Much electronic ink has been spilt among ‘grassers over just what the term “Bluegrass Music” ought to mean. Should it be reserved for music made by Monroe himself? Are former Bluegrass Boys also allowed? Is it enough to feature a banjo, what if the banjo player doesn’t roll? Or, maybe you just have one person in the band wear overalls and call it a day?
This is a fine discussion to have over coffee, or something stronger, between friends and colleagues. It’s probably even fine to have it with strangers on the internet; as long as the discussion remains friendly and open. Free of musical litmus tests and sweeping declarations.
In short, talk about it like it’s Art, not politics. Because that’s what it is, Art. And while you can describe art in great detail, you can’t pin it down. Attempts to do so almost always fail. Audience members will always see a lot of themselves in any good work, so debates over any kind of art will naturally be more about the debaters that about about the work. All this is for another day, though.
We’re talking business today.
Artists must not only be obsessed with their work. If they want to be successful they must also obsess over their business, because it’s the success of the business that keeps the art happening. As Bluegrass artists, we need to cultivate an ever-growing audience for the music so that we can all keep working. We must think of those audience members as our customers. We must realize that we produce a niche’ product that has a core audience of die-hard fans, but that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone all the time. We need to become comfortable with casual fans whose definition of what is and isn’t “Bluegrass” might be very different from those of the core audience. These are people who might attend a festival to see the Old Crow set Saturday night and Doyle Lawson’s gospel set Sunday morning, calling all of it Bluegrass.
We REALLY need these people, as many of them as we can get.
I’ll illustrate with a clunky metaphor.
Let’s say we’re all in the business of selling chocolate. Specifically, we make a variety of strawberry-rhubarb-cayanne pepper chocolates.
We sell these chocolates directly from a small shop. There’s a steady business selling to connoisseurs, but walk-in traffic struggles because not everyone wants strawberry-rhubarb-cayanne pepper chocolates, even though we have dark and milk chocolate varieties, and there’s nothing else there to keep them in the store. It doesn’t help that our counter staff are all die-hard fans of SRCP chocolates and prone to delivering lectures on the superiority of the dark chocolate varieties over all others, before chasing the customer out of the store for not being a true-believer. Before long, the store closes and we all go home with trunks full of unsold chocolate.
My point is that we must see every music fan as a potential customer and be okay with it if they decide not to be. We must meet them on their terms and allow them to call whatever music they like whatever they want. We can’t afford to turn those people off today because they could be new fans tomorrow. We should embrace the fact that some people will call anything with a banjo bluegrass. because the more they say that word, the better. And, the more likely they are to buy music, to attend concerts and find their way to more styles of Bluegrass.
It’s not about maintaining the purity of a music or the meaning of a word, neither thing is possible. It’s about making friends and making fans who can help to keep the lights on so that we can keep making the music that we want to.