The Music Played at This Weekend’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival Often Strays a Long Way from Bluegrass. That’s Fine for Those Who Want to See Bluegrass Move Into the Mainstream, But Purists Say the Music Will Survive Nicely Without Adding Any Glitz.
As traditional bluegrass bands took the stage at this weekend’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, they may have seen as many puzzled stares as appreciative smiles. Of the thousands of music fans in the audience, many had come to see the likes of John Hiatt, Marc Cohn or Mary-Chapin Carpenter—mainstream musicians with little or nothing to do with bluegrass.
Even many or the festival’s recognized bluegrass performers – John Hartford, Tony Rice and Peter Rowan – have moved beyond the bounds of traditional music. Strength in Numbers, a jazzy band of former bluegrassers, has taken the music so far afield, little of it remains but the acoustic instruments.
For traditionalists such as Bill Monroe, Del McCoury and the Seldom Scene, the mix may seem odd. For the promoters or the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in its 20th year, it will be business as usual.
“Telluride gives bluegrass that little bit of glitzy image it doesn’t get anywhere else,” says festival publicist Dawn Richardson, and amateur bluegrass musician herself. Her employer, Planet Bluegrass Productions, marshalls the Telluride Festival year-round from a chaotic second-floor office on Pearl Street in Boulder.
‘To many bluegrass fans, Telluride’s illusion of glitz is a welcome advance for a music plagued by backwards images. Rooted in rural country, bluegrass often conjures visions of toothless hillbillies gathered on a porch for music and moonshine. Such stereotypes were aggravated by the few bluegrass tunes have found national attention since the 1960s: “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies”; “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from “Bonnie and Clyde”; and “Dueling Banjos” from “Deliverance.”
“Bluegrass is not on the cutting edge of anything,” said Barry Willis, a Denver airline pilot, part-time picker, and the author of a soon-to-be-published book titled “Bluegrass: America’s Music.” The book will include interviews of hundreds of bluegrass performers nationwide.
Contemporary country music is packaged as something sexy, Willis observed. In no way has bluegrass gone along for the ride. “It still has hillbilly connotations.”
Bluegrass music has no precise birth date, but Monroe’s first ban dates to 1927. As a teenager in Kentucky, he teamed up with brothers Charlie and Birch to form the Monroe Brothers. Their band toured, sold records and played on the radio throughout the 1930s. Bill’s own band, named the Blue Grass Boys, played the Grad Ole Opry in 1939. By 1945 the bluegrass sound was fully fused, complete with the driving banjo of Earl Scruggs.
By now, the music has existed long enough to draw fans of at least three generations. The oldest are Monroe’s contemporaries and the youngest, teenagers.
Bluegrass music’s first Grammy Aware, when the category debuted two years ago, went to an album by fiddler and band leader Allison Krauss. She was 19.
But at the festivals in many other parts of the country, said publicist Richards, first- and second-generation fans remain the target audience. Telluride’s eclectic mix is calculated to draw a younger crowd.
“One of the problems promoters are having especially in the Southeast, is the folks that come and will not sit through and kind of progressive music. That’s an older audience, and I hate to put it like this, but they’re kind of a dying-off audience.” The promoters are caught between a rock and a hard place because if
they’ve got some brand new thing and try to entice the kids there, they alienate their older people.
Telluride’s mission, she said, is to respect tradition but also to introduce traditional music to new people. “We had James Taylor two years ago, and some people there probably were saying, “Who’s the Seldom Scene?” Now maybe some of those people are buying their records.”
Ralph Haynie, 65, owns Ralph’s Top Shop, a countertop-making business in south Denver. In its workshop, amid steel saws, bare wood and bright Formica tops, he hosts twice-monthly jams sessions for local amateur pickers. Haynie plays banjo, guitar, and mandolin—and perhaps speaks for a generaton of traditionalists.
“Bluegrass music is almost sacred to me,” he said. “I have no objection if Telluride wants to have newgrass or rock ‘n’ roll. I just don’t like them calling it bluegrass. I don’t like to see them riding the coattails of bluegrass music.” Haynie said he never has attended the Telluride festival.
Its name, Richards said, dates to the inaugural festival in 1974. Then, it was little more than a private Fourth of July party for a few hundred people. Among them were members of the Newgrass Revival, a progressive band that included Sam Bush as a founding member and later grew popular playing rock-inspired bluegrass. Someone called the event a bluegrass festival.
Ironic, perhaps, is that the label of bluegrass – an art form struggling against obscurity—might be considered a marketing advantage. “The appeal of that name is not necessarily the music,” said author Willis. “What they’re selling is the idea of wholesome, outdoor family fun.
More ironic, Telluride’s detractors cite the festival for debauchery – drugs, alcohol, and open nudity –not for wholesome family fun. Richardson said such excesses are more common a decade ago than in recent years.
Contract to its rural image, bluegrass music draws most of its fans from cities, according to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). The nation’s bluegrass hotbeds include Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Denver occupies a second tier in which bluegrass also is strong.
What constitutes genuine bluegrass is an emotional issue, and one that has divided fans since the start. “With the possible exception of jazz, I know of no other art form where people spend so much time trying to define it,” said John Hartley Fox, special projects coordinator of the IBMA, based in Owensboro, Ky.
Like many art forms, it eludes definition. Perhaps its most important defining characteristics are the acoustic instruments on which it is played – banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.
About 100,000 copies of Alison Krauss’ Grammy-winning album, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling,” have been sold since 1991. Previously, according to Fox, top-selling bluegrass albums were thought to have maximum selling potential of of perhaps 10,000. Krauss’s album raised the perceived ceiling, he said. But whether record sales accurately mirror people’s tastes is another sticky, emotional issue.
About 1 million recordings is the common estimate of annual bluegrass sales. Heretofore, the recording industry hasn’t even bothered precisely tracking bluegrass-album sales. But this will change.
Discs, tapes and albums are “scanned” at their point of purchase, using bar-code technology. The data are tabulated by Soundscan, the company that tracks record sales for Billboard magazine.
Bluegrass records soon will be tracked the same way, said Dan Hays, IBMA’s executive director. This will enable record companies to prove to radio stations that people are buying bluegrass.
Bluegrass is more common in advertising than on the radio playlists, noted Mills. “It shines for 30 or 60 seconds, and that may work to capture people’s attention.
Bluegrass in advertising emphasizes the banjo because “it has a machine-gun quality,” according to Jerry Shereshewsky, ad advertising veteran who spent 22 years with Young & Rubicam. Currently he is vice president of marketing for RCA Special Products.
Bluegrass connotes speed and motion in a manner reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. One example is a current TV ad campaign for Quaker State, featuring Burt Reynolds. But in a nonadvertising context, bluegrass is considered “quaint,” Shereshewsky said.
“Bluegrass music will never be part of the the mainstream popular culture,” said Peter Wernick, who lives near Boulder and played banjo in the now-disbanded Hot Rize, which recorded nine albums from 1978 to 1991.
“But I don’t think bluegrass should measure its worth by how many people like it.”
Tom LaRocque is a freelance writer in Golden.