I think I’m doing the same thing as you now - putting a lot more time into the chords and then seeing where I can use the licks or incorporate the melody of the song. I’m no longer in a hurry to learn the melody first and the chords after or even someday - which what I used to do.
Maybe I’m digressing, but when I first used to listen to the back up tracks - they pretty much all sounded identical - You could be playing along to almost any bluegrass song with a similar progression. They had a uniform, almost sterile feel. Now that I work on the chord progressions more, I get a feel for each song and it gives it a kind of personality that makes it more unique and memorable. There is a lot you can do with the rhythm. I’ve still got so much to learn.
I also spent a bit of time trying to learn to sing and play some “simple” songs. People call them cowboy chords or progressions, but I don’t think they fully acknowledge how hard it is to sing or perform a song with its bare bones - especially as well as you are able and someone might enjoy listening to it - not just recognize it . I really do think its improved my overall playing of melody and chords.
The singing seems to give me a fuller appreciation of what I’m trying to do with song and I a sort of get it more. It stays with me better and the whole song seems richer for it. I still do not sing well, but I used to not be able to sing at all and play without crashing out - so I’m pleased to have made some progress.
Again, I probably think about things a lot - maybe too much. But I know if I’m struggling to get into the groove with the chord progression (that it isn’t second nature) then I’ll have a hell of time with the melody or licks I want to play.
It’s uncommon for UK players to know the tunes off by heart and it is very hard work to learn, so I’ve not played bluegrass with anyone else who could take a break. I know that if I do ever meet other players over here, one day, that it will be more useful for me to hold the foundations of the song together as a chord progression in good time. We could both build up what we know from there. I’m okay with melody, but you really wouldn’t want to listen to me repeat the tabs I’ve memorized over and over for more than a few measures.
Thanks for sharing your views, its reassuring to discover that you’re not doing it all wrong and others are taking a similar approach to yourself to get the most out of their playing and learning experience.