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.]
Bluegrass to Younger Audiences
-- By Becky
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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!"
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.
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."
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.
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.
other musicians was often mentioned as inspiration to continue with
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
Become a member of the IBMA. Call 1-888-GET-IBMA or visit
their website at www.ibma.org
Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 2001