Monday, May 26, 2014

Nickel Creek, Newgrass, and Negotiating Authentic Tradition, Part 2: The Context

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Nickel Creek’s first 3 albums. Read the first one here. In this post, I attempt to answer the question: what was bluegrass music like when Nickel Creek started to release their albums?
New Grass Revival: where 70s long hair meets tradition

The “authentic” bluegrass: like jazz, but white

The authentic bluegrass sound developed from the music of Southern white male musicians in the 1940s and 50s, and its creation is often credited to the collaboration of mandolin player Bill Monroe and banjo player Earl Scruggs (1). The music features electrically amplified acoustical instruments with standardized roles. A typical bluegrass ensemble features guitar, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass (though sometimes an electric is substituted), banjo, and occasionally the dobro steel guitar (2). Bluegrass players are expected to be proficient soloists with emphasis on virtuosity and driving rhythms. They will often take turns improvising around the melody in the manner of jazz musicians. In addition to this instrumental foundation, bluegrass features a high tenor vocal lead with two-part (or more) harmony, one part of which is higher than the melody (3). This vocal formula, sometimes called the  “high, lonesome sound,” often appears in the song chorus. Bluegrass repertoire generally draws on or resembles country music from the 1920s–50s or older folk songs (4). Though bluegrass musicians and audiences have historically been predominantly white, they also frequently play their versions of blues and gospel music traditionally associated with African-Americans (5). The term bluegrass was coined about the same time “Hillbilly” music was being rebranded as “Country and Western” in the 1950s (6). To read more about the history of country music, see my post form my review of the Civil Wars. Today, although bluegrass has its own Billboard chart, it is considered a sub-category of country. Bluegrass has a relatively small but active performing and fan tradition in the United States, though it tends toward older performers and audiences.

Though bluegrass eventually was seen as its own tradition, it was really a product of its time. The first pioneering bluegrass musicians followed an American trend toward complexity in recording, making old favorites technically dazzling and painting them with a sheen of complex vocal harmonies. Bluegrass added an important virtuosic element to more simple “hillbilly” music, elevating it from lower to middle-class. Like early rock-and-roll that emerged from the same time, bluegrass could also be described as country music heavily influenced by the musical construction, improvisational nature, and styling of the blues (7). The standardized bluegrass ensemble is equivalent of the jazz combo that developed in urban centers at the same time; this standardization made it possible for casual acquaintances to meet and have jazz-like jam sessions (8). Bluegrass also would not be possible without technology; its combination of acoustic instruments and voices only makes sense with microphone amplification, a strange dissonance to a music that seems rooted in the past (9).

Old-timey, or just painted to look old?

Another name associated with bluegrass, “old-time” music, contradicts its conception and yet describes well its nostalgic image and allure (10). Despite developing relatively recently, contemporary bluegrass derives its authenticity from the aura of a simpler past. An example of the importance of this nostalgia is the success of the Coen brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), which evoked the early twentieth-century South with a bluegrass soundtrack. Like another Coen brothers’ project, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother uses postmodern pastiche to create the spirit of an earlier time, not by actual historical facts, but stereotypical perceptions. In other words, O Brother does not attempt a historical construction, but only portrays what contemporary viewers perceive as history. Because of this narrative strategy, O Brother serves to perpetuate the myth of bluegrass’s venerability.

Because of its association with the nostalgic past, bluegrass has ossified for several decades, resisting change. Much of today’s bluegrass music is similar to bluegrass music from fifty years ago. While bluegrass has never had an extremely large following, it certainly has resisted changes that might popularize it. Thus, while electrified contemporary country music scores popular crossover hits, bluegrass hardly ever does.

The rise of Newgrass

Newgrass, a term often used to describe Nickel Creek’s music, originated 30 years earlier in the 1970s from the group New Grass Revival, formed by mandolin player Sam Bush. The label implies a contradiction in terms: old verses new, a reunion of something that has not yet occurred, or a revitalization of traditional sounds with contemporary ones. After several personnel changes, the group gained some small measure of success in the 1980s with the addition of banjo player Béla Fleck and popular-style vocalist John Cowan (11). Though not straying far from traditional bluegrass arrangements and instrumental roles, New Grass Revival, like Nickel Creek after them, eschewed the cowboy image, preferring leather jackets and long hair. They engaged in some limited formal experimentation, however. In live performances, they expanded songs into jam sessions, much like jazz or rock jam bands from the same era such as the Grateful Dead. Fleck especially, who would later form his own rock hybrid novelty group the Flecktones, became known for his eccentric banjo playing and compositions, including the popular, oddly-phrased and metered “Metric Lips” (12).

