Art and Commerce: Letters from the Bluegrass Heartland

[Around 1990 a Missouri-Rolla history professor and bluegrass DJ named Wayne Bledsoe founded Bluegrass Today, which offered a contemporary focus. Hit hard by the changing print magazine economy, Bluegrass Today converted to online only in 2008, just as I came on board as a columnist. I got to compose a couple of issue oriented essays before the online version of Bluegrass Today folded too.]

Welcome to “Art & Commerce”: Letters from the Bluegrass Heartland

By Art Menius

Welcome to “Art and Commerce,” my new column for Bluegrass Now. I am excited about this opportunity to have a platform for thinking about bluegrass. I am especially interested in the history and sociology of bluegrass music and its community; public policy, government and nonprofit agencies and their effects on the genre and the industry; the relationship of bluegrass to other genre; and the intersection of art, tradition, entertainment, and business that is the bluegrass music field today, hence the name.

I have written about bluegrass and roots music for twenty-five years now in magazines, newspapers, and on the web. Some may remember me as the first Executive Director of IBMA (1985-1990) or as an emcee at MerleFest (1989 – 2007). I also worked for MerleFest as my day job, handling marketing and sponsorship, for ten years and spent five as the first manager of the Folk Alliance (1991-1996). I am now director of Appalshop, the 39-years old, non-profit media arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky in the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. You may have seen our films about Ralph Stanley or Hazel Dickens. Appalshop also includes the Appalachian Media Institute, the Seedtime on the Cumberland festival, June Appal Recordings, and WMMT-FM (, which airs some 25 hours of bluegrass and nine of old-time music each week. That means I am lucky enough to live in a place where people talk about the Stanley Brothers at the barber shop and weekly concerts, dances, and jam sessions that belong to the local community still take place. I have had the privilege of serving on the boards of IBMA, the Old-Time Herald, the Folk Alliance, the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, and the Americana Music Association. This year has brought the twin honors of IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award and induction into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame.

All this leads me to a good deal of middle aged reflection, which is normal once one has more past than future. The IBMA honor especially pulls on my heartstrings and memories. Mary Tyler Doub, producer of the Grey Fox Festival, and I developed that program more than twenty years ago as the IBMA Certificate of Merit. The idea was to have an honors program that was different from either a hall of fame or a best whatever of the year. When IBMA held its initial World of Bluegrass in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1986, a dinner at which the certificates of merit were presented was the formal membership part of the event – two hours rather than the five days we now enjoy. The precursor to the trade show exhibit hall happened in a tent on the weekend during Fan Fest, which was an outdoor festival in Owensboro.

Every journey begins with but one step and that was IBMA’s. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate how far we have come since then. During the mid-1980s only Bill Monroe remained on major recording label, and even he would take percentage dates in the winter. The club/college/motel market that once saw bluegrass artists through the colder months had largely dried up, while indoor winter festivals were an embryonic Midwestern experiment. Bluegrass didn’t fit well with radio formats simultaneously emerging and ossifying, leaving the music to a patchwork of AM stations in the South and Midwest and non-commercial stations elsewhere. For several months, a John Hartford compilation on Flying Fish was the only thing resembling bluegrass on CD. That The Nashville Network aired “Fire on the Mountain,” the weekly bluegrass and old-time music TV show for which I worked from 1983 to ’85, reflected the novelty of original programming for cable more than the popularity of the music.

Even the number of festivals had declined during the period of transition that would produce today’s events. The first decade of bluegrass festivals had depended in the combination of established bluegrass fans with younger urban audiences created first by the folk boom and later by the hippie, back to nature movement. The former waned as rock waxed while the latter partied until they in fact dropped. Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, and Don Reno had passed away, while Earl Scruggs seemed to have retired. When IBMA started in 1985 only three significant bands had emerged in bluegrass in several years – Hot Rize, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and the Johnson Mountain Boys. When the latter announced what became a short lived breakup, the Washington Post declared the impending demise of bluegrass.

