Wanted Dead or Alive: Traditional Bluegrass Music

By Bill Conger

Is traditional bluegrass music going the way of the dinosaur? With many founding fathers of the music now deceased, some aficionados of the genre fear that the music the original class of true bluegrass created will pass away too.

"I think traditional bluegrass is becoming extinct for the younger generation of players and possibly the fans within their generation," said IBMA Hall of Fame member Bobby Osborne.

In fact, he foresees traditional bluegrass snuffed out by the next century with no audience to support it. However, another member of the older generation of bluegrass holds a more optimistic outlook.

"Bluegrass will survive," said Peter Rowan, who in his 20s was one of Bill Monroe's bluegrass boys. "I know that there is this fear that everything will all be lost somehow. It's part of my music crusade to keep it alive."

As part of Rowan's campaign to preserve traditional bluegrass music, he recorded The Old School (Compass Records), produced by Alison Brown, with an intergenerational mix of musicians.

"I came up through the old school, where you were tested, literally, on the bandstand," Rowan recalls. "You didn't go to college and study the guitar or fiddle, like people do nowadays. You learned by jumping into a jam session where you were expected to hold a part."

On the album he featured some of the early teachers of bluegrass like Osborne on the duet "Stealing My Time," Del McCoury on "That's All She Wrote" and Jesse McReynolds' mandolin playing on "Mountain Man's Dreams." Rowan also welcomed to the studio younger players who are seen as the future torchbearers of bluegrass. Michael Cleveland, Bryan Sutton, Jeremy Garrett (Infamous Stringdusters), the Traveling McCoury's, Don Rigsby, Chris Henry and members of Rowan's band among others added their talented touch to the project. 

Rowan's approach to keeping traditional bluegrass alive is through Monroe-inspired new material as the singer/songwriter demonstrated with 11 of his originals on this album.

"I don't want it to sound like the old material, but I want it to have that same kind of spontaneity and freshness. I like to find out what makes bluegrass, bluegrass, and then explore those aspects rather than trying to keep everything sounding like what people imagine bluegrass to sound like."  

Part of the disagreement over traditional bluegrass music's future survival begins with differing views on how it is defined.

"I can't really define it, and I really wouldn't want to," Rowan said. "It's just when you listen to music with somebody or you witness a vibe, a feeling, where two people kind of look at each other and say uh-huh, that feels cool right there."

"Bluegrass, as I know it today," explains Osborne, "became the only way when Earl Scruggs stepped on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry on the night of December 8, 1945, and changed the world of bluegrass with the 5-string banjo."

"One of the things that characterizes the old school musician is their way of recording," said Don Rigsby, a 4th generation bluegrass musician. "It's not so much slick and polish, and every note and meter doesn't have to be spot on. They go more for feel."

Many contemporary musicians give a reverential nod to the music's early creators but say they don't want to imitate the pioneers. Instead, they have developed a new style that they believe pays respect to the past with an infusion of other genre influences.

"The younger generation of players are exposed to so many different things that the older generation couldn't be just because of television and radio and Internet," Rigsby said. "They'll hear a little bit of something they like from Lester and Earl, and they'll put it with something Chris Thile is doing, and he'll take it from some rock and roll or pop singer. It's all cool, but it's not strictly defined like the old generation of music was."

Although Rigsby, 45, likes the new ideas, he would like to see the young guns of music dig deep into the past as he did with his new tribute album to Ralph Stanley, Doctor's Orders.

"I've taught a lot of kids over the years, and I always tell them you've learned your bluegrass from 1990 forward," Rigsby said. "You're missing a whole lot when you do that."

"They'll study Sam Bush and Tony Rice instead of studying who Sam Bush and Tony Rice studied," adds Henry, who also leads his own band, Hardcore Grass. "They're missing a big part of the foundation that made their heroes so great."

Henry says many of today's players are more focused on hotdogging.

"I'll be in a jam session, and I'll be playing in the old school way, which is melody based,” Henry explained, "Then, I'll be like, let me play the trashiest, nastiest lick I can think of, and the people around me will go ‘Yeah! Son!’ If that's the context the newer types are coming up in, then they're going to build their style on what's feeding these kinds of responses from their peers. It's basically a style out of a gratuitous hot lick instead of digging deeper into the music and really using the melody to make the statement. That's been lost with a lot of the younger cats."

"I know young people who really love the old stuff, but for the most part they're all trying to learn bigger and better and faster," adds Rigsby. "They somehow got in their minds that playing fast and hard and loud is drive, and it's not."

Traditional bluegrass still has an audience today, a fact that was emphasized for Rowan when he was performing Monroe tribute shows.

"The audience reaction is absolutely blowing the roof off the whole thing," Rowan said. "It's as if people still want to hear that kind of music, but they never get to hear it. When we do ‘Somebody Touched Me’ or ‘On the Rock Where Moses Stood,’ really old bluegrass stuff, that's the best response."

"I play shows consistently with my band the Stringdusters for 1,000 plus people," Garrett said. "We always play at least one to two traditional numbers during the night. The people go absolutely bonkers for that stuff!"

He doesn't think traditional bluegrass will become extinct, but he says bluegrass music could be in danger if newer audiences and bands aren't embraced.

"The fact is that the average bluegrass audience is getting older and shrinking year after year," Garrett states. "There are vast opportunities that are outside the bluegrass genre and community for younger artists. If the community embraces some of them a little more, I think it could expand the audience, which would, in turn, make a much bigger pool of an audience for everyone."

The raw, pure spirit of bluegrass continues to be transformed as it passes into new hands, but many believe the fundamental core remains intact.

"The fact that if it evolves doesn't mean that it stays evolved," Rowan said. "Nothing is permanent, so we can always return to the roots. The leaves are growing healthfully, but the roots have to be refreshed."

"The thing about art is that if it doesn't evolve somewhat," Garrett said, "then it becomes stagnant and must be preserved to survive, rather than thrive.”