Though newgrass had been used selectively to label some artists since New Grass Revival, such as classical crossover bass player Edgar Meyer, the term was used almost exclusively to promote Nickel Creek during the first part of the 2000s. Although not rejecting the term, Nickel Creek distanced themselves from New Grass Revival, calling the older music only a starting point (13). The somewhat conservative album Nickel Creek was also just a starting point to where Nickel Creek would eventually take their music.

Next week, in part 3 of this series, I’ll examine Nickel Creek’s strategies for popular success, highlighting these through the group’s three albums: in Nickel Creek, renegotiating the bluegrass image; in This Side, rethinking the paradigms of bluegrass instrumental roles, lyrical content, and formal musical construction; and Why Should the Fire Die, introducing the popular-style singer/songwriter aesthetic, re-imagining electric sounds through an acoustical lens, and renegotiating bluegrass authenticity. By these innovative strategies, they expanded and revitalized a genre much as the innovators who created the bluegrass sound in the 1940s and 50s.

Vocab: amplified, acoustic, dobro, virtuosity, driving rhythms, tenor, vocal lead, jam bands

(1) Stephanie P Ledgin, Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass, with foreword by Ricky Scaggs (Westpoint, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004), 21–22.
(2) Neil V. Rosenburg, Bluegrass: A History, revised edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 7–8.
(3) Ledgin, 3.
(4) Rosenberg, Bluegrass, 8.
(5) See Mark Y. Miyake, “The Discourse on Race within the Bluegrass Community,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington).
(6) Ledgin, 23; Rosenberg, Bluegrass, 102–104.
(7) Neil V. Rosenburg, “Rockbluerollgrass/bluerockandrollgrass Recordings,” in The Bluegrass Reader, Thomas Goldsmith, ed. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 165.
(8) Rosenberg, Bluegrass, 8.
(9) Ibid., 6.
(10) Ledgin, 40; Rosenberg, Bluegrass, 104.
(11) Dick Weissman, Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America (New York: Continuum, 2005), 206. During this time, the group signed with Sugar Hill Records, the label that would eventually produce Nickel Creek.
(12) Eventually, Fleck did take the banjo into new territory, and he is mentioned specifically in Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband’s “Banjo Boy.” His work with the Flecktones might be better categorizes as rock than bluegrass, if it can be categorized at all, but Fleck seems more interested in confounding, bridging, and mixing genres than any other consideration.
(13) Craig Havighurst, “Nickel Creek: Newgrass Wunderkinder,” Acoustic Guitar 11 (August 2000): 16.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Nickel Creek, Newgrass, and Negotiating Authentic Tradition, Part 1: The Backwards Banjo and the Band

With this year’s reunion of Nickel Creek, including a new album release and a tour, I thought it might be a good time to have a series of posts on the pioneering threesome. This series is adapted from a paper I wrote for a Seminar in Popular Music at the University of Michigan in 2010. It’s in 3 parts. Here’s part 1: the Backwards Banjo and the Band.

Can Bluegrass Be Popular?


In 2005, the country group Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband released the rock-inflected “Banjo Boy,” a song about a boy who wants to be a rock star with the fame and lifestyle the myth promises. Something is keeping the boy from achieving his dream, however—he does not play the electric guitar, the prototypical rock start instrument. Instead, he plays the banjo, an instrument associated not with popular music, but with the niche music genre bluegrass. While appearing in some popular songs, the banjo has been relegated to the margins of popular music and is often used for humor or as the subject of ridicule, “Banjo Boy” being an example. The obvious solution for this boy would be to stop playing the banjo, but the prominent bluegrass-style banjo solo that marks the end of the song suggests that the boy is unwilling to do so. Though the song is meant to be humorous, this tension between this fictional banjo player and his rock-star dreams reflects a real situation—many young people today enjoy folk-influenced styles of music and new styles of popular music, yet the two musics occupy different spheres of existence and rarely cross paths. 

A similar tension exists in a more serious song released in 2005, Nickel Creek’s “When in Rome.” Its lyrics present various situations in which people refuse new ideas and knowledge that could improve their life, preferring instead the old ways to which they are accustomed. Like “Banjo Boy,” “When in Rome” could be read as a critique of modern musical tastes—contemporary audiences are unwilling to entertain new ideas about qualifies as popular music, to their detriment.

