There are opinions rolling around that the jam band scene has hurt bluegrass.
Others believe musicians like Allison Krauss have turned the genre from the gutsy murder ballad-spewing, breakneck tempo music that it was to the wispy, AM-gold elevator music that some of it has become. Or perhaps it was The Berklee School of Music, producing students who have gone on to lend their extreme talents to making some of the “overpolished” and “overproduced” music.
There are still plenty of bands doing it Bill Monroe’s way, spitting out lyrical tales of heartache and break with a fast mandolin and banjo break tossed in. When Monroe “invented” the genre, it was outsider music compared to the Bing Crosby and Perry Como dug by post-war America.
From the late 1950s and into the 1970s, areas in the mid-Atlantic flourished with bluegrass bands, as it was an aggressive and emotional soundtrack heard in bars where sawdust covered the floors, while remaining outside the mainstream despite soundtrack success via “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Jerry Garcia loved bluegrass, wanting to be a banjo player in Monroe’s band; had he taken an interest in klezmer music and played a clarinet, it’s arguable that the hippies would have loved klezmer over bluegrass. Jam bands have co-opted bluegrass music, using it as a platform for their bouts of improvisation, only to come around after minutes of psychedelic exploration to zip through a version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love.”
There has never been a more polarizing, thought-provoking, argument-inducing genre of music, especially in Durango, than bluegrass. Why do people love it? Why do people hate it? It remains tough to define, but local musician Pat Dressen, a fine bluegrass, folk and rock player in his own right, will take that task.
“Traditionalists say it has to have banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass. Maybe fiddle, maybe dobro,” Dressen said. “That’s bass fiddle, no electric bass guitar and – good God – no drums. And it has to have high-lonesome singing with Southern accents and three-part harmony.”
Bluegrass DJ Stephanie Dressen sums up thoughts likely shared by many: “The sound is different. There is something special about acoustic music and also the delivery of this music, especially since everybody plays an important part to the sound and delivery.”
Naysayers, many who want to remain anonymous, will claim that “there is too much bluegrass in this town” because many times when that is said, the person making the claim is referencing a band that happens to have a banjo or mandolin but is playing rock or folk music. Or it’s verbal dislike misdirected at a jam band. Better yet, it’s an illusion. After 20-some years of following the local music scene, it’s become obvious that the bluegrass scenesters are more successful at self-promotion than others. They make the posters and social media posts, send the press releases to local media and use free and available avenues of advertising. That promoted bluegrass show could be one event happening over a weekend with a half-dozen other shows – week after week of hearing about one bluegrass show over others, and you’ll think they’ve cornered the market.
Many of these musicians, whether playing jam-grass or new-grass, a lighthearted form of bluegrass with the guts of The Starland Vocal Band or a revved-up murder ballad, are stellar musicians who have done their time in the woodshed. A guitar player like Tony Rice can hold his own alongside John McLaughlin or Joe Satriani, and failure to recognize that is just ignorant. This town has a bluegrass scene that was built from the ground up by a bunch of musicians who wanted to make a scene, and they did.
Sure, Durango could use more punk or jazz-fusion shows; if you think any genre is missing locally, it’s up to you to change that. A community of people making music should be celebrated, not lambasted.
Look on the bright side – this could be an article about dubstep.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.