I Like It Like That

By Kaye D. Hill
The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I’ve heard this quote since I was knee high to a grasshopper, but never really understood the meaning of those words.  Recently I was asked if I thought bluegrass music was changing, and I began to ponder what bluegrass was years ago, and how it may be viewed today.
Qualified Observer
Admittedly, I’m now an official “senior citizen” so I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many of the true bluegrass pioneers. I remember going to festivals as a child, watching men dressed in suits and ties gather around a single microphone, and sing many of the same songs as other bands. There were the same five traditional stringed instruments in the band: banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. I grew up learning the words to the familiar songs – “Cripple Creek,” “Fox on the Run,” “Are You Missin’ Me,” “Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail,” “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” and “Hot Corn/Cold Corn.” Of course, it wasn’t unusual for a band to finish their set with the always popular “Orange Blossom Special.” The bluegrass festivals of that era were not always family-friendly. I don’t even remember folks bringing their own chairs! We sat on blankets and ate packed lunches brought from home while we enjoyed the music, but had to leave before dark because the crowd sometimes turned “rowdy” later in the evening.
Today’s bluegrass festival is a much larger, organized event with numerous food vendors, and tents where fans can go to purchase t-shirts, CDs, pictures, and even meet their favorite performers. Security is always present, use of alcohol in the concert area is prohibited, now staff usually needs to set up two microphones; per band member. While bluegrass bands stay true to the acoustic instruments, it’s not unusual now to see an occasional resonator guitar adding it’s unique sound to the blend.  While those bands who are playing traditional bluegrass may still dress in suits/ties, many more contemporary bands arrive on stage wearing blue jeans, flannel or t-shirts, tennis shoes, and an occasional baseball cap.
With many of the more well-known bands now signing contracts with recording companies, they are required to release new music so fans are treated to an hour of entertainment that is always exciting to hear for the first time. After the shows, fans are encouraged to purchase CDs to take home (not the same vinyl as we had years ago!) or they can always order a bands’ music online, sometimes downloading only the songs they actually want to add to their personal library.
Keep An Open Mind
It’s important for us bluegrass fans to remain open-minded about this genre of music. If we only allow ourselves to listen to traditional or “roots” music, we become stagnant and miss so much good talent. We need to remember that every bluegrass musician, at some time prior, has heard the old songs that we grew up with, and they too fell in love with them. That’s why they wanted to play bluegrass – to keep the old-timey tunes alive, but yet add their own style to some new ones.  Even the more contemporary bands still get a hearty round of applause when they play the older, more familiar tunes, and occasionally even attempt “Orange Blossom Special,” and do a fine job on it, I might add.
To me, bluegrass music means memories. Many times when you hear a particular song, it evokes a memory of a time long ago when you first heard that song played, or you remember meeting the original songwriter or artist who recorded it.  Recently I heard Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” played on the radio, and I smiled, because it felt like I was meeting an old friend. I had the pleasure of hearing Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, and Tim O’Brien sing that tune at a festival years ago and I fell in love with it. Occasionally, I would think ‘that’s not bluegrass,’ but it is. It’s just bluegrass with a different twist than what I grew up with. It’s still the same acoustic instruments that made me fall in love with bluegrass music.
We need to open ourselves up to the many changes in the bluegrass world. The performers may be younger, their attire is certainly different, but they also learned to fall in love with bluegrass by listening to the same legends we knew. Every one of them is familiar with the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and all the other greats. If we listen closely, we can still hear some part of that original sound in today’s groups. Bluegrass IS changing, which is a good thing. But it’s still the same as it always has been – a wonderful genre of music that makes us all happy. Yep, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and I like it like that. Hope to see you at a festival down the road.
Kaye D. Hill lives in Harrisonburg, VA, and is an advid bluegrass fan. She has been a friend to Americana Rhythm Magazine since we began. So happy to have Kaye write another one of her famous articles for us!


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