fairly obvious that bluegrass, western swing, old-timey and Cajun (not to mention various kinds of blues) are all forms of American country music.  What is now called country is the metropolitan version, distinguished not by any musical characteristics, but by the removal of such defining features, in pursuit of universal appeal.

Let us suppose, then, for the sake of argument, that at least one legitimate use of the term 'country' is in its generic sense, covering all of the forms mentioned already (OK, except heavy metal).  In fact, and in spite of the nonsense routinely uttered by those too close to see the whole picture, no such supposition is necessary.  The perceived differences and evident hostilities are sectarian ones; they derive their significance and importance from the very fact that their proponents are well aware of the genres' shared origins.

Oddest of all, it seems to me, is the special position held by bluegrass in relation to country music in general.  I grew up regarding bluegrass as newfangled, and so was surprised and puzzled when I discovered that 'country' fans thought it purist and reactionary.  As the following for bluegrass has grown, the terms have changed in tone but not meaning: the music is more often described now as 'traditional' or 'roots'.  Jeff White & Vince Gill probably think they are 'paying their dues' when they play bluegrass.  Steve Earle, currently touring with Del McCoury's band, calls bluegrass 'hardcore', in the same spirit.  All such descriptions, whether hostile, approving or neutral, are surely inappropriate.

Much of the traditional status of bluegrass arises from trivial considerations: namely, its continued use of nominally acoustic instruments, and its famous eschewal of drums.  These supposedly defining features are not peculiar to bluegrass.  One of Bob Wills' claim to fame, I understand, is that he introduced drums to the Grand Old Spry, against some resistance from the country music establishment.  Before the ascendancy of swing, drums were rare in country music in general.  In that sense, for what it's worth, bluegrass may be regarded as traditional.  It certainly belongs to the wider tradition of country music, and its own history may be said to constitute a tradition in itself; but it is an invented tradition.  Bluegrass is a modern form of country music.  Of all the modern forms (given that the amorphous commercial mainstream hardly counts as a form at all), bluegrass arguably has the least claim to traditional status.

It's well known, and readily acknowledged, that bluegrass was invented in the 1930s - and 'invented' does seem to be the appropriate term in this case.  Western swing, for instance, seems a fairly natural combination of stringband music, cowboy song and the pop mainstream of the day.  Bluegrass was of course assembled from existing elements, but nevertheless sprang fully formed and easily identifiable from the work of known innovators.  It's a slick, flashy updating of southeastern stringband tradition, developed by and for virtuoso players, specifically for concert presentation.  It's quite as sophisticated as 'country' music, though it retains a certain dignity that is lost forever to Nashville.

In short, bluegrass is to country music what be-bop is to jazz.  Both began as assertions of dignity.  Both self-consciously staked claims to artistic legitimacy, in reaction to patronizing exploitation, caricature and vulgar popularization by a culturally alien entertainment industry.  Bluegrass was the more commercial form, lacking be-bop's contempt for the public, because it was the more working-class movement, retaining to a greater degree, or at least more overtly, the poor American's usual aspirations to fame & fortune.  It didn't have the race angle, of course.  Bill Monroe could hardly suppose that he was championing his race; the belief in the existence of something called 'black music' is the product of a notional homogeneity which was never imposed on white Americans.  He and his fellow-sectarians were, however, champions of the rural south, and its cultural pride.  Certainly, no one ever accused Monroe of not taking himself or his music seriously enough.

It's impossible to imagine a jazz enthusiast confusing be-bop with the trad jazz revival; they may have been similarly motivated, but were self-evidently contrary tendencies.  Yet some such confusion seems to have resulted in the strange position held by bluegrass, in relation to country music in general and to 'country' music defined as a marketing category.

It's only fair, in conclusion, to say that there is nothing wrong with Jeff White's second album in his own name.  The Broken Road (Rounder 0455) is a highly proficient record of it's kind, and not at all hard to listen to.  There are many things I like, but wouldn't offer to review for this magazine.  This album could be one of them; but it's a safe bet that you won't like it if you hate modern country music, or if you're a 'country' fan who hates bluegrass.

David Campbell - 3.6.99

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