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The University of Hartford

State of the Bluegrass
by Kevin Lynch, Host of UH Bluegrass Saturday
 9am to 1pm

     With the passing of several Bluegrass pioneers in the last few years, the subject most often discussed among the fans and professionals alike has been the future of Bluegrass music. One organization, possibly most powerful advocate for Bluegrass, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has taken steps to help address that very subject.  In October 2000 the IBMA provided a forum at their annual weeklong convention for a panel of young, successful performers in the business to speak out on the future of Bluegrass music.  This panel focused on reaching out to youngsters and here is what they had to say.  I thought it was important enough to pass on to you.  So keep an open mind and perhaps you might even find something you can apply to yourselves, or your own talented children.  At the very least you will realize the maturity in these young artists and their dedication to the history and tradition, and that they too have an interest in preserving bluegrass music.
 
           [The following is a reprint (used by permission) of the January/February 2001 cover article for the IBMA bi-monthly newsletter "International Bluegrass" written by Becky Buller.  Becky is a performer with a solo album to her credit, Rest My Weary Feet, released in 2000.  She is also a senior at East Tennessee State University who will graduate in May with a degree in public relations.]

Marketing Bluegrass to Younger Audiences

-- By Becky Buller

            "We can't shut ourselves in a little box and expect pop culture to want to join us because bluegrass is not considered cool," said Chris Thile of Nickel Creek to 100+ seminar attendees at the IBMA Trade Show in Louisville [KY] last October.  "We need stealth.  We have to present it in such a way that kids stumble upon it themselves, in such a way that kids aren't automatically on the defensive."
           
Thile was part of a 12-member panel of musicians in their late teens to early 20s who gathered to share their own stories and give insight into ways of successfully marketing bluegrass music to youth.  Greg Cahill of The Special Consensus was the moderator and panelists included Thile, Sean & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek; John, Jeremy & Jason Chapman of The Chapmans; Dana & Lauren of The Schankmans; Josh Williams, also of Special Consensus; Amanda Kowalski of the Wheeling Park High School Bluegrass Band in Wheeling, W.Va.; Casey Dreissen of Nashville, TN; and Casey Henry of Winchester, VA.
           
The group unanimously suggested that festival promoters consider including acts at their events that are not bluegrass, but inspired by the music.  "I'm amazed that we haven't taken more of an advantage of the 'jam band' phenomenon -- groups like Phish & the Dave Matthews Band, who are highly influenced by bluegrass," said Thile.
           
"It seems to me everyone is afraid that embracing these groups will cause bluegrass to lose its identity," he continued, "that the music will change, that suddenly there will be no more G-runs.  It's not going to happen!  The music is in place; bluegrass is always going to be bluegrass.
           
"Hootie and the Blowfish came to MerleFest in 1999 and there was an uprising among the traditional fans who felt the group would ruin the festival.  But they brought in all their Hootieheads, who in turn were exposed to acts like the Del McCoury Band.  Who knows how many were converted!  If we get those people in and they start seeing the music, they'll get hooked -- just like we got hooked."
           
"That's the key: get them interested in the fringes," Casey Henry agreed.  "The ones that are interested will find their way back to the more traditional groups.  We can't force it on them; it just has to appeal to them."
           
"We're not trying to say that from now on everybody needs to bring in these wild acoustic acts to your traditional bluegrass festivals," said John Chapman.  "That's not necessarily the way to go.  But bring in some groups that will attract youth.  Offer a good variety."
           
"People look to art that reflects their lives and many times kids have a problem accepting the traditional bluegrass because they simply can't relate to it," said Kowalski.  "But if you expose anyone to anything there's a chance that they'll want to pick it up," she continued.  "And they'll definitely find their way back to tradition. I don't think any one of us is putting down the traditional. I personally can't imagine that anyone could disrespect Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or any one of them -- that's our heritage!"
           
The group was in agreement that exposure to bluegrass or any music should begin as soon as possible, before children are aware of predominant social stereotypes.
           
"Most of us were under ten when we started," said Thile.  "I can remember being completely fascinated at that age, not just by music but everything.  I think it's easiest to catch kids early on, when they are in that process of learning and taking everything in."

           
Parental influence at a young age was a common theme as panelists swapped stories of how each came to know and love bluegrass.  Josh Williams' father often had jam sessions in their home.  Casey Henry was first exposed to bluegrass in the womb; her mother, Murphy Henry, is a noted banjo teacher and writer.  A five-year-old Casey Dreissen was bribed with baseball cards by his banjo-playing father to practice fiddle.

           
"If you have talented kids, it's really worth going out of your way to put them with other talented kids because they'll not only have a wonderful time but it will help solidify their commitment [to the music]," said audience member and IBMA President Peter Wernick.
           
Meeting other musicians was often mentioned as inspiration to continue with the music.
           
"There just weren't any young musicians in our area when I started playing," said John Chapman. "But I can tell you this -- if it hadn't been for the young people that I met later on through the music, I wouldn't have stuck with it.  It became almost like a family."
           
"I wasn't directly influenced by kids playing either -- there were none," said Sara Watkins.  "But once we started going to contests, we'd see a gang of us every month or so and that was really encouraging for me."
           
"The first time I was exposed to a lot of younger people was as part of Pete Wernick's Bluegrass Youth All-Stars," said Josh Williams.  "That was the highlight of my life, even to this day.  It was so cool to get together with other young people but also be able to show that bluegrass is still being passed down through the generations."
           
Several in the group play regularly for grade school audiences and feel that these performances go a long way toward showing kids that bluegrass isn't so bad after all.
           
"Kids seem to pay more attention to younger groups than older groups going in there saying, 'Hey, this is bluegrass music and you need to listen to it,'" said John Chapman. 
           
"We do a lot of school programs with The Special Consensus, bringing music to young people just so they can hear it," said Williams.  "Even if they decide not to play it, they can at least begin to appreciate it as an American art form."
           
Amanda Kowalski was introduced to the music by an uncle, but actually began playing later on through the influence of the bluegrass club at Wheeling Park High School, of which she is currently president.  The club promotes bluegrass, primarily at the high school level, by performing at institutions across the country.  "Our club's goal is to inspire other youth to play by seeing us perform," she said.  "We have bluegrass programs started in 30 states right now and are working for all 50."
           
Bluegrass music is alive and well, thriving through the fingers of these and many other talented youth.  Another generation of bluegrass lovers is well on its way, as exemplified by eight-year-old banjo-player and audience member Ryan Holiday.

            "It's the only music I like." he said.

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Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 2001

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