"I Know It When I Hear It!"

What Makes Bluegrass Music?

By Bob Mitchell

Some of the happiest sounds on earth greeted me as I entered the Galt House, an accommodating river front hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, last year Banjos were ringing, mandolins chopping, guitars strumming and fiddles singing. The lobby was filled to capacity with small clusters of pickers, singers and grinners. There was more music than an ear could sort out. A sea of happy faces and patting feet quickly alerted me to the fact that I was in the middle of a very special event.

Later, a banjo played a "Call to the Post" and when the Showcase starting gate opened, "Shadow Creek" bolted out. IBMA was heading for the first quarter pole. This energetic group from Wichita, Kansas sang a powerful gospel tune, "Joshua," and dedicated their set to the nation in a time of distress. It was, after all, only one month earlier that terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Centers in New York. "Shadow Creek" was a crowd--pleasing group that closed with an unusual bluegrass cover of Sonny James' `50s hit, "Young Love."

When the set ended, I began to wonder, "What is it that makes music become bluegrass music?" So, with my trusty tape recorder in hand, I asked over fifty artists and a few fans the same question: "What is it that makes bluegrass music?" Jim Bullard, Shadow Creek, said, "The five string banjo is what makes bluegrass... it has a sound no other music has." Another band member, Kathy Feryok, added, "It is a unique combination of instruments including banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass and mandolin playing songs that .. are rooted in traditional sounds of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs." Nikki Feryok, commented, "There is so much energy... and it makes me happy." I say "Amen" to that!

There can be no doubt that bluegrass is one of America's original art forms and IBMA is the ultimate bluegrass experience. It goes on forty-eight hours a day for seven glorious days. In fact, it has been said that IBMA means, "I've been mostly awake." Some participants never attend any of the "official" music events or the trade show, content instead to wander from one jam session to another. Jam sessions are everywhere and most of the pickers are very good. As often as not, professional artists sit in and exhibitors invite the public to hotel suites that have been set aside to let anyone get up close and personal with their favorite entertainers. No matter the time of day or location in the hotel (even the rest rooms) everyone is happy. I have never seen anything like it!

While waiting to enter the Pinecastle suite for the unveiling of Josh Williams' new release, I spoke with Jim Hurst, IBMA guitarist of the year. He said, "Bluegrass music relates to family values and handing down those values from generation to generation. There is an element of earnestness and sincerity that I don't find in any other kind of music." That sentiment was echoed throughout the entire week. Tina Adair told me "The people make bluegrass what it is .. people are so understanding and friendly." No matter who I spoke with, the element of `people' was a frequently mentioned theme. Hazel Dickens said, "Bluegrass is heart, soul and people. It's music about real life situations. You can't separate the people from the music." Brad Hanssen, White Sands Panhandle Band, concurred: "It's the people, they are the heart and soul. Anyone who wants to play an instrument can do it in bluegrass. No one is left out. It's a family environment." However, Mickey Harris, Sally Jones and the Sidewinders, may have said it best: "It's the people who make bluegrass... we are like a huge family. It does not matter what you are.. a lawyer, a doctor or a construction worker, like me. It's the people."

Like many others in the hotel, I had a difficult time trying to decide how to see and hear everything. Alas, I must warn you, it simply is not possible. As the king in the movie "Amadeus" said, "There are too many notes." Jam sessions were everywhere. Old friends were meeting unexpectedly in hall ways and reminiscing. At the same time, exciting groups were showcasing on the main stage, groups like "Northwest Territory," "The Delaney Brothers Band," and Leroy Troy. Troy is a performer who puts fun in his music and takes you back to the sounds of Uncle Dave Macon. I put the question to Leroy and he answered, "It's the speed, the high tenor singing and the banjo's three finger roll... It's really kind of hard to define but you know it when you hear it!"

I met John Delaney, after his group's performance. He said, "I play a lot of different kinds of music but bluegrass is the most special I have ever played. It is a beautiful thing." And, speaking of beauty, one of the most beautiful moments of the week occurred when the Delaney Brothers closed their set. As they played "America" everyone in the audience spontaneously stood up. Each person reached out to clasp the hand of the nearest person and everyone began to sing in unison as an American flag rose from the back of the stage. My heart filled with pride and my eyes filled with tears. It was a very special moment.

The IBMA special awards luncheon occurred in the middle of the week. I happened to sit at the same table was Gary Ferguson and Patti Mitchell: Gary said," First of all, bluegrass is Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Don Reno and the Osborne Brothers. For the most part, it is acoustic music although there are electric basses. Generally, it is family-oriented music .... But, it's certainly stretched through the years to a kind of `no-boundaries' situation." Patty added, "Enthusiasm and involvement of the people who love this music make bluegrass. It is a user-friendly kind of music. Any level of musician can get involved. People are very passionate about it because it gives them an outlet to sing, play and just have a great time. You can also meet your heroes, which is a very different thing than country and pop music. You can talk to the people who inspired you and find out how inspired them." She is right, where else could a grass roots fan like myself share a meal and conversation with nationally known performers?

