Snyder, Hassel, Blaauw-Hara, Babb, and Ferris
In her important study of genre as social action, Carolyn Miller (1984) asserted that "genres change, evolve, and decay" (p. 163). Genres resist taxonomy and definition, because the social needs met by genres remain fluid, and the genres themselves change in response to social and cultural shifts. In "Listening for Genre Multiplicity in Classroom Soundscapes," Kati Ahern and Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher (2018) examined how classroom genres "interact, unfold, are called into being by sonic events, and how they shape the pedagogical ecology our students inhabit." This section of our text focuses on bluegrass, a musical genre that illustrates that genre fluidity—how genre changes, evolves, and decays in different contexts—as well as the push and pull of genre on musical invention.
Bluegrass music is surprisingly difficult to define. I note that the difficulty of this definitional work is surprising because, on its surface, bluegrass seems fairly simple and straightforward. While bluegrass sounds like a traditional form of music, it is a relatively young genre dating to the 1940s, fueled by the growth of commercial radio, the expansion of interstates that made touring the United States easier, and the migration of rural people to urban areas for employment in the mid-twentieth century. Bluegrass shares origins with country music even though those two genres have grown in different directions, while it also has connections to folk, jazz, blues, old-time, and rock and roll. Over the decades, even as a strong purist tendency has sought to maintain a strict definition of the genre—to resist genre’s tendency to change and evolve—bluegrass has continued to incorporate influences from other genres, making it a lively genre that resists confinement. Bluegrass is both a distinct and porous musical genre, creating its own canon and standard forms while stealing gleefully and unapologetically from other genres. Its intertwining of a set of traditional expectations (more or less adhered to by a community of practitioners) and a tendency toward experimentation (typically in ways that challenge those communal expectations) makes bluegrass a genre resistant to decay and rife with the potential for rhetorical invention.
Consistent elements of bluegrass collectively provide generic templates that enable players to invent within the genre and to challenge the boundaries of the genre, often at the same time, pushing against and working within the genre.
Describing the complexity of cultural influences on bluegrass, Robert Cantwell (1984) wrote that bluegrass "seems to be as much about music as it is a music" (p. 61). Cantwell traced the influences that form bluegrass through other genres that inform most American musical traditions, including jazz, Appalachian music, blues, and ragtime. He offered how the influences work even in the breaks (instrumental solos that function as a break for vocalists) that players can perform on different instruments: "A bluegrass fiddle break, for instance, will typically include technical and stylistic elements belonging to jazz or even classical music; a bluegrass banjo break will interpolate melodic ideas from ragtime, blues, and [...] rock" (pp. 60–61). In other words, even within the genre of bluegrass, different instruments encourage musicians to pull from different musical backgrounds and traditions.
In his exploration of the challenges of bluegrass music's self-definition, Joti Rockwell (2012) characterized the debates about the boundaries of the genre of bluegrass as an ongoing process: "Generic identity is thus a constant area for musical and discursive negotiation, especially given the hybrid status of bluegrass as a folk music, a progressive concert music and a commercially mediated form" (p. 364). Rockwell's article considered at length how members of the bluegrass community have sought to define the parameters of what comprises bluegrass music, whether it is defined by instrumentation (including debates over acoustic versus electric instruments or the dreaded presence of drums), deference to the originators of the genre, or the identity of those involved.
Despite definitional difficulties, there are some common features of bluegrass, such as virtuoso instrumentation, frequently fast tempo, and high vocal harmonies often described as that high lonesome sound. Another critical component of the genre and the community that has grown to play and support it is a high level of participation and collaboration, making bluegrass a social engagement with others as a musical genre. Musicians from seasoned experts to beginners come together at bluegrass festivals, bars, pizza parlors, and private homes to jam with one another. The relatively simple song structures and the well-established pattern of lead vocals, harmonized choruses, and breaks make bluegrass an approachable music for beginners even as it continues to pose technical and stylistic challenges to experienced players.
