Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

What is bluegrass

After a weekend at the Florida Folk Festival where I had a chance to pick lots of different kinds of music (folk, bluegrass, cajun, etc), I’ve been wondering how you all define bluegrass. It seems to me that the pickers who consider themselves bluegrassers tend to be the most dogmatic about style and repertoire, but still, it seems to vary between groups.

For instance, I’ve run across bluegrassers who define the British pop song, “Fox On The Run” as bluegrass, but scoff at early George Jones songs (Why Baby Why, etc). Personally, I think the George Jones has a history and tradition that is closer to bluegrass, but it seems I’m in the minority.

So, is it the instrumentation and arrangement that make a song bluegrass? Or is it the history and tradition of the song? Or something else that I’m missing?

When I read your example “fox on the run” for some reason, the Sweet version popped into my head (I…I…I don’t want to know your name, 'cause you no longer look the same)… I thought “no way.” I did a little youtube research and came up with the manfred mann version, followed by the Country Gentleman version and it made sense. Picture me trying to place the sweet version into bluegrass… it wasn’t working for me. :laughing:

That’s a fine question on how we define BG. I think it’s very fuzzy around the edges. Folk, old time, traditional, blues and jazz get mixed in there and that’s part of the fun. I grew up around BG, and I listened to it for years before playing it. I guess for me the most recognizable feature that yells bluegrass is the composition of the band (GTR, mando, banjo, upright, fiddle and dobro). Of course one can grab that set up and play classical or whatever. So I guess a big part depends on the style of something as well. Take an irish reel… one could do it traditional Irish, or straight BG, or somewhere in between, so i don’t think it is 100% based on tradition (that would argue towards arrangement in part). I guess Bill Monroe’s bluegrass boys defined BG years ago and it has been pushed an prodded in different directions since then. That last comment lead me to go search to see what Bill said about it… this is from wiki (so it has to be true): bluegrass is “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.” I think that last part is the most often quoted part… that “high lonesome sound.” Much of what I consider BG doesn’t have that high lonesome sound (Krauss). So in a nutshell, I don’t have a clue. Perhaps such questions are what lead someone (attributed to several including Duke Ellington) to say, “There are only two types of music… good music and bad music.”

Thanks for muddying the water, Mike! :laughing:

I’m a fan of most pre-electric rural American music, so I tend to group together songs from that tradition whether they be considered bluegrass, old time, country, folk, or whatever.

I find working rock or pop songs into bluegrass arrangements interesting, and I don’t mind playing them at all, but it seems less authentic to me than the old country songs.

Maybe I should consider myself a rural folk musician instead of a bluegrasser.

I’m kind of the same way. I play a bunch of old time rural stuff that isn’t hardcore BG. But I like it. I think a bunch of BG gospel really isn’t too bluegrassy, but I like it. Alison Krauss isn’t all BG, all the time, but I like their stuff too. I find it easier to refer to the marginal stuff as bluegrass and move on. I haven’t converted too many rock songs to 'grass, but I love some of the conversions I have heard. I got on a kick for a while where Iron Horse was running all day while I worked.

Sorry to muddy the waters. If I was really trying to clear the water, I’d say for a purist, true bluegrass is only the traditional BG sound, arrangements and instruments similar to what one heard from the originators back in the 50’s and 60’s. Kentucky Thunder would qualify… AKUS, maybe not (for one thing they have WAAAYYYY too many mics). However, I am not a purist by any stretch, so bring on the newgrass/hippiegrass/gospel grass and whatever you call groups like String Cheese Incident (Deadgrass? :laughing: ).

Speaking of which… when we get a chance to record some more, what about Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley.” It’s not grass, but I like it.

We need to start a thread creep jar. Every time we do it, we put a dollar in it.

— Begin quote from ____

We need to start a thread creep jar. Every time we do it, we put a dollar in it.

— End quote

:laughing: :laughing:
We’d have to get a second job …

I checked out a few versions of Tecumseh Valley on Youtube and they were mostly stripped down versions. If we were to do a full band treatment, looks like we’d have to come up with our own arrangement. Could be a fun challenge.

Now, where do I put my dollar?

I will selflessly volunteer to manage all thread creep funds :slight_smile:

I think T Valley might be a good song to grow… verse 1, stripped down vox and gtr, then gradually add things. For the last verse (partial repeat of the first “Well the name she gave was Caroline, the daughter of a miner. And her ways were free, and seemed to me, that sunshine walked beside her.”) it could go back to stripped down.