The tension between the past and future in “When in Rome” is evident in Nickel Creek’s career. While none of Nickel Creek’s members (Sean Watkins, acoustic guitar; his sister Sara Watkins, fiddle; and Chris Thile, mandolin) play the banjo, they share are the same problem as the “Banjo Boy”—their type of ensemble is mostly unknown in popular music, especially the inclusion of Thile’s mandolin, an instrument most Americans could not name on sight. Their formative musical training is in bluegrass music. Yet despite their instrumentation and training, Nickel Creek became popular beyond the traditional bluegrass base; at the beginning of the 2000s, they released three commercially successful albums, earning top spots on the bluegrass and country charts while crossing over into the pop charts: the eponymous Nickel Creek (2000, #135 on Billboard Hot 200, went Platinum), This Side (2002, #18 on Billboard Hot 200), and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005, #17 on Billboard Hot 200).

From the deep ‘burbs of San Diego…

Though the name “Nickel Creek” is pure bluegrass, drawing on a long tradition of naming groups (and songs) after fictional small streams, the group has a non-stereotypical biography. The three grew up in the San Diego suburbs instead of the rural Southeast. In addition to their bluegrass training, they received some classical training—Sara Watkins with the Suzuki violin method and Thile starting a degree in classical violin until the success of their first album (1). Besides listening to bluegrass albums and Austin City Limits, they also explored artists outside traditional bluegrass fare, such as Counting Crows, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Elliot Smith (2). They did not hide their upbringing in their presentation—instead of the usual suits with cowboy hats and boots, they wore more fashionable modern attire.

As they began playing and touring together in their early teens, however, their technical ability on their acoustic instruments gave the group strong bluegrass legitimacy. Thile was especially well regarded, recording critically acclaimed solo albums at the ages of thirteen and sixteen. For another post about Thile as a solo artist, see this. The group’s big break came when Alison Krauss, herself hailed as a bluegrass prodigy a generation earlier, agreed to produce them on the Sugar Hill label (3).

During the years between the Nickel Creek album and their breakup in 2007, the group attracted new audiences by approaching their bluegrass instruments from a different angle, taking inspiration from popular music. They challenged “authentic” bluegrass traditions by becoming progressively more experimental in their approach to their music and its lyrical content. Despite this experimentation, they continued to attract bluegrass audiences as well. Nickel Creek was able to successfully negotiate outside influences into their largely acoustic and bluegrass-motivated musical sound, earning the hybrid genre label “newgrass,” a word that itself suggests novel experimentation while still observing tradition.

In order to understand how Nickel Creek balanced tradition and innovation, we’ll need to understand the context, or the history of bluegrass from its inception (in the actually quite recent past) to the present, which will be the subject of part 2. In part 3, I’ll examine in more musical detail the three albums Nickel Creek produced before their breakup: Nickel Creek, This Side, and Why Should the Fire Die.

Vocab: mandolin, Suzuki Violin, acoustic, eponymous

(1) Jeffery Pepper Rodgers, “Up on Nickel Creek: How Three Bluegrass Prodigies Became One of the Freshest Successes in Pop Music,” Acoustic Guitar 13 (December 2002). 

(2) Ibid.
(3) Craig Havighurst, “Nickel Creek: Newgrass Wunderkinder,” Acoustic Guitar 11 (August 2000): 16–17.

