A Bigger Tent: A Frank Conversation About Diversity And The Future Of Bluegrass

Dec 28, 2017
Originally published on December 28, 2017 3:57 pm

No music scene is monolithic, but few encompass the extremes of the bluegrass world. Both musically and ideologically, it runs the gamut from conservatism to progressivism, a range of sensibilities that it's rare to see commingling elsewhere in American society at this polarized moment.

There have been divergent ideas about what constitutes real-deal bluegrass and who can stake a claim to it nearly as long as the jazzy update on string band music has been around. The genre's classic template crystallized in the 1946 lineup of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys (featuring tenor-singing guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs), combining instrumental virtuosity and innovation with nostalgic song themes in a way that went over big in cities full of working-class, Appalachian expats. By the '60s, lefty folk revivalists from more middle-class, college-educated backgrounds were also latching onto the music as an authentic, unsullied folk form, which they considered to be the antithesis of a slick, commercialized countrypolitan sound.

Nashville's Jon Weisberger has devoted his music career to deliberately bridging those gaps. In the '70s, he decided to focus on making inroads in Cincinnati's blue-collar bluegrass scene, rather than join a more likeminded crowd of bluegrassers. "What I found was that for me personally, as somebody who was not from an Appalachian migrant background, that my cultural background and leanings put me in one milieu but my musical passion put me in another one, which was the more hillbilly one," he reflected. "Musically I felt like I belonged completely, but socially I was an outsider."

He added, "The way that you become an insider is by listening and learning."

Weisberger proved he had the canon down cold on upright bass, then established that he'd also do the music justice as a reporter, critic and prolific author of liner notes, and eventually took up songwriting. Today, he's involved in myriad facets of bluegrass music-making in far-flung corners of the scene. He plays in Chris Jones and The Night Drivers, a group with a modern angle on traditional bluegrass, and he's working on a duo album with twenty-something, banjo-playing singer-songwriter Justin Hiltner, a leader in the burgeoning movement to welcome and highlight queer voices in bluegrass. Weisberger writes songs with and for an equally broad spectrum of acts — gospel for the thoroughly traditional Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers and jammier fare for the more exploratory Infamous Stringdusters, for instance — productivity that was recognized a few years back with a Songwriter of the Year trophy from the International Bluegrass Music Association, on whose board he's also served as president. Weisberger is, in short, a bluegrass lifer and one of the music's most thoughtful advocates, and he addresses perpetual worries about preserving the genre into the future with a clear-eyed perspective on its health in the present, recognizing that a welcoming attitude toward diversity is essential to attracting millennial musicians and fans.

In late September, Weisberger made his 27th trek to the IBMA's annual gathering, World of Bluegrass, now held in Raleigh. He's uniquely equipped to explain the array of perspectives represented at this year's event — from trad-minded award winners to a diversity showcase and a keynote address from Rhiannon Giddens on the historical contributions of black string band musicians — and the importance of making room for variety within a niche genre.


Jewly Hight: How would you say the geographical distribution of different bluegrass sensibilities maps onto the geographical voting patterns that people have studied so closely in the wake of last year's presidential election?

Jon Weisberger: A lot of it depends on the frame through which you view what the bluegrass community or bluegrass industry is.

How do you view it?

I view it broadly. I see it as a very bifurcated situation, not so much musically... but in terms of the industry and the business there's certainly a bifurcation. You have the normative bluegrass industry that you can trace in a direct line back to the '50s and then the '60s and the rise of bluegrass festivals and all that kind of stuff. ...That's the industry that is effectively represented and organized by overseen by the IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association. ... That part of the industry is actually not the majority of it. It's just sort of there by virtue of its having been institutionalized. But there's a larger more lucrative and younger industry built around it.

... There's this whole other what I would call bluegrass industry, the jamgrass world. I mean, they're bluegrass bands. They've got a bass and a flat-top guitar and a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle and a dobro, something like that. The Infamous Stringdusters are a great example of that. There's Yonder Mountain. There's Greensky Bluegrass. I can name 20 bands easily. And that industry is almost completely separate from this other bluegrass industry. And it's bigger. It makes more money. ... When you map this stuff, they're playing these big jamgrass festivals in the South. Obviously Colorado's huge with [festivals in] Telluride and Pagosa. But it is kind of all over the place.

I'm wondering how this range was reflected at World of Bluegrass this year. The awards show was one of the marquee events. It was hosted by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who have global, open-minded musical sensibilities, but many of the award winners, like Michael Cleveland, Flatt Lonesome and Earls of Leicester hew closer to tradition. How do you read that picture?

It's a complicated one.

I think if you ask the [IBMA] membership in general, "Are you in favor of a narrow definition of bluegrass or do you want a bigger tent?" most people will speak in favor of a bigger tent because they recognize from a business point of view especially that it makes sense to be broadly inclusive. ... People love the Earls of Leicester. What can I say? I love the Earls of Leicester, and I think I was one of the very first people to write about them in print, if not the first.

They're very fine performers.

They're very fine performers, but they're also a tribute band. To me, I don't know that the message you want to send to the world is that our highest award goes to a tribute band, for two years in a row now.

On the plus side, there's definitely turnover. Brooke Aldridge won her first Female Vocalist of the Year Award. That award has changed hands quite a bit the past few years.

Molly Tuttle became the first woman to win Guitarist of the Year.

And Sierra Hull won again for mandolin player. So there are some younger musicians coming to the fore. ... Sierra's last album was very innovative. It was a singer-songwriter album. There was hardly any banjo on it. And Molly Tuttle's EP was not, strictly speaking, a bluegrass album. ... So there's a stylistic spectrum there, which is encouraging, and there's also kind of a new generation of award winners coming up. Bluegrass is slow to move, and if you keep giving all your awards to people who've been in the industry 15, 20 or 30 years, that's not a good look.

