The Bluegrass Conspiracy?

By Berk Bryant

The Country Gentleman

The Bluegrass conspiracy. Is there one? What would make anyone think so? Why do I think there may be one? A few points for thought.

Before retirement from the military, my travel agent took me across this country of ours. In Virginia I called "country" radio stations to inquire as to why they didn't play bluegrass. In Texas I called "country" radio stations to inquire as to why they didn't play bluegrass. In California I called "country" radio stations to inquire as to why they didn't play bluegrass. Coincidentally and I am sure it was just my imagination and pure coincidence, these stations, thousands of miles apart, gave the same answer.

Usually word for word. "The management of this station doesn't like it."

Now maybe you can, but I can hardly think of a better reason for a commercial radio station to deliberately reject and turn its back on a sizeable segment of the listening audience. Arrogance or conspiracy – or both?

So what follows this? The "country" radio stations will not program bluegrass. The bluegrass performers, who include some of the best and most talented musicians and entertainers around, are not known outside the circle of bluegrass fans. A circle ever ready to expand as one caused by a pebble dropped into a calm pool of water.

The exposure of a fair amount of programming – not a token amount, a fair amount – would certainly do much to expand the bluegrass field. I mean the real, true and traditional type. I do not relish the thought of "grassrock" in a feeble effort to say listen to what we are playing. I've heard good country music corrupted over the years until it's neither country or rock. For the most part it's a crock. The attitude we won't program their bluegrass music, we won't give them exposure, we won't give it any recognition. We'll keep those bluegrass pickers in their place. I've never heard this actually said, but it does seem to be the attitude.

Conspiracy? Hand in hand with the above thinking – and this one did come from a station manager – is that there is not enough of an audience. I'm not sure just how they arrive at this conclusion. At least it was a variation on the "manager of this station" answer. In the past it had always been some poor secretary or receptionist who had to provide the answer. Being the station manager, I guess he didn't want to own up to that, 'specially a station manager in the bluegrass state. But how do they know there isn't an audience? If you don't give an audience a sufficient exposure to the product, how will you ever know if they will accept it or not? Sounds to me like you made up the audience's mind for them and they never even knew.

And, of course, if you keep telling them enough that they don't like something, some of them will eventually believe you. Maybe it isn't so much that there isn't an audience – and we know better – but just maybe they don't want us. Perhaps if they could find a new name for bluegrass music it would make it a little more "acceptable." Now that I think of it, they tried that and it didn't work, or at least it worked only for a few short years.

Remember back when the college kids and other young folks, who nave grown up now, couldn't be caught dead listening to or admitting they liked country or bluegrass? Heaven forbid! Remember about the same time, another unbelievable coincidence, the Hootenannies and folk festivals came along? Yeah, that's it, let's call them "folk" and "folk groups" and that allows us to be the "in" crowd.

Folks, I don't care what you try to call them, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs are, were then and always will be bluegrass. There were many more and some of the "popular groups" parading under the folk banner were basically bluegrass with a little flavoring of folk stirred in.

Bluegrass, which in a respect is the very nucleus of country, old-time mountain music, string music, or is it really the other way around? Bluegrass distinguished itself from beginnings of all of these, by whatever name the music was called from time to time, including hillbilly, which was popularized during WWII. Was there a little hint of a conspiracy even then to really not acknowledge bluegrass for what it is?

And what happened to the "world's largest bluegrass festival" held right here in Louisville for so many years? What happened to the proposal of a few years ago to make Louisville the Nashville of bluegrass? Well, that one is easy. Louisville missed the boat. They set it afloat and it headed downstream to Owensboro and went into dock in a big way. IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) headquarters, the IBMA showcase and fan fest established on a firm yearly basis, bringing many big bucks to the Owensboro community. The program for a bluegrass museum and other continued attractions. Louisville really let that one get away. Why they have even got some bluegrass programmed on local radio down there. Commercial radio at that.

Some of the things I have written lately expressing what some people connected to bluegrass are saying gives me cause to wonder if some of the conspiracy is coming from within and is trying to set on a path of self-destruction. As long as we keep telling ourselves that bluegrass will never be up there and as popular as top forty that we are told it is, maybe it won't be. It definitely won't gain ground as long as the bluegrassers continue to convince ourselves and everybody around us of that.

There's more. But for now there is enough here to think about. If there is a silent, unspoken, covert conspiracy against bluegrass, then, dear readers, it is up to us – you and me – all bluegrass fans – to make ourselves known. Let them know we're here and mean to be counted. It's past time we got our own "bluegrass conspiracy" going to get it played, accepted and recognized for what it really is.