Russell Moore concurred saying, "The thing that makes bluegrass music unique is that it started here in the United States... and the interaction between the fans and the performers is natural. Performers started out as fans and some are lucky enough to evolve to the point where we are the performers .. but we are still fans .. and still a family."

Throughout the week, there were occasional references to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Patty Loveless' appearance was canceled. Through a spokesperson, she announced that neither she nor her band would be flying to any engagement for the rest of the year. Wildfire, a new band with a hard-driving brand of bluegrass, during its set said, "Let's not forget the folks affected in New York." At the special awards luncheon, Pete Werneck reminded us that music is a part of the national healing process and someone else added, "When I hear America singing, I hear America singing bluegrass." In addition to giving out awards, IBMA announced it was giving $20,000 from the fan fest proceeds to the American Red Cross for the New York recovery effort. Again, my heart filled with pride and my eyes filled with tears.

As I left the awards luncheon, I saw Charlie Waller, so I put the question to him. "Bluegrass music is country music. It was originally nicknamed bluegrass music for Bill Monroe's music and his bluegrass Boys. The thing that makes bluegrass is the sound the old-time acoustic instruments, with songs from the heart. Bluegrass is kind of hard to define but it is American country music..." Later in the day Waller was sitting on a high stool on the Showcase Stage. With a voice as strong and clear as ever he showed us what a class act should be.

As I wandered through the trade show exhibits, I found Mike Seeger and Bill Evans in a jam session. Seeger seemed to echo some of Waller's sentiments. "It's the sound .. the connection of the sound to the country. It's a country sound yet it does not sound like country. It can be played anywhere, anytime, with anyone... played for the enjoyment of the musicians or a few friends. That's why we had country music, to entertain ourselves." An IBMA volunteer, Jim Thompson, agreed, saying ".. bluegrass music is just old time country music." Bill Evans' response was slightly more philosophical, "Bluegrass is the approach to the instruments and the way instruments are played. It is an ensemble sound and the way different ingredients work together. It is the attitude toward singing and playing."

One evening Pete Werneck took a break from entertaining the crowd as "Waldo." In response to my question about bluegrass, Werneck offered this expansive reply: "There are multiple definitions. I used to hear Bill Monroe talk about it back in the 60s. I interviewed him and he was very clear about what is bluegrass and what is not. He named the five instruments we are all familiar with: banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass. He had his rules and most people have agreed on the instrumentation. When I am asked to define it, I say it is largely defined by the Earl Scruggs style of banjo playing and Lester Flatts or Doc Watson's style of guitar. Chubby Wise or Benny Martin on the fiddle ... and Bill Monroe on the mandolin. The singing style is usually a high-pitched male but it can be anything else. After that, the definition gets fuzzy. Jimmy Martin told me, `If a song has good lyrics, I'll sing it. And, if I'm singing it, it's gonna be bluegrass.' ... Another ballpark we have to take note of is symbolized by the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the fact that some of their bands do not meet the Monroe definition... It gets pretty flaky when you try to define what Telluride calls bluegrass. It becomes an undefinable thing ... for me it's definitely the tighter Monroe definition, but I recognize there is a style of music that's related to bluegrass. I would rather call it bluegrass-friendly music or bluegrass-related music or a term I made up called half-grass."

Laurie Lewis, Glen Duncan and Louisa Branscomb also spoke of specific instrumentation. Branscomb saying "You've got a banjo, mandolin, guitar, a certain kind of harmony, and a song that conveys something about essential aspects of living: like love, lost love, or the mountains. Bluegrass cuts across all differences in people. We are one of the few kinds of music where you can shake hands or play a song with somebody from a different country or ethnic background. It cuts across gender barriers and that makes us a family." Lewis: "It is stringed acoustic instruments .. guitar, fiddle, five string banjo, mandolin, and the bass. It's those instruments combined with beautiful soulful singing that draws on the older traditional roots of country music. I guess I could go on for a long time but it's music I love. It's music that moves me." Duncan: "What makes music sound like Bluegrass is Earl Scruggs' right hand. He has the right hand that changed the entire musical history of the 20th century. When he went to Nashville in 1945 the music became Bluegrass music. The fiddle helps out and there have been some great ones down through the years, Benny Martin, Chubby Wise, Bobby Hicks, Curly Ray Kline, Art Stamper and the list goes on and on."

Cris Jones agreed the banjo is important but said there is more to it than that. "To understand bluegrass music one has to go back to where it started, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys... Monroe and the people who played with him went on to form this style of music we call bluegrass... What makes it unique is a tightness and dynamics of a string band with a five-string banjo and close vocal harmonies. Of course, you can hear some of these elements in other kinds of music but not in the same way." Wayne Bledsoe also believed the banjo is critical, but added, "Bluegrass music is determined by the instruments and the way they are played as well as a feeling the artists conveys in a song. You can take a group that plays all bluegrass instruments and yet what they produce is not the Bluegrass sound and there is a particular sound and feeling that distinguishes Bluegrass from any other type of music." Phil Leadbetter: "What makes bluegrass is the banjo, mandolin and the hard punchy timing that I don't hear in other kinds of music. Bluegrass has a drive that makes you stomp your feet."