Consistent elements of bluegrass collectively provide generic templates that enable players to invent within the genre and to challenge the boundaries of the genre, often at the same time, pushing against and working within the genre. Improvisation is a prized skill in bluegrass, just as it is in jazz, with musicians interweaving familiar phrases and surprising melodic restatements. For example, when taking a break on the mandolin, I typically have a sense of where I want to start, mapping the first few notes that will send me on a melodic restatement or interpretation. Generally, I have no firm idea where the break will go from there; I am often as surprised as anyone listening by where I end up going. I have played bluegrass for a quarter of a century, so I draw on my experience listening to and playing the genre and my familiarity with my instrument. I invent the music as I go, working with a mixture of standard stock phrases (known as licks) ingrained in muscle memory, use of the technique of tremolo that is specific to the mandolin, and a reckless abandon to try new, often irreplicable experiments in which I simultaneously negotiate the physical characteristics and limits of my instrument, my own limitations as a musician, and the melody of the song (e.g., listen to my improvised break on a cover of John Hartford’s "Steam-Powered Aeroplane," starting at 1:35.) Anis Bawarshi (2003) described genres as "the conceptual realms within which individuals recognize and experience situations at the same time as they are the rhetorical instruments by and through which individuals participate within and enact situations" (p. 113). My playing demonstrates a negotiation of the discursive practices of the genre to honor its traditions and to invent my own instrumental voice at the same time.
As a genre, bluegrass can adhere quite rigidly to some conventions, but that rigidity enables improvisation and collaboration that makes bluegrass an art that is open to social participation. Bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg (1985) described his early interactions with bluegrass as a graduate student studying folklore at Indiana University in the 1960s, providing a glimpse of how vital social engagement is to bluegrass:
[D]uring my spare time, I immersed myself in this music, spending many Sundays at Bill Monroe's Brown County Jamboree in nearby Bean Blossom, Indiana. I played in the house band, hung out backstage to listen to and pick in jam sessions, entered banjo contests, shared meals with musicians, [and] taped shows... (p. 3)
Rosenberg's description of his immersion in bluegrass music and the culture surrounding it emphasizes the participatory, collaborative nature of the social fabric of the bluegrass community. The phenomenon of multi-day bluegrass festivals, which first began in the 1960s and quickly expanded, became sites for supporting professional bluegrass bands and for hosting jams. These festivals continue to be vital components of the social fabric of bluegrass because they offer musicians and fans spaces to observe and participate in the genre.
While the social fabric of bluegrass music has done much to shape bluegrass as a genre, it was first and foremost a professional performative genre, as bands like Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, and many others toured the United States, made records, and appeared on radio and television shows. Flatt and Scruggs enjoyed particular success in popular markets with their sponsorship from the Martha White Flour Company and the positioning of their music in The Beverly Hillbillies television show, first aired in 1962, and the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Likewise, the rise of folk music in the early 1960s in the northeast United States and on college campuses brought young new audiences to a genre that had, by that time, struggled to find a sufficient audience, particularly as country music moved toward the commercially refined Nashville sound that left little room for bluegrass. The development of bluegrass as a genre was dependent on the groups that performed professionally, finding new audiences where they could as the music changed and as social needs for music shifted.
Collaboration is baked into the form at the performance level as well. The typical bluegrass band is composed of four to seven musicians playing some combination of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, and resophonic guitar (typically referred to generically by the brand name Dobro). Lead singers collaborate with others in the band to craft rich three- or four-part harmonies on choruses. While there are certainly exceptions to the pattern as described here—some bluegrass bands occasionally include, heavens preserve us, drums—most bands are based on Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, particularly the late 1945-1948 version of the band that included Monroe on mandolin and tenor vocals, guitarist and lead vocalist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise, upright bass player Cedric Rainwater, and banjo player extraordinaire Earl Scruggs. Scruggs's three-fingered syncopated style established what we now refer to as Scruggs-style banjo, which remains the standard for bluegrass banjo. Scruggs almost singlehandedly revived the commercial viability of 5-string banjos as players who heard him on the radio or recordings sought out the instrument he played.
Here is an example of how bluegrass works: Bill Monroe's "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky," recorded with those musicians who collectively defined the sound of bluegrass, illustrates a collaborative spirit among the band, particularly as Monroe's mandolin consistently offers a counter melody under Flatt's lead vocal, Wise's fiddle break, and Scruggs's banjo break. Likewise, Scruggs offers up-the-neck back-up in the latter half of the song, adding more texture to the song. Bill Hardwig (2001), in an article on Monroe's competitive masculinity, called bluegrass a "fiercely competitive form of music" (p. 46), which makes sense to this particular participant in the genre, having witnessed players (more often referring to themselves as pickers) vie to show off the most complex, inventive breaks possible while attempting to do the same myself. However, I would argue it is better to characterize bluegrass as a collaborative form of music veering at high speed toward chaos, protected from that chaos by the carefully cultivated interaction among musicians who understand how to harness the high energy of bluegrass to produce an intensely driving genre. As a musical genre, bluegrass shows the importance of collaboration even as individuals engage with invention, seeking ways to give voice to their own interpretations of the music.