Mark Twain would have appreciated the prematurity of that obituary, but at age forty the reality appeared grim for bluegrass music as part of the entertainment industry, just as it had been at twenty years old in 1965 before the festivals saved it. Bluegrass music’s substantive footprint largely consisted only of its homeland in the upper South and lower Midwest combined with beachheads in the northeast, California, Japan, and parts of Canada. Most tellingly, we worried about how few young people were interested in bluegrass.

Look at us now. Yeah, we are fighting a perplexing battle over formats and distribution and the subsequent loss of income to our artists. Sure, country music has changed dramatically since the days when Ricky Skaggs could have #1 hits with a strong bluegrass flavor. On the other hand, we have tons of young pickers, new bands emerging seemingly every day, and markets where you have choices among multiple bluegrass radio shows with satellite radio in the States offering ‘grass 24/7. Bluegrass artists appear on network television morning shows. Ralph Stanley has become a major cultural icon known far and wide, while Alison Krauss is a superstar who can tour with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. And we have the most successful trade association for a musical genre outside the mainstream.

This has, as with all things in life, come at a cost. Late in his life, John Hartford compared the bluegrass community to a close knit village into which newcomers were moving. I think what is happening is more the opposite. Much like the massive migration from the southern highlands into Midwest during the past century, the bluegrass community has moved out of its village into the world and into the larger entertainment industry. Along the way, we have moved into new neighborhoods and made a lot of new friends.

In so doing, bluegrass has become disconnected from place, the very thing that defines southern. We have lost the intimate sense of family we once enjoyed. A separation between artist and audience has developed. You don’t see, for example, major stars jamming or eating supper in the campgrounds as was once common.

As it develops, this column will attempt to address what all this means, especially the implications of a musical form moving out into the world and its community becoming international rather than regional. We’ll speculate on the implications of radio and recordings becoming more important than learning music socially. We’ll have fun to with stories, memories, and history, and maybe we’ll figure out why we are so devoted to this music and this community. Anyway, we’re putting on a Grascals concert in a couple of hours, so I’d better close this letter from the bluegrass heartland now.


Why Can’t We Disagree and Still Get Along?

By Art Menius

The following is approved by me, but it is not a discussion of the candidates, issues, or their positions. This is about the bluegrass community’s relationship with politics.

Thanks to the Internet, people all around the world have seen and heard print, video, and radio endorsements of Barack Obama by Ralph Stanley being used in southwestern Virginia. On the Tri-Cities TV station, I even saw the live event in Abingdon where Ralph appeared with the Democratic candidate. With Virginia in play, he called upon the bluegrass superstar in hopes of neutralizing damage in Stanley’s part of the state, which was previously enthusiastic for John Edwards.

Ralph has endorsed Democratic candidates before, but no major party presidential candidate has ever used his support so aggressively. These are different days. According to Karl Rove, longtime political advisor to the outgoing president, the Democrat is outspending Senator McCain four-to-one on TV in Virginia, one of seven states Mr. Rove reckons the Republican must win to reach 274 electoral votes. By the time you read this, we’re apt to know how the 2008 election played out. The most interesting question, however, is why it is so difficult in the bluegrass community to have a calm, rational, nonpartisan discussion of what this means.

Let me show what I mean by contrast. My neighbor put up yard signs for the candidates that I do not support. When I tell him, “Man, somebody sure put up some ugly signs at your driveway,” he says, “They aren’t half as ugly as your signs!” We just laugh and go on getting along with each other. When I helped manage a candidate for state representative, her opponent and his team were always cordial.

Yet mere web links to Ralph for Obama have roiled various bluegrass online discussion groups. Posts have appeared on the web such as this one: “Mr. Stanley is the reason I play music. I am hurt and appaled [sic] that he endorsed a black man. I will burn all his CDs today.”

A sizeable number of participants in our online communities reject the idea that the endorsement is appropriate bluegrass news simply because the message referenced contains partisan politics. Others, including myself, argue that nothing is wrong about talking about what Stanley’s endorsement means – as I tried to do above – without talking about whether one agrees or disagrees with the central Appalachian icon.

