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.

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