Monday, May 12, 2014

New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read #5

Since I'm winding down my assistantship in the UNC-Chapel Hill Music Library, this will be the last "New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read"—at least for a while. For this job, I've been processing about 100 new books a month, and I like to write down the books I wish I had time to read. Among the many new books about Wagner, which magically keep coming despite the high volume of existing books about Wagner, I found these gems:
  • Wind Bands of the World: Chronicle of a Cherished Tradition, by Robert E. Foster - Covering the breadth of history instead of depth, it would be really interesting to see the transformation and manifestation of wind bands through history.
    Picture from
  • Music and Empire in Britain and India: Identity, Internationalism, and Cross-Cultural Communication, by Bob van der Linden - With chapters on Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott, and Rabindranath Tagore, of course I would interested.
  • Music, Modernity, and Locality in Prewar Japan: Osaka and Beyond, edited by Hugh de Ferranti and Alison Tokita - Answers the question: When and how did Japan decide that Euro-American art music was their high culture?
  • Britishness, Popular Music, and National Identity: the Making of Modern Britain, by Irene Morra - I’m a sucker for books on nationalism, especially British nationalism.
  • Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Soloman - How the strangely popular musical conquered the world.
  • Flood, by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer - part of the 33 ⅓ series (named after the most common vinyl rotational speed), this little book takes on the most popular They Might Be Giants album, especially its reception from geeks to geeks.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, edited by Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thomson - A collection of essays about all aspects of Vaughan Williams life, including a conversation with contemporary British composers.
  • Music in Films on the Middle Ages: Authenticity vs. Fantasy, by John Haines - as someone who likes reading about cultural anachronism and fantasy, I’ve seen a lot of Medieval-esque movies and TV shows, and I often wonder how the music connects to what's going on. This movie genre certainly has its own style of soundtrack, which may or may not be based on any sort of reality.
    From University of Illinois Press
  • World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power, by Dale A Olsen - So there’s a lot of stories about the magical powers of music, especially flutes. Pied Piper of Hamelin, anyone? This book attempts to answer why and address themes, pairing each topic with a folk story about magical flutes from many cultures around the world.
  • The Music of Herbert Howells, edited by Phillips A. Cooke and David Maw - A collection of essays about the works and style of the British composer, who I think wrote some great music.
  • All the Songs: the Story Behind Every Beatles Release, by Jean-Michel Guesdon & Philippe Margotin - A huge compendium about Beatles songs for fans. Easy to get sucked in. Lots of interesting photos.
  • Singing Simpkin and other Bawdy Jigs: Musical Comedy on the Shakespearean Stage: Scripts, Music, & Context, by Roger Clegg and Lucie Skeaping - Yes, there are two subtitles. About the intersection of Shakespearean theater and music, two of my favorite topics. "Jig" apparently has had many, many different meanings over the years.
  • Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: the Sacred Music of Arthur Sullivan, by Ian Bradley - Most people know Sullivan as part of the amazingly successful Gilbert and Sullivan operetta team, but he also wrote sacred music. According to the book, Sullivan wished his legacy to be judged on his sacred music, not the operettas. The book also examines how the operettas were influenced by the sacred music.
  • Everything’s Coming Up Profits: the Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, by Steve Young and Sport Murphy - During the 60s, when the US was producing ⅔ of the world’s manufactured goods, industrial America started using musicals to inspire businessmen to sell more stuff. Here's a short example. Unsurprisingly, the writers of these musicals often went on to their own Broadway success. Lots of colorful pictures.
Have you read any good books about music lately? Interested in or have read one of these?

Vocab: vinyl, jig, operetta

Monday, May 5, 2014

Concert Review: Chvrches, this time live

The light show that is a Chvrches live performance
Last Monday, April 28, I went to see the Scottish electro-pop band Chvrches, the first show of their tour. Besides my usual complaints about rock concerts*, the Chvrches concert at the Ritz in Raleigh was pretty good. The three members are excellent musicians, switching back and forth between instruments with ease. Most of Chvrches song are written quite well and have moments of "arrival" that really galvanize the audience (for more about the the songs, see my review of the album here). The lighting designer should have been given top billing with the band—while the lighting was not revolutionary, it was very well executed, fitting the form and adding to the music.

That said, there were some issues. The volume of bass and some of the drum sounds were too high and peaking the speakers, making the overall sound muddy and at times uncomfortable to listen to. Sometimes the lead singer Lauren Mayberry was out of tune, although that may have been a problem with the monitors. Mayberry also hasn't quite figured out what do to in singing breaks (not true of Martin, who has some great dance moves). There was at least one song that never really came together. Many of these problems could be attributed to this being the first show in this tour, and the group is still working out the kinks. In the end, the band had some great moments, but needs to work on its consistency.

One other complaint: The concert was basically Chvrches playing their recent album, The Bones of What You Believe. I don't think they played any new material, nor did they open the songs up for audience participation. They didn't even play any covers, for which they have a reputation. They also didn't talk very much on stage. Even though I don't like it when bands talk more than sing, I really wanted some more introductions of band members or explanations about the songs or even jokes—something to let us know we were having a personal, novel experience, which is what we paid for.

I also thought the concert opener, a DJ loop-based sampling act called Range was not a good pairing with Chvurch's song-based electro-pop. I could tell from the audience reaction that no one was really there to dance. Also, for being a dance DJ, Range's music seemed more cerebral than danceable, and even then I thought that the 45-minute no-pause set was boring after about the first 15 minutes—the pace of change was slow and the music did not change enough to be really interesting. Perhaps one reason for being uninteresting was the lack of repetition or musical return.

Vocab: peaking, sampling, electro-pop, cover

*The concert started 30 minutes after the time on the ticket, and the audience had already arrived an hour or two before that opening time to get a good seat. And by seat, I mean place to stand, since there aren't any seats. Also the opener wasn't announced anywhere, so the actual billed concert didn't start until almost two hours after the advertised start time, three (or more) hours after people got there, and was only a hour long. There's got to be a better way. I'm sure one reason concerts are set up this way are to get people to buy alcohol.