Bluegrass Truth

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Conditions have been ideal for a great Summer of bluegrass. We have had some magnificent international guests pay us a visit and our local bands are making bigger waves than ever. In this issue we want to discuss how two major shifts in the music industry have become a positive, propulsive force in the growth of bluegrass music. These significantly  game changing conditions are the urban migration and concentration of talent, and the shift from physical albums to digital music.

Musicians who play bluegrass and ‘hillbilly’ music are traditionally from rural backgrounds. They have travelled to cities over the years to gain recognition and chase broader opportunities, but their upbringing has been a big part of their appeal throughout their careers. These days the vast majority of ‘hillbilly’ musicians grow up and live in close proximity to our major cities. A major benefit of this urban concentration of hillbilly musicians and hipster bluegrassers is that they are bumping into one another every day, influencing one another. They constantly poach ideas from each other and compete for attention, but significant progress is unfolding. We have drawn a line between the trad pickers in their 30s who learned bluegrass from their parents’ vinyl collection and the contemporary pickers in their 20s who learned their chops on YouTube, but we are moving forward, and bluegrass is diversifying.

Almost every week we meet complete strangers of all ages who tell us without blinking an eye that they are learning/playing banjo, fiddle or mandolin. It comes as a shock to us after an extreme bluegrass drought in Australia between 1983 and 2010, not knowing if it we would ever see it take off again in our lifetime. Until recently, we never thought we would see so many young people taking a keen interest in bluegrass, and we suspect this hasn’t happened since the post-Deliverance boom of the 1970s. Melbourne and Sydney have so many bluegrass influenced bands right now that it’s difficult to decide who to watch each night.

Banjo has always been a trusted tool to musically inclined comedians such as Billy Connolly, Steve Martin and Ed Helms (The Hangover), but despite their musical talent, they have brought the instrument into the mainstream arena partially as a novelty prop. Still, we can’t believe how ‘normal’ it has become to play the banjo. Demographics most likely to follow social and fashion trends are taking up bluegrass instruments in droves, so it must be cool now…

When we were learning bluegrass in the 1990s most people considered overseas trips a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, so if you were of the small handful of truly committed Aussie bluegrassers who made the pilgrimage to a bluegrass festival in America such as Bean Blossom or IBMA, you were an ambassador. Your mission was to make note of every band on the scene that was any good and bring home as many albums as you could fit in your suitcase. It was your responsibility to share that music when you got home and get your bluegrass community up to speed. However, in this age of information, you can be a complete recluse living in a remote part of the world and be well informed.

This great culture-killing beast we know as the internet changed music forever. Initially, it was great for bluegrassers like us, but now established acts are having increasing difficulty being heard above the ‘noise’ of the ocean of amateur artists whose careers have yet to make the leap from social media to the stage. Before the novelty of the internet wore off, websites like mp3.com gave us $0.08 per play (1999) and people recognised us on the street in America from our MySpace page (2004). Now we’re lucky to get $0.006 per play from Spotify (2015) and we’ve had to employ legal help to chase our contracted share of money generated by iTunes sales.

Essentially, former record buying consumers now expect music to be free. This music-for-free phenomenon, along with reality shows exploiting singers have very effectively reduced virtually all musicians to the same level and stymied the careers of anyone who is not committed. The decline in record sales has forced major record companies to merge, and stripped them of their former power and influence.

What we are left with is a population who still crave stimulating entertainment that sounds better than the substandard mp3 audio they’ve been listening to through their substandard audio devices. Furthermore, thousands of independent artists must now rely now on wowing people with their talent and their creativity instead of bright lights and enormous PA systems. Not a bad thing.

As much as it would have been hilarious to present a bluegrass Golden Guitar to Beccy Cole’s “Butt Crack”, we are super proud to see Pete Denahy take home the Bluegrass and Instrumental awards in January. He is so multi-talented and actively and tirelessly engages with the bluegrass scene. It is reassuring that the bluegrass category hasn’t just become a category for country artists who record an acoustic song.

In February, jazz artist Diana Krall brought to Australia two musicians who have made a monumental impact on bluegrass music, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch. These guys may have never come to Australia if it had not been for the recent shift in the way the music industry works. Stuart and Dennis are both the first call in Nashville on their respective instruments, on which they are among the finest in the world. Between them, they have performed and recorded with literally hundreds of artists. However, the major artists don’t have the big budgets they used to flaunt, and the top session players (many from bluegrass backgrounds) are back out on the road performing.

Another big story right now in the bluegrass world is that Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville Tennessee have acquired the very first signed Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolin. This essentially is the prototype of the instrument that has become the quintessential ‘bluegrass-style’ mandolin. The mandolin is currently in Australia being restored by master craftsman Stephen Gilchrist.