Bluegrass and the Tired Narrative of the Old vs. the New

Bluegrass is a music that has always been vigorous with innovation. From Monroe’s early experiments and Scruggs’ rocketship development of the five-string banjo to the fusions of Dawg Music and the ear-opening playing and compositions of Strength in Numbers, Bluegrass musicians have raced forward every step of the away. Despite all of these models of progression it seems there has always, or at least frequently, been friction between players of so-called traditional styles and progressive styles.

This friction has taken various forms and I’m sure that many people within the Bluegrass community have different perspectives on it. Many players, promoters, DJs, etc., are fans of all the Bluegrass flavors. Perhaps even most of them embrace everything from the Stanley Brothers to the Punch Brothers, old-fashioned mailers and Twitter feeds.

But it’s not everyone.

I thought that this was behind us, that we have moved past it. But In the last couple of years I have been confronted with a narrative in opposition to progressive ‘Grass that goes ( a bit hyperbolically) something like this:

“Progressive Bluegrassers don’t have respect for the traditional styles or its’ players. They haven’t bothered to understand it and they don’t care about the way things have always been done. Until they come around and give Traditional Bluegrass and all that goes with its’ due respect, they shouldn’t expect any from the old-schoolers.”

Obviously I’m exaggerating to make a point here. And while it’s not pervasive, this point of view is just common enough to be a problem.

The thing about this line of reason is that it’s almost totally wrong.

There are heroes and villains on both sides of the old/new divide, but almost to a person, progressive players hold traditional players in high esteem. We fell in love with Bluegrass at their concerts and listening to their records. We played along with those records to learn their licks, their breaks and we struggled to imitate their distinct tones and feels. We played their songs at jams and on our first gigs. And we still do all of it! The traditional players are the ones from whom we learned our vocabulary. They literally taught us to speak the language, we know that we owe them a great debt.

You’ll see young players in the front row whenever a Bluegrass legend plays. You’ll find them spending hours watching YouTube concert videos of those same players, and you’ll see them ask those heroes to join them on stage and on their own records. In short, there is little but admiration and respect for tradition flowing from the musicians, promoters, journalists and DJs who are pushing the boundaries of what people think of as Bluegrass.

There is so much conspicuous respect and admiration among contemporary players for our forebears that it’s time to put this tired narrative to bed. We must celebrate the connections between the old and the new and we must learn lessons from each other. Whether it’s music, or how we do business and promote ourselves, the news kids also have a lot to share.

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