As I was leaving the trade show, I bumped into Ricky Skaggs. When I asked for his thoughts, he told me, "There's a lot of things that make bluegrass music. I am traditionalist at heart, so it has to be all acoustic or it's not the real stuff. But, it can be all acoustic and still not be the real stuff. There must be respect for the elders: Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Bluegrass is fun and passionate. It's very spiritual and deep... The purest will say you can not have an electric bass and yet I have used an electric guitar to strengthen the bottom end of a track."

The word acoustic was frequently mentioned. Rhonda Vincent maintained, "Bluegrass music is different things to different people. To me, it is all acoustic music, no drums. It's a fun music that everyone can share in a family atmosphere." Sally Jones said, "Bluegrass is improvised like jazz, but it is acoustic. Themes are about real life and real people. The music is not controlled by the record industry or by radio but rather by the people who play it and love it." Lilly Isaacs added, "It is the authenticity of acoustic instruments ... Bluegrass is a raw form of music that evolved many years ago through Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. Bluegrass is a very earthy type of music... with tight harmonies..." Gary Brewer commented "Bluegrass music is all acoustic. It does not have anything to do with computers, voice boxes and things like that... Bluegrass is straight from the heart and soul... When it gets into more progressive sounds, chords, amplification, and instrumentation, it becomes contemporary..." Speaking as a bassist, Nancy Cardwell said "Bluegrass is an acoustic music with a lot of feeling and soul. It has a lonesome blues edge. It can make you cry... want to dance .. or laugh out loud because of the lyrics or the joy of the instrumentation. There is a lot of improvisation like jazz. It's a team music unlike current country music where you have a star out front and the sidemen in the back. In bluegrass, everyone is a team player. It is an ensemble and each person plays off the other."

Other frequently used words were heart and honesty. Consider these statements. Honi Jean Glenn: "The heart and soul of the tradition of America makes Bluegrass. Bill Monroe took different early American musical forms and conglomerated them together to form Bluegrass. It is the heritage of who we are and where we come from." Berk Bryant, broadcaster: "Bluegrass is not artificial. It's true and honest. It comes out of the heart and soul of the average everyday American, especially those who are back in the hills and mountains... the down to earth people." Dixie Hall: "Bluegrass music is honesty and sincerity. When you sing Bluegrass it is a license to be your self unlike commercial country where one must conform to their standards." Steve Dilling "Bluegrass is original and it comes from the heart. It's difficult to describe but it relates to family and it is carried from generation to generation. I learned it from my dad." Robert Hale: "There is a feeling that comes from Bluegrass. It's not just the instrumentation. You can play Bluegrass-flavored music with almost any kind of instrument.. It's the feel and the heart that a musician puts into it." Missy Raines agreed about instrumentation, saying "There is a spirit in bluegrass that makes you feel both happy and sad at the same time. The music is so real and its core is based in true stories about life. It doesn't necessarily have to be certain instruments."

Paul Shelasky, Lost Highway Band, was the only person to address the issue of humor. He said, "I have been attempting to do humor on bluegrass stages for a long time. They let me do about a minute and a half and it has to be scrupulously clean... Do you know how to tell a Bluegrass musician in Nashville? Just call out, "Waiter, oh waiter!" ... I'll tell you in a nutshell what it means to be a bluegrass musician. It means that when you finally find a woman who will talk to you, you drive to her house in a 1979 Ford with 300,000 miles and no rear bumper. Then, you go in and sit at the table. When she asks what you make a year and you say, "Some years my income runs into four figures." That's bluegrass! .... Bluegrass is a pure acoustic music, unvarnished, and real. When I hear pop singers I don't believe a word they are singing but when I hear Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe I believe them. Bluegrass is from the heart and is absolutely opposite from today's country music."

As the week wound down, enthusiasm remained high. Fans and artists enjoyed every available second of this infectious music. Sonya Isaacs told me "Bluegrass music is unplugged and you can play it anywhere... You don't have to have a lot of equipment. All you need is instruments and voice. It is a pure and honest music. It's roots." Shawn Lane agreed saying, "Bluegrass is roots music. It's young music created in America in the early 40s and it's totally unique to this country. It's heartfelt music by good people who put their energy and soul into it. You can hear the mountains, fields, and plows. It is about real life."

Although everyone provided an interesting insight, Casey Driesen made it clear that a verbal response is problematic. He said "Bluegrass is difficult to describe in words, it needs to be heard. If I can heat the music, I can tell you that it is or is not bluegrass. But, I don't know how to differentiate a certain kind of music without hearing it. However, it is a traditional music that is passed on from year to year."

Nancy Cardwell, IBMA Staff: "We don't try to define bluegrass. We like to be inclusive, so we include all shades and flavors... country, jazz, Celtic, Bill Monroe and New Grass. Many people have strong feelings about this music... We are here to be the Chamber of Commerce for Bluegrass Music, whatever that may mean to you."

Now that you know how others think, what do you think? We'd like to know. Send us your opinion: "What is it that makes bluegrass music?"