I looked at the performance schedule for the festival. There were a number of names I recognized, and others I didn't. How do you feel like the lineup reflected the range of sensibilities?

I think pretty well, actually. Particularly in the showcase artists. There was a huge amount of variety. There were some complaints about that breadth, but there have been for as long as I've been going to it. ... The volume of complaints doesn't seem to be any greater than it's ever been. And I know from the years when I was on the board and looking at attendee evaluation sheets, most people said, "I like this mix of more traditional and more progressive bands."

World of Bluegrass had its second annual Shout & Shine diversity showcase this year, and the festival took place just a couple of weeks after Americana Fest, which had generated a lot of conversations about diversity. In bluegrass, is it more a matter of broadening the range of the music's performers and fans or acknowledging a range that already exists?

People in the bluegrass industry are necessarily and appropriately obsessed with survival of the genre. I think everything tends to be looked at through that lens. One element of this growth in diversity can be traced back to when the World of Bluegrass was moved to North Carolina in 2013. It was followed in short order by HB2.

Last year's diversity showcase stemmed from the desire of IBMA members to react to HB2. There were some people who didn't want to go to World of Bluegrass because it was in North Carolina, because of HB2. Other people were talking with the Human Rights Campaign in North Carolina and the LGBTQ community there about appropriate responses, and I think that's where the idea of the diversity showcase came from. It's not a boycott, but it's asserting something about this music and how there's room for more people, including LGBTQ people and also African-Americans and other people of color.

It's been on the official schedule both years. How much institutional support has it had?

I'm not the best person to talk about that necessarily, but I haven't heard any complaints about a lack of support from the leadership.

Job number one of the leadership of the IBMA is to help preserve bluegrass for future generations. That means expanding the audience and that means getting young people involved.

The public opinion survey evidence is very clear that on some of these cultural issues and diversity issues, there are generations gaps that cross all kinds of political and cultural lines. Even younger evangelicals are more open to marriage equality and things of that nature. Having an appeal to younger people means necessarily being more open to the support of diversity and making a real effort.

The next thing that happened was Bluegrass Pride. The diversity showcase at IBMA was in the fall of 2016 before the election and then the actual controversy about the proposal to have a float in the [San Francisco pride] parade came before the California Bluegrass Association in January. That proposal, I believe, was as widely supported as it was because [of how] it was framed: the outreach element of it. The intrinsic value of supporting diversity is one thing, but there's also, "This [parade] is the biggest gathering of people in the Bay Area all year long basically, so why would you not want to be out there banging the drum for bluegrass?" I believe this kind of utilitarian argument has an impact on people who might otherwise be less inclined to support these measures. They look at it in practical terms. I think that this is part of the reason why Rhiannon Giddens was invited to give the keynote speech at this year's World of Bluegrass.

You attended and performed at events during Bluegrass Pride, and were given an onstage introduction that emphasized both your musical accomplishments and the fact that you were a former president of the IBMA board. Why did participating matter to you?

I'm a believer in equality. ... I thought Rhiannon [saying that] the question is how to put diversity back in bluegrass was the right question to ask. And it's true not just with respect to identity, but also musically. ... There's been a narrowing down of the parameters of bluegrass that exclude all these wonderfully musically diverse things that they guys who created the tradition did all the time. They did all kinds of weird stuff. If it has to have a banjo in it to be bluegrass, then almost a third of the recordings that Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys made that are the canon don't qualify because they're gospel songs that have mandolin and guitar. Or [the idea that there are] no drums [in bluegrass]. Well, there go all the Jimmy Martin records.

Diversity is healthy in every respect, from musical to the kind of people who are making the music and who are operating the business. ...The bluegrass world can't survive if it splits along those lines. I mean, that would just be disastrous for everybody. I feel like it's been important for everybody in any kid of position of leadership in the organization to really make efforts to keep things together. That doesn't mean not taking positions, but it means that when you take positions at the same time that you reach out as much as you can across whatever divides there might be.

I wore my little Bluegrass Pride button around IBMA all week and I made sure I went up and hugged Jerry Salley's neck and shook hands with Doyle Lawson and all those guys just as a reminder, because I know all of them don't agree with that. But it's important to humanize and keep the relationships that are real, that are necessary for the music to grow and prosper. You've really got to bring everybody in there.

I saw Rhiannon Giddens tweet a bibliography from her IBMA keynote speech. It included a lot of historians and scholars I'm familiar with who do work around race and roots music. What was important about her being given that platform in the first places and how she used it to talk history with that audience?

Bluegrass people pride themselves on knowing the music's history. ... It can be overblown, but it's true that you have a lot of knowledgeable people, knowledgeable about who the key musicians are, what the records are. There's a canon of songs that pretty much everybody kind of knows. So there's a respect for historical knowledge.

... In that sense, it was intrinsically valuable to lay out the history like she did. Anybody who's dug into American roots music history knows some of the things that she talked about, but particularly in the bluegrass world, they don't necessarily get talked about, because by the time bluegrass came along, the roots music market had already been rigorously segregated. So what she was talking about was the pre-bluegrass period. That's something that might be less familiar to people. But it's the critical context for understanding what the situation was when the bluegrass genre came along. So it was educational, but I think she also demonstrated an understanding that doing this would be persuasive for this audience, that this is an audience who's primed to talk about old records and old musicians and Appalachia and the banjo. She read the situation so well. It was a knockout. ...I really kept an eye on the audience while she was speaking, looking for signs of discontent.

No walk-outs?

No. Maybe people didn't come to begin with, but it was great. And it was of a piece with the diversity showcase. It was really kind of an official and unofficial theme this year. It was very exciting to see how little resistance there was.

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