Musicologist Mats Sigvard Johansson (2016) argued that "genre and style as theoretical and empirical concepts are about the coding and constitutive framing of musical practices" (p. 47). In other words, genre functions to help recipients of texts to categorize and contextualize how those specific pieces fit into broader frameworks. Johansson asserted that the "increasing cultural diversification of contemporary Western societies" as well as the proliferation of digital technologies make it vital to consider how the categorization of music impacts how that music is mediated and received. A recent episode of the podcast Radiolab, called "Songs that Cross Borders," (2019) followed a similar thread of argument, exploring how country music has thrived in areas outside of the United States in unexpected ways and how its patterns influence the development of music in countries such as Australia and Afghanistan. Likewise, the PBS documentary on the history of bluegrass, Big Family (2019), concluded with an exploration of the international growth of bluegrass, particularly in Japan, which has supported a thriving bluegrass scene for many decades.
What bluegrass demonstrates is that genres often work simultaneously to define themselves and to invite external influences that continue to shape them as they evolve.
While bluegrass typically sticks to some discursive conventions, those same conventions have constructed a genre that offers lots of space for instrumental and vocal experimentation as well as incorporation of songs and ideas from other genres. Here are some examples: New Grass Revival, a band that started in the early 1970s and continued until the late 1980s, incorporated elements of rock, contemporary country, and other genres in its music, covering songs like Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" and Bob Marley's "One Love." The Seldom Scene, which started at the same time as New Grass Revival and continues to play now (albeit with entirely different band members), has covered songs from multiple genres, such as Eric Clapton's "After Midnight" and "Lara's Theme" from Maurice Jarre's Doctor Zhivago. More recent examples include the Punch Brothers, a group that has pushed bluegrass beyond its definitional limits with their orchestral instrumentals, offering a sweet version of the often-covered folk song "Moonshiner." (In his section on outlaw country, Mark Blaauw-Hara also references this song, another demonstration of how genres can borrow from one another.) Bluegrass has made such a tradition of covering songs from other genres that CMH Records started releasing the Pickin' On series in 1993, with full albums of bluegrass covers of artists including Nirvana, the Eagles, and Metallica. The musical streaming service Spotify offers an excellent curated list of Bluegrass Covers that further demonstrates the broad range of musical influences in bluegrass.
What bluegrass demonstrates is that genres often work simultaneously to define themselves and to invite external influences that continue to shape them as they evolve. Those who are conversant in the discursive conventions of genre are then able to use those conventions as a site for invention. Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk (1999) noted, "As music composes us, newly and differently than we were, we too recompose ourselves as we write these musics." Additionally, the social nature of bluegrass as a music that invites participation shows the importance of collaboration to invention. Like any genre, bluegrass has specific rules and contexts that define how it works and who chooses to participate, but what bluegrass has to offer about genre can be applied to other genres and forms of invention, whether it is music or writing. In form, bluegrass has remained effectively unchanged since Bill Monroe introduced it to the world via the Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s, but as the musical genre has been adapted across the decades, in new environments in and beyond the United States, bluegrass has shown how a stable form can provide tremendous space for interpretation and fluidity. The liveliness of bluegrass comes from the subtle nuances of difference in instrumental style and the capacious space for new musicians and themes.
In her exquisite memoir, Emma John (2019) described her journey to the United States from the United Kingdom to learn everything she could about bluegrass, a genre she appreciated aesthetically but could not seem to understand and did not feel culturally connected to. She described several of the seeming contradictions that inform the genre:
I'd been taught that the music I loved had strict rules—and discovered that they were constantly broken. I'd been sold a history shaped by bitter feuds, only to discover that its joyously unlikely collaborations were just as defining. I knew that bluegrass was riven in two by diametrically opposing [rural and urban] cultures. And I’d also seen that they mostly got on just fine. (pp. 309–310, emphasis original)
John’s position as an outsider to the music, as someone seeking a way to participate in its discourse and to feel the joys of that music, helps her to frame the genre’s internal contradictions while bringing into focus its wildly inventive energy. Bluegrass continues to change and evolve as a genre because, while it appears rigid in its structure and its discursive rules, it is fluid, adapting to new environments, and absorbing the influences of new audiences and new players. Genres like bluegrass demonstrate that genre itself, whether musical, written, or otherwise, can provide a collaborative, inventive space.
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