December Blog from Hillbilly Boogie
Welcome, dear readers, to the December Blog from Hillbilly Boogie.
It is probably a curious approach to admit that the article that you are just about to write is (possibly) utterly pointless but please read on!
Quite often, during Hillbilly Boogie, I will poke a little gentle fun at The Bluegrass Police – what do I mean by this? In my experience, The Bluegrass Police are those who will become rather excited at anything that fails to follow the formula presented by Bill Monroe and often heard proclaiming ‘That ain’t no part of nothin’’ – we’ll look at some of these points later. It seems that the music forum and Facebook pages are the happy hunting ground for the Bluegrass Police. Woe betide anyone who should post a link to a tour by musicians who do not wear Stetson hats, starched shirts and pointy-toed boots or worse, have some form of percussion for they are surely the agents of dark forces.
Side note: For anyone interested in Bluegrass history, I recommend Neil V. Rosenberg’s book.
One of my fondest memories, having read about Union Grove and some of the (almost) Woodstock-like stories, was to be driven around Union Grove by my sadly-missed friend Bobby Martin who lived there. Bobby drove me around in a golf-cart for about an hour giving me a first-hand account of Union Grove and showing me how far the campground extended – safe to say, that must have been quite a party and one which probably ruffled a few Bluegrass Police feathers.
Anyway, I digress.
Going back to Bill Monroe and how the Bluegrass Police can often become excited if anything fails to adhere to Monroe’s quintet of mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass…. The phrase ‘That ain’t no part of nothin’’ was apparently uttered by Monroe in respect of resophonic guitar (Dobro to you and me) – I don’t think that many would argue that the resophonic guitar has a rightful place in Bluegrass music. I know that I wouldn’t. It also seems that ‘ain’t no part of nothin’’ became a general, dismissive response to anything that failed to meet a particular standard or expectation. The history books tell us that Monroe formed his Blue Grass Boys in 1938 but the ‘classic’ combination of Flatt, Scruggs, Wise, Rainwater & Monroe did not materialise until 1946 – I am sure that that intervening eight years saw a few innovations.
Now, perhaps I take a broader approach because I did not grow up steeped in Bluegrass. Having listened in my youth to folk, some Country, Rock (lots of Rock!) World Music and Jazz I eventually became aware of Bluegrass – though I had no idea what it was called. Remembering the days of the Country & Western jamboree held in Wembley each year which never appealed to me (though an old girlfriend came close to getting me there), this unknown genre was like Country music only better! Fewer rhinestones and more fiddle & mandolin. Gradually I learned more about this musical form and consequently lost possession of many, many £ notes (though the CD shelves began to fill rapidly). Maybe this different route to enjoying Bluegrass is why I am less upset by what I see as the development, or blurring at the edges, of a genre and the Bluegrass Police see as an attack on a tradition.
There is a great line in ‘I, Sideman’ by Jackie McAuley – he writes: ‘…a musician shouldn’t be judged on his style of music, his appearance or how much money he makes, but simply by the sincerity of his playing’. I read this line last night after I had decided on the broad topic for this article but reading Jackie’s words seemed particularly relevant.
All joking aside, I DO love ‘traditional’ Bluegrass but fail to understand some of the rigid thinking that surrounds Bluegrass in some quarters. I saw some, frankly, disappointing comments in relation to IBMA’s ‘Shout & Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass’. To those internet warriors who stamped their feet (and other petulant metaphors)… the clue’s in the name, folks! It was a celebration of diversity and – by the way, Bluegrass evolved – it didn’t fall out of the sky!
One of those bands taking part in the ‘Shout & Shine’ – The Ebony Hillbillies
I know that some of The Bluegrass Police will talk about preservation of tradition; in a previous blog article I applauded the work of the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) organization that involves young people in traditional music and dance but that doesn’t mean that if the music strays from that which was played in the late 40’s that it is no longer Bluegrass.
Sierra Hull was awarded the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Award in 2017 and I am reminded of watching Sierra Hull and Ethan Jodziewicz at the side of the stage at HoustonFest in Galax. During their set some people in the front row stood up and noisily (and rudely) proclaimed of Ethan’s bass playing – ‘he ain’t playing that bass’, ‘he’s just picking on it’, ‘that’s not music’ then stomped off. What they did not see (or appreciate) was that we were standing with five bass players from various headlining ‘traditional’ Bluegrass bands who showed great appreciation during the set and afterwards to Ethan personally when backstage… remember Jackie’s words?... they appreciated the sincerity of his playing..
Note: this video was not taken at HoustonFest
Going back to the Shout & Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass: clearly, I am not saying that everyone should like everything – that would be ridiculous – but some of the vitriolic comments that I read made me wonder whether they were being made from a musical standpoint or there was something else was behind them.
So why did I say that this article would be pointless? Well, I will never convince The Bluegrass Police that evolution, diversity and development should be embraced while simultaneously recognising (and thoroughly enjoying) ‘traditional’ Bluegrass such as David Peterson & 1946, Doug Flowers and Bobby Osborne. Neither will The Bluegrass Police convince me that this potentially exciting genre has to be inflexible and engage in interminable (and inconclusive) arguments over Ralph & Carter Stanley versus Bill & Charlie Monroe.
I shall now leave you with one of my favourite Bluegrass bands (Volume Five) at my favourite Bluegrass festival (HoustonFest)
See you soon….as ever, Be Good!
* Jackie McAuley’s career has spanned Them (Van Morrison), Trader Horne (with Judy Dyble) and working with such diverse talents as Viv Stanshall and Clodagh Rodgers.
Support your local promoters and venues, support visiting musicians by going to their shows and buy a CD too (if you can) but definitely say Hello!