Do you have the fingerpicked guitar part worked out already?

Yeah, I used to play it. I didn’t do it note for note, but I did it Travis style… had the little F turnaround in there as well. I suspect it would come back quickly. I can tab it out if you want.

Really like this take on it: Nanci Griffith with Arlo Guthrie

Unfortunately would be hard to improve on this one!

That’s a great version, ozi. I love Townes, but his voice was pretty raw. The Nancy/Arlo version is so pretty by comparison.

I wasn’t expecting you to teach me the guitar part, Mike (I’m kind of overwhelmed just trying to get used to dang fingerpicks), but if you were to lay down a guitar track, I thought I’d mess around with some dobro and/or mando and see how it sounds.

The big question, of course, is who would be the vocalists?

Sure, I’d be glad to put down a gtr track. It might be a little bit, but it would be a fun song to do. I won’t get anything done until late next week at the earliest (and that’s unlikely). Before I start something else, maybe I should check with the fiddle player and if he doesn’t have time to do it, go ahead and do the first half of the break and some noodling for West Virginia my home so we can put that one to bed. I like the Nanci/Arlo version of T Valley. The timing on one of the key changes was a bit different than I remember, but I probably morphed it over the years. I think the dobro will be a great fit for the song. As far as vocals, if no one else steps up I guess we roll with what we have (with us instrumentalists singing) and move on.

No hurry on starting a new project as far as I’m concerned. I just picked up a new audio interface for my computer, so I’m sure I’ll be busy getting used to that for the next week or so.

Larry, which interface did you purchase? I’m still undecided between a workstation like the Tascam portastudio or an interface. Mike says I should give an interface more time. I bought a Presonus & didn’t like it so took it back, but I really didn’t give it much of a chance. I’m sure Mike’s right, I just don’t like going through the computer & using a mouse instead of real slides & knobs. I’ve got alot to learn & need to get into the 2000’s.

Mike offered help in learning. if everyone’s going to these, maybe I should too. Let me know how it works out & how you like it.

I’m on the road alot this time of year, so I’ll probably wait until fall to make a purchase. That’ll give me time to do some investigating & learn more.

Thanks, J.W.

I picked up the Alesis i04. It got here Friday but I haven’t had a chance to unbox it, so I can’t review it yet. I was primarily looking for more inputs so I can record my picking buddies live instead of tracking one instrument at a time.

If it works okay, this unit gives me 4 mono inputs at the ridiculously low price of $98. Added to the two inputs I already have on my E-mu soundcard, I’ll have 6 total inputs (assuming my computer can keep up).

Now I just need to build a couple of isolation booths in my living room and I’ll be set to go. :laughing:

When I get everything set up I’ll give you some more feedback. To tell the truth I’m a little skeptical that the unit can do everthing I want at such a cheap price, but I’ll soon find out.

As far as making the switch from an external unit to a computer based program, I think it will grow on you. I also have an old Tascam Portastudio and had to make the switch. It requires some effort, but the computer programs are so powerful and versatile by comparison, it’s well worth taking the time to learn. My program has an optional interface that displays the controls just like a traditonal mixing board would. You still have to use a mouse to make adjustments instead of turning knobs, but it might ease the transition for you.

4 inputs for $98 bucks is crazy good. Let us know how it works out. Even if the computer can’r handle both interfaces at once, 4 inputs gives alot more flexibility for recording over 2.

I didn’t know I was so pushy… sorry about that :slight_smile: J.W. if you ever get in the neck of the woods where I live (or Larry or someone else who records with a software DAW) I bet you would be sold on it in 10 minutes and comfortable with it within an hour. If you get lucky setup is easy, but if not, it can certainly be intimidating. Once you get things going though, it’s a piece of cake (some might say a Cakewalk).

I’ll be excited if all 6 inputs work, but I have a feeling it will be quite a while before I get good recordings this way. I’ve got to work through a lot of variables that don’t exist with tracking everything sequentially.

You’re not pushy at all Mike. I really appreciate the help & input (that’s what forums are for) & if I ever get to Texas I may just take you up on the invite.
As I said earlier, I’ll most likely wait until fall when my work slows down to buy anything.

Thanks again, J.W.