As fans and musicians convene in Raleigh, North Carolina, this week for the annual World of Bluegrass gathering, they bring with them loads of talent, an unparalleled passion for the music and definite opinions on the ever evolving sound of bluegrass. A truly American artform, bluegrass music today encompasses everything from the jamgrass of Yonder Mountain String Band to the traditional sound of Del McCoury to the more eclectic flavor of Trampled by Turtles.
“We support all shades of bluegrass,” says Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. (IBMA). “There’s a lot of growth happening with old-time string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops…and there’s a lot of jamgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters and Town Mountain doing original music. People are influenced by so many things today. It all comes out in their music. We are what we eat. Our music is what we hear. We have a ‘big tent’ approach to all of that. We feel like if we support all spectrums of the music, then that will help the industry grow. It will help get that music out to wider audiences.”
Cardwell says it’s not unusual for fans of one band to trace their lineage back to the founding fathers of the genre. “You never know who’s going to hear Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers and end up tracing Chris’s influences back to Bill Monroe,” she says. “Or somebody who is going to go to the festival and hear Yonder Mountain String Band and they’ll discover that one of their favorite bands is the Seldom Scene — one of our Hall of Fame inductees this year. It’s all related. You can think of it as a tree with different roots and branches, but we’re all organically part of the same family.”
But as with any family, there’s often disagreement. Purists decry the use of drums while progressive musicians continue to push the boundaries. “There are hardcore people that [think] if you even have a microphone you’re way too far out,” Del McCoury says with a laugh. “I exaggerate, but you have the hardcore folks. They can listen to whatever they want to but you need variety. You need to have that. You’ve got to have young people coming in all the time. That’s what brings young people in, more progressive sound and variety. I just like variety in music. I think it’s a good thing.”
Most musicians are generally supportive of innovation in the format, but some fans have a more restrictive view. “There’s some hardcore traditional fans out there who really think that the best bluegrass ever recorded was in the late Forties, early Fifties and that nobody can really improve on that,” says Cardwell. “That’s their favorite, and God bless them, they’re entitled to that perspective. Part of the reason for these strong feelings is they treasure the music so much. It’s more than just a casual interest, almost a passion, a religious fervor. People who just really love bluegrass music treasure it so much that they want to hold onto it very tightly and not let it change because they’re afraid if we don’t keep it the same, then it’ll disappear in a generation or two.