An Alaskan Angle on American Music in the Last Frontier

If Nickel Creek set up in the woods, and played an entire set of music with no one around to hear it, would they still suck?  Despite their virtuosic instrumental abilities, and world wide critical acclaim, I am inclined to think that they would.  I’ll be one of the first in line to agree that genre categorization in music is a futile effort at best.  But most of the music being released in the Bluegrass section nowadays is fluffy, sick-sweet pop with Bluegrass instrumentation and super over-qualified players.  (Any and all opinions, suppositions and/or gesticulations are those solely of the writer and not necessarily those of the Juneau Empire and/or Morris Publications, Augusta Georgia, home of the Masters Golf Tournament.)  You can put bows and perfume on an old hound dog, but then she’s your favorite old stinky hound dog and you don’t even want to be seen with ‘er.  The public face of Bluegrass seems to have become twenty somethin’ year old kids with silk shirts and frosted hair, and they can pick Beethoven’s whatever backwards over Brubeck’s Take Five on the banjo while singing the Dorian 7th harmony to the dealy-bob; and yet here they are schlepping around all the “Bluegrass” festivals, putting this old hound dog straight to sleep.

The birth of Bluegrass is attributed to one man, maybe even rightly so.  But Bill Monroe would have told you that he borrowed, and where he borrowed from, while creating the Bluegrass sound.  It’s pretty lucky for us that he met Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs when he did, too.  Music has tumbled over on itself and evolved over hundreds of years, and it’s a damn good thing.  We’d all still be beating on rocks with sticks if successive generations of musicians hadn’t pick up the proverbial ball and run with it.  Nevertheless, I still find that contemporary Bluegrass with its mind blowing talent, lacks cojones and soul. 

Were we still able to ask Mr. Monroe about the many influences that helped to shape Bluegrass, we would have heard about old-time fiddle music, one of the many results of styles from the British Isles, mainland Europe, and all over Africa colliding in the “new world.”  The music of first generation American immigrants was fueled by home-made instruments, home-made whiskey, and sometimes even the Lord; and I want to hear all that in my Bluegrass.  Maybe the Lord just on Sundays before I wake up.  Ah, and once again I contradict myself.  While believing that musical categorization is nebulous and futile, I still find myself T.O.’d (like Dad would used to say) when I see bands like Nickel Creek billed as Bluegrass bands when they just flat ain’t.  Whatever happened to “ragged but right”?  Can it really be true that you have to kind of suck to be good, and if you’re super too good, you revert back to sucking again?  Stranger things have happened, but it’s not that easy.  According to record and ticket sales, I’m in the minority when I say I’d rather hear soul than untouchable virtuosity in Bluegrass.  But when the two line up in just the right way; when the players transcend consciousness and become mere observers of their independently intelligent fingers; when every mug in the room has a big grin plastered on it; why, we’ll just file it under “Good”. 

~Sean Tracey is a journeyman hook and line man on under-paid sabbatical from the School of Hard Knocks.