By Shain Shapiro
For Vassar Clements and Bluegrass as a whole - Thanks for the music.
"Vassar was the Jimi Hendrix of bluegrass fiddle." – Billy Nershi
Bluegrass is engaged in a stylistic civil war. On one side, steadfast traditionalists continue to make music the time-tested way: acoustic instruments with minimal amplification, rooted in gospel and crowded with traditional hymns. On the other side, progressive elements are being introduced via drum sets, electronic instruments, and improvisation, strewn together with a cocky secularism that would be content leaving joints and a few shots of Jagermeister for the congregation on the collection plate. Yet, this is a positive melee. Bluegrass' current popularity is abounding. Traditionalist and progressive musicians often go behind enemy lines, cajoling each other to occasionally switch sides and experiment away from the home turf. The results are gloriously successful, from mainstream hoedowns like the Del McCoury Band and the Yonder Mountain String Band splitting the gospel stage at Bonnaroo to Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer dipping into their classical hats at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Both Mark O'Connor and Mike Marshall have recorded highly traditional and lasciviously progressive bluegrass records. In addition, salacious lyricism relentlessly dots modern bluegrass ("Granny Won't Ya Smoke Some"), often intertwined with the spirituality of standards.
With the unfortunate passing of legendary fiddler Vassar Clements this past summer, I have been stricken with a newfound curiosity about how both traditional and progressive bluegrass musicians feel about each other's interpretation of the music. How would Bill Monroe feel, for example, if he was around to see how his vision has evolved with a new generation of pickers? How important is the traditionally driven brilliance pioneered by iconic folks like Vassar in the minds of progressive strummers when approaching bluegrass' outer-reaching limits? Do contemporary crooners bastardize bluegrass, or is the style truly in need of an oil, lube, and filter? I decided to approach artists on both sides of the coin to gauge their interpretations on the subject. While I asked similar questions, each conversation evolved uniquely, gauging some interesting viewpoints along the way. So read on, interpret, and ponder. If you have any commentary regarding the subject, please exercise your opinion below in the comments section. Traditional or progressive, what does the future of bluegrass deserve, and how can either ideology be co-opted into enthusiastically picking along with the other? Well, in the words of the King, one of the greats to carefully dissipate bluegrass' stylistic polarity, let's shake, rattle, and roll.
I started my investigation by having a chat with the venerable king of bluegrass music and a fantastic southern gentleman, Del McCoury. Fresh off his unprecedented eighth International Bluegrass Musician of the Year award at the Grande Olde Opry in Nashville, the legend dropped by the Calgary Folk Festival for a quick set and chat afterwards:
Del McCoury - The Del McCoury Band:
JamBase: What are your feelings about bands that are tweaking the traditions in bluegrass like the Yonder Mountain String Band or the String Cheese Incident, i.e. bands that add other elements to bluegrass? Would that be tainting Bill Monroe's original intentions?
Del McCoury Band
Del McCoury: I figure that any musician or band has to do what is in their heart - whatever they feel that they can do best or whatever they feel they should do. For me personally, I don't want to stray from what I do. This is the way I like to play my music, and that's the way those guys are too. They play their music the way they feel they want to play it, and I think that we should let them do what's in their heart. I'm all for them, really.
I think Bill would be happy about it. He was never that prejudiced about other people playing bluegrass instruments in a different way. I believe that it made him feel honored, because he knows they are taking certain elements from his music and taking it in a different direction. For example, he told Elvis Presley when he recorded that song "Blue Moon of Kentucky" - he said to Elvis, "If it helps you, I'm all for you to sing it like that," because Elvis was embarrassed to sing the song at the Grande Old Opry with Bill Monroe there. He said "Mr. Monroe, I hope you don't mind the way I sing 'Blue Moon,'" and Bill said, "I don't mind. You take that song and sing it anyway you want to. If it will help you, I'm all for you."
You have to have variety in music, and I think that Bill thought that too. People that played in his band were very different stylists. I think he liked that because when they sang with him, his music changed a little. Every new musician that came in brought out their own style into his music, and of course, they stuck to the traditional way but in a diverse way. Especially singers like Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, and Jimmy Martin. They all sang differently. I think the jambands are playing it the way they want to play it, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Del McCoury by Chris Starnes
JamBase: I agree. Plus, you saw a big rise of jamband fans after Phish covered "Beauty of my Dreams." How do you feel, as a traditional musician, about these fans of improvisational music latching on to what you're doing?
McCoury: I think it is great. When they do a song that I've written, they put their own stamp on it, so a lot of people didn't know it was my song because when they performed it, it sounded more like their song, which is great. I think it's great that they do that. We've played shows with a lot of those bands, but we still do our music in our own traditional way and they do their thing, but we often get together at the end of the show and play together, which is fantastic.