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But Is It Bluegrass?
by Charlotte Bell
Would music aficionados in Bach’s time have considered Stravinsky’s compositions a legitimate form of classical music (or even Beethoven’s, for that matter)? How does music as diverse as that of turn-of-the-century Dixieland bands, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Chick Corea fit so neatly under the jazz umbrella? How closely does Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of the blues resemble Robert Johnson’s? What would fans of folk pioneer Woody Guthrie think of Ani diFranco?
Enduring musical forms are, by necessity, changeable. Flexibility may be their one common thread, and the element that keeps them vital. Bach and Stravinsky were both innovators, and the ability for the classical form to accept and celebrate both—and everything in between—is why its popularity has lasted for centuries. Narrow parameters make for low endurance (remember disco?).
Discussion abounds as to what is and is not bluegrass music. Check the bluegrass discussion groups on the internet sometime if you’re interested in participating in some lively conversation. Invariably called into question is the scope of music that fits under the Telluride Bluegrass blanket.
So what is bluegrass?
Bluegrass is a relatively young musical form, having established its foundation somewhere between 1939—when Bill Monroe formed his band, the Blue Grass Boys—and 1950, when it was purportedly named. Like most musical forms, it’s a meld of many influences, including old-time, Southern blues and Scottish music.
Innovation is inherent in any fledgling art form. Monroe’s music diverged from his influences when he began utilizing lightning fast picking, high quartet voicings and unconventional keys like B-flat (which was said to have driven fiddlers nuts). It’s these diversions that created a new form—bluegrass.
Opinions as to what is and is not bluegrass often conflict. In a 1990 letter to Bluegrass Unlimited, Lyndo Criscoe says: “Bluegrass is the music played from the time [Bill Monroe] broke up with Charlie in 1938 until 1945 when he hired Earl Scruggs.” [from Bluegrass America’s Music by Barry Willis]. Country music veteran Bill Bolick said in a telephone interview with Barry Willis, author of Bluegrass America’s Music: “To me, if it doesn’t have the Monroe mandolin and Scruggs banjo, it isn’t bluegrass.”
According to Willis, Monroe himself defined bluegrass music as using the five basic instruments: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and string bass (resophonic guitars were also acceptable). He believed the type of song didn’t matter—rock, folk, country, etc. Monroe felt almost any song could be done in a bluegrass style.
In a 1991 Bluegrass Unlimited interview, Amy Worthington Hauslohner asked Monroe what he thought of the music’s continuing evolution. He replied, “Well, a lot of them are still playing the old-time way, you know. And a lot of them’s puttin’ extry notes in and some different sounds. And if that’s the way they want to do it…everybody’s got his own way, what he thinks he should do in music, so I just wish them all the best. But I do think that if you keep bluegrass down pure and sing it right and play it right, you’ll make much more out of it than if you put a lot of notes in there that don’t belong in the number.” [from Bluegrass America’s Music by Barry Willis]
When the Telluride Bluegrass Festival began in 1974, featured bands Fall Creek and the Black Canyon Gang were playing it fairly straight. But members of those bands came of age during the ’60s and ’70s. It was hard to resist the temptation to experiment with the more free-spirited style-bending that was happening everywhere in the world of music. That New Grass Revival was the inspiration for the Festival assured that boundaries would be crossed.
Telluride veterans like Little Feat, The Band, Chris Daniels & The Kings, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Wolfstone, Willis Alan Ramsey, The Subdudes and Shawn Colvin, among others would certainly not fit into Monroe’s parameters. But is this really a problem?
Jon Frizzell believes a name change may be in order. “We've gone this far. Now we can go to the other extreme, expanding that envelope of what people down here can tolerate or will appreciate in the realm of bluegrass,” he says. “I keep saying, ‘Get rid of the name, just call it the Telluride Festival.’ Why have the pretense [of bluegrass]?”
Now in his thirteenth year as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Pete Wernick sees the Festival’s unique interpretation of bluegrass as hearkening back to the ’60s, when the folk movement embraced bluegrass music. It was a time when traditional bluegrass bands were showing up at places like the venerable Newport Folk Festival, and (later) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark album, Will the Circle be Unbroken, brought together old-line country and bluegrass stars with rock ’n’ rollers.
Traditionalists do opine about what they consider the Festival’s blatant misnomer. “There were always complaints,” says Wernick. “I wouldn’t say it in the form of a complaint. I’d say the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is what it is and it’s a shame it’s called a bluegrass festival. It’s not a bluegrass festival. I’m delighted that it includes as much bluegrass as it does. That seems to be part of the concept, but the majority of the music is not bluegrass. That was always sort of a problem, but it still has a character to it.
“If there was another word you could use for it besides ‘bluegrass…’ It’s a Telluride, Colorado, music festival featuring acoustic stringed instruments and very much influenced by the folk music that came around in the ’60s, which included bluegrass, Bob Dylan and groups like Peter, Paul & Mary. Descendants of that music are a big part of what Telluride music was about…It’s a stupendous, large festival of world-class, excellent acoustic music.”
The late Charles Sawtelle, whose bluegrass taste leaned toward the traditional, also perceived the Festival’s title to be a bit of a mismatch. “Very little bluegrass here,” he said in a 1996 interview. “There’s a lot of other stuff, but they call it a bluegrass festival. It’s actually one of the few festivals that uses ‘bluegrass’ in the advertising, but has very little bluegrass.” But he was quick to add, “It’s okay though. I’m really happy to hear all this stuff that I wouldn’t hear ordinarily…I think the festival has impacted the way I play because of all these other influences. You see a variety of different types of music, and of course it affects your music.
“Bluegrass is a very special kind of music for me, and it means something sort of deep and religious. So when people banter that term around, and you have a bluegrass band that’s got harmonica and flute and hammered dulcimer and no banjo in it, then it’s not bluegrass. Bluegrass is a really definite kind of music.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the Zion Harmonizers. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I love it all. I was probably most affected by David Lindley [this year]. More than anybody that’s probably my favorite act at this festival. I think it’s good that it’s not a real bluegrass festival.”
“There’s a tradition here that I think has been great, that they’ve always kept a hand in the root, the foundation,” says John Cowan. “We know it’s called Planet Bluegrass or Telluride Bluegrass, and we know that’s probably not what it is, but they always have [a traditional act]—whether it’s Del McCoury or Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe. So that’s nice. To me that’s the thing that anchors it. If this is a planet, it’s kind of the tether that anchors it to the Earth. They, like the wildest people out here, come out to play and the people really get it and really appreciate it.”
There’s not likely to be a dispute over whether artists like The Band or Little Feat are really bluegrass. They’re not—but good music is good music. In terms of quantity, some years there’s more “real” bluegrass at Telluride and some years there’s less. What’s more important than quantity is that the Festival is one of the largest venues to welcome acoustically based artists, most of whom are either bluegrass traditionalists or have been strongly influenced by the genre.
Can artists that have come to define Telluride, in particular New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers, be considered bluegrass? They fit Monroe’s parameters of instrumentation. Their styles certainly include “extry notes and different sounds,” but according to the above quote, those elements did not cause Monroe a great deal of concern. Could New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers be the Beethoven and Stravinsky of bluegrass music? It seems not only possible, but probable that their explorations will be recognized historically as major contributions to the genre’s vitality and longevity. That the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has nurtured bluegrass music’s evolution might be its greatest contribution.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, freelance writer, oboist and Festivarian since 1983. She is currently writing a book titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life that will be published by Rodmell Press in 2007.