I began playing Bluegrass at the age of 13 years old. I immersed myself in it completely, buying records, and learning the solos on them. I went to jams 4-5 nights a week. I went through phases of trying to play like Scruggs, Crowe, Don Reno, Sonny Osborne, and Allen Shelton. I did this for years before I got into more progressive music.
At some point I got tired of playing only bluegrass and began studying other music genres (Jazz, Classical, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Popular Music). That is what happens with any music, you learn so much of it and then you get bored doing the same things over and over. I unfortunately almost never hear anything in the world of bluegrass that makes me go, “I want to learn that!”
I think this is largely because Bluegrass is stagnant as a music. It’s either people trying to play like they did fifty years ago (No, the Boxcars didn’t come close to the real thing), people playing nothing resembling bluegrass calling themselves a bluegrass band ( the timing of a jam band is different than a bluegrass band) or those playing it that don’t study the roots of the music past 1980.
Through my adventures into other types of music I learned many things that in my opinion could make Bluegrass grow. A problem we face is an older audience that is dying out and attracting younger ones. I think we should begin by making the QUALITY of music improve and let the pieces fall where they may.
Unfortunately a great deal of the bluegrass pickers are proud to say they don’t know any basic musicianship such as harmony, scales, and in my opinion most importantly DYNAMICS.
The worst part is if you play bluegrass, widen your outlook and pursue a deep study of music (that involving books) you could very well be viewed as some sort of outlaw in the bluegrass world…….precisely how I have been viewed numerous times.
The idea that you had to be taught by your great grandfather Moses on the family farm in the hills of Kentucky, amongst chickens and mules to learn how to play this music is absurd. Kind of like learning that a major chord is made up of the notes 1-3-5 somehow might destroy your ability to play a convincing “Earl’s Breakdown.”
I do know this, choosing to remain musically ignorant of many things and slandering those that wish to learn more will not help the music long-term.
When you step on a stage and the average concert goer that knows nothing about music other than what he hears, walks away because you’ve played the same level of volume the entire time….well, that doesn’t help your music.
In my opinion, one of the biggest areas of exploration for Bluegrass COULD be in arrangement, instrumentation, timbre, dynamics and tempo variations. All without destroying the things that make it bluegrass. However, it seems the number of bluegrassers that would be open to this change are very few. If that wasn’t the case then explain why very little has changed.
On to some details:
1)Dynamics-The level of details given to dynamics in the sheet music of great classical music is something all performers should study. Everything from Crescendos and Decrescendos to triple piano and triple forte marks. The level of dynamic abilities of your average bluegrass player is simply horrible. Most of them play at one or two volume levels at most. Many flatpickers prefer to jam with only other guitar players because they can’t hear themselves otherwise. At no point should anyone have to strain to hear the singer or mandolin player because the banjo player only has one level, or the fiddle player doesn’t understand the word backup.
Within the last five years I’ve noticed a shift of the music into some sort of Testosterone contest of who can play the loudest and “drive” the music the most. Your small circle of friends might think it’s cool but the reality is those that the music NEEDS in the concerts seats, think absolutely nothing of it.
2)Orchestration and Arrangement-Not all of the instruments are playing at once in an orchestra. An instrument has a supporting role and sometimes a lead role, the idea is it adds to the ensemble regardless of what it is doing. If someone is playing the entire time it’s as if someones talking the entire time, not giving others a chance to speak. Usually, besides the banjo the Fiddler is the worst offender. They don’t understand their rhythmic role so they decide to play lead the entire time. We need a T-shirt, “Stop Fiddling”…
In Bluegrass they call it Backup. While there are certainly great backup players in bluegrass. I dare say that we aren’t there yet. The degree of understanding in foreground versus background is very low in comparison to many types of music. In summary, people are still playing too much.
3)Rhythm-In recent years due to the click track phenomena an insane amount of focus is given to practicing with metronomes and recording music in a studio with a click track. Meanwhile, humans are not robots. Nature has a natural flow and ebb to it. Adamantly adhering to a click track tempo rids the music of this push and pull. Music perfectly in time to a reference click will never have a natural flow to it. In lots of music you want to slow down and speed up in parts. Listen at someone play the Bach Cello Suites. In classical music they call that interpretation. I’m not saying bluegrass needs to speed up and slow down that much; however, I do believe it could stand some more push and pull, some more tempo variations.
Even different time signatures can be explored. I wrote a Scruggsy song in 5/4 exploring this precisely. They could have more songs in 6/8 or something like 7/8, all without destroying the essence of the music.
I won’t get into the benefits of learning jazz now but I must say that a constant barrage of 8th or 16th notes is regular in bluegrass and it’s tiring. Emphasizing the offbeats, Using Polyrhythm, using Space to your advantage are all things that could help the music.
Lastly, I will say that bluegrass overall needs a new more welcoming attitude to the advancement of it’s music. Otherwise it will go the way of the museum due to no growth. There is a fine balance that must be reached, it needs to grow yet remain true to it’s roots.