Q. How many bluegrass musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?..:
A. Three. One to screw it in, and two to complain that Bill Monroe never did it that way.
I take Bluegrass Unlimited, and by far the most interesting part is the “letters to the editor.” Bluegrass fans are unusually obsessive about their music. I have pondered this, and perhaps it is in part because it is the living memory of a time and a way of life that is passing away, and in part because when we find something and love it we want to hold onto it forever
I am a Baptist minister, and reading those letters made me happier about the craziness of institutional religion. I told my staff, “Hey, there are fundamentalists and liberals everywhere. Month after month, the argument rages: “What is REAL bluegrass music and what isn’t?” Well, I think, “Who cares?” Obviously the purists.
I write songs, and sometimes when people say, “What kind of songs do you write?” I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno. Mine, I guess.” Some are country, some are folk, some are whatever. But once you record them and start fooling with them, and listen, you even wind up turning them into something else. You just want to see where they will go.
I ran across this not long ago when I stumbled across (Okay, I was straying from what I was supposed to be doing) a Wikipedia article about pop classical entertainer Andre Rieu, who plays those happy concerts on PBS that apparently purists in classical music call “Schlagermusic.” One critic said this, according to Wikipedia: “Boyd assesses the low points of the concert as the “Three Tenors-style” rendition of “Nessun dorma” which he finds was an “abomination”, while saying the concert’s highlights included “a sugar-shock sweet rendition” of “O mio babbino caro” as well as Strauss’s Emperor Waltz and Blue Danube, Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and the Boléro.”
My response to this is to recall one of my favorite conversations in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” when Napolean goes to work at a chicken farm for a local farmer to earn some money. He is hired to go into the chicken houses and is worried about getting hurt and asks,
Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
Farmer: Do they have what?
Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
I have the same reaction. I enjoy the classics, but don’t know enough to get indignant. Sometimes we all need to stand down about our tastes. There are legitimate arguments about good, better, and best, but it isn’t all that hard for one’s own ego to slip in unannounced. That said, snobbery is not limited to elitists. Plenty of snobs in low places who sneer at anything they don’t understand.
Music, like authentic religion, is LIVING and dynamic. So let there be experiments and fusions. Labels are something for catalogs and libraries, but not for creative work. Music is nothing more or less than trying to get to that place where we say, “Wow, I love the way that sounds!” And something in the heart is stirred. There’s a place for honoring tradition and a place for breaking it all to pieces. And the world is big enough for all of it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it and don’t worry about it…