Country and old-time music offer rich examples of political content and involvement. Uncle Dave Macon had released records endorsing unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith (the first Catholic to win the nomination), attacking – perhaps with tongue in cheek – evolution, and exploiting a scandal in “Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train.” While bluegrass was sweeping through the South and Midwest in 1948, Roy Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee. “Banjo Bill” Cornett served in the Kentucky legislature and used song to advance his agenda. Even Stringbean, on both record and TV, questioned “That Crazy Vietnam War.” Merle Haggard entered mainstream culture with “Okie From Muskogee” and the strident “Fighting Side of Me.” He was managed at that time by Carlton Haney, by the way.

The long labor struggles in the cotton mills and coal mines produced a plethora of left leaning ballads and broadsides from the likes of Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, and Sarah Ogun Gunning. The Almanac Singers, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, appropriated traditional styles for political messaging. Contemporary old-time and roots-based artists like Si Kahn, Reel World String Band, and John McCutcheon have used their music for political and social expression. At IBMA’s World of Bluegrass 2008, a band staged an offsite showcase as a fundraiser for Obama. Only Hazel Dickens, with and without Alice Gerrard, has made a lasting career in bluegrass writing and performing music with political content.

The politically safe space in bluegrass provides one of the most fascinating examples of a social norm being created by a non-geographic community of choice. Folks from outside the bluegrass heartland entered the community in large numbers during the 1960s and early 1970s, first through the so-called folk boom and then via the festival fever years, somehow it came to be understood that bluegrass was about music; you checked your politics at the gate. This proved transformative for the bluegrass music community, allowing it to spread across social and geographic lines. Given how fragmented American politics were at that time, this was undoubtedly the only way that the newer and older audiences could have merged.

This social compromise, however, has left us with the effect of great difficulty of engaging in reasonable political discourse within bluegrass. This comes on top of a tradition of nostalgic and love themes in the lyrics, wherein topical themes tended toward “No School Bus in Heaven.” This raises the question of how fragile our community is if certain topics are so divisive as to be verboten.

We seem to be able to discuss such matters one-on-one, but in a group – such as an online discussion group – only chaos and controversy result. Many readers of bluegrass discussion groups recall, and often recoiled from, the explosive discussion of the 2006 IBMA Awards Show during which the US Navy Band performed American military anthems. Some friendships were lost, and a few veteran attendees of WOB no longer do so.

Is, however, only left leaning rhetoric beyond the pale? No. My theory is that populist themes rarely embroil the bluegrass community. The Del McCoury Band, who once recorded and toured with the often political Steve Earle, earlier this year issued Moneyland. Perhaps not a political recording in the strictest sense, it certainly contains social commentary with, however, populist leanings. The same can be said of Peter Rowan’s acclaimed Dust Bowl Ballads solo disc a score ago. “Ruby Ridge,” a song from his Blue Grass Boy CD, led some unfamiliar with his work to believe he supported far right wing “end-of-roaders,” but also didn’t ignite a backlash. Sonny Osborne dissed President Nixon on stage for a dozen years after Watergate – the same years as Nixon’s “virtual” exile into unpopularity, save for the Osbornes’ hometown of Hyden, KY.

Another aspect – related to the turmoil of the time – may lie in bluegrass music’s late 1960s divorce from the folk music community. It can be argued that the so-called folk music revival saved bluegrass as a commercial genre. As bluegrass created its own scene with the start of bluegrass festivals, media, and recording labels, the community could distance itself from association with the political and social activist singer-songwriters of the folk world.

Perhaps bluegrass attracted such independent, strong willed folks of all political persuasions that we have to exist in an apolitical space. Maybe we need to Myers-Briggs ourselves. Those on the thinking end of their scale would seem more likely to engage in dispassionate discourse than those on the feeling end. It is not a great imaginative leap to suggest that musicians tend toward the feeling.

Another theory lies in need. The musicians and singers who created the intensely political Calypso music in Trinidad had no other viable outlet for political speech. First, our community needed to anneal. Second, members of the American bluegrass community perhaps have responded appropriately to the presence of numerous outlets for political discourse.

The emergence of “family style” bluegrass festivals from the mid-1970s own also formed a watershed moment. If nothing else, the “cleaning up” of our events marked a further distancing from folkies and hippies. This was another leap in self-identification as being a bluegrass music community, with its own mores, independent of country, folk, or string band. Could not talking politics simply be one of core identifiers?

Looks like I have taken up a lot of bandwidth asking questions more than answering then. It amazes me that an informal social compromise reached in a community four decades ago could still exert such power. So I shall end with the same query – why can’t we talk about political issues and still get along since we are all part of the same family?


The Thankful Column

I write this as American Thanksgiving approaches, while realizing you’ll be reading it afterwards. That understood, I still feel it is time to note a few of the things I am thankful for in bluegrass as 2008 comes to an end.

I am thankful that bluegrass music still enjoys precious regional diversity, not just on an international basis, but even within the USA itself. That we speak a common global language – songs, etiquette, and words like jam session, banjo roll, festival, and g-run – makes this all the more remarkable. All of us know about local bands in which we take a certain regional pride when they get noticed in other areas. We see the different support bands in festival lineups from different places. The variations prove much more wonderfully specific than such generalities as the southern bluegrass community being different from the California community. Audiences here in southeast Kentucky, for example, tend to be more conservative in their bluegrass tastes than folks just 80 miles to the north. This parallels, by the way, a marked difference in the old-time fiddle traditions of the two parts of eastern KY.

I am thankful that all these communities can now talk to each other thanks both to IBMA and the internet. The bluegrass community changed when Frank Godbey introduced bgrass-l. Adopting new technologies is essential for both art and commerce outside the mainstream. Bgrass-l was among the earlier deployments of listserv technology facilitating group discussion using email – a tool still used today. I believe it caught on quickly not just for the obvious reasons but because after the early 1970s, the bluegrass community was no longer reuniting annual at a small number of festivals. News, gossip, opinion, and uninformed speculation now had a 24/7 venue. People met here before they met at festivals. Death and illness notices spread around the globe. Bluegrass folk far from the USA could now talk daily to Americans. Bgrass-l grew so fast, in fact, that like many of the early adopters, I have long since withdrawn from that community in favor of ibma-l and lbg-l, but its introduction changed our community.

I am thankful we still have a few of the founding generation still with us. It reminds us that bluegrass remains a very young music, on the one hand. On the other, pioneers such as Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Jesse McReynolds, the Lewis Family, Melvin Goins, Bobby Osborne, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Harrell along with early sidemen such as George Shuffler, Jim Shumate, and Arvil Freeman and first generation local musicians like Jerry Stuart and Clarence Greene, connect us to our heritage. They can tell us our history in a way books, museums, and websites can’t. I treasure them all the more now that I have seen so many of their peers pass away or retire completely from playing. Compare today to when I first saw bluegrass live – only Carter Stanley, Red Smiley, Charlie Moore, and Scotty Stoneman were deceased among the best known musicians. And, although neither one plays bluegrass, I am thankful that Wade Mainer (101) and Doc Williams (94) are still with us.

As I am writing, the syndicated radio show “Inside Appalachia,” included a feature about the bluegrass ensemble at Dennison College. Twenty years ago that would have been a big deal. Now it gets lost among Newsweek making Cherryhomes its pick CD of the week, the Wall Street Journal’s review essay about IBMA award winners’ latest releases, Ralph Stanley endorsements for president, and Alison Krauss appearing on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Those of us of a certain age can remember hunting up and down the dial for bluegrass, searching through the AM dial mostly. Now most Americans and Canadians have over the air access to at least one bluegrass show a week, while more and more places, like here, enjoy times when they can choose among two or three bluegrass shows. With satellite radio simulating on satellite TV services, millions can hear bluegrass programming 24/7. Internet radio offers let another source, one that not only offers more streams but the ability to voyeuristically listen to bluegrass shows worldwide. So, yes, I am very thankful for the media rich world of bluegrass today.

Which takes me to another one – college bluegrass programs. A quarter century ago we had only the then very new programs at ETSU and South Plains College. Now it seems like new ones are appearing every semester. Just in my extended neighborhood we can give thanks for bluegrass curricula at ETSU, Morehead State, Mountain Empire Community College, Berea College, and Hazard Community & Technical College.

Finally, I am thankful that bluegrass music still feels like a community despite its growth in geographic spread and popularity. Loving bluegrass means something, albeit ethereal, more than simply being a fan of music.



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