I just got back from the Midnight Jam at Merlefest, America’s top roots music festival started by legendary blind folk guitarist Doc Watson. Ever since then, the festival has featured and fostered some of the world’s best bluegrass talent, from Jerry Douglas to Sam Bush.
Tonight at the Jam, musicians as old as Peter Rowan (who played with OG bluegrasser Bill Monroe) and as young as band Mipso and mandolinist Sierra Hull came together to play some tunes. Here’s something fresh from that jam:
I was taken by a lot of the artists and shows today, but this jam on stage at 1 AM tonight summed up a lot of the reasons that I love bluegrass. If you haven’t dabbled in bluegrass, here are some reasons why you might like it.
It gives the spotlight to great players.
Up on stage in this video you have some of the greats of bluegrass instrumentation today – particularly guitarist Bryan Sutton. The great thing about bluegrass songs is the instrumental breaks built into their very structure. In fact, since fiddle tunes make up the bulk of early bluegrass, you could say that bluegrass has always had a place for incredible musicians. It’s almost certainly the genre that sees the most young prodigies here in the US. So there’s a strong element of individual creativity that gets out in a bluegrass culture as well as within a bluegrass song.
In balance to their emphasis on individual skill, bluegrass songs are pretty rigid in their requirements for cooperation. And more often that not, bluegrass bands rise to the occasion. In this video and in every other bluegrass band and bluegrass jam, we’re seeing the meaning of e pluribis unum in action in music: out of many great talents, one song is formed. That lowly bluegrass song about a pretty girl or moonshine or a mineshaft is what provides the framework for truly great musicians to improvise truly great music that fits together.
You might think this is an odd thing to praise music for, but the simple melodies and chord progressions of bluegrass mean that it’s accessible to the average listener as well as to the average musician. There isn’t much of a code to crack to become an active listener and even an active participant in a bluegrass song. Most chords are within the grasp of a first-year guitar student.
There are two sides to every coin. Bluegrass may have predictable melodies and chord progressions, but how you can execute on those melodies leaves open a lot of room for innovation. You see it in the jazz, classical, rock, and blues influences which many bluegrasses incorporate into how they play instrumental breaks.
That spontaneity in the music itself also affects how people play it. Right before this set, a horn section swaggered into the auditorium playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” As this bluegrass jam progressed, they and several other musicians hanging out in the wings just decide to join halfway through. It’s totally cool to do that in a bluegrass jam, and it’s totally fine if what you have isn’t a “bluegrass instrument.”
Everyone is having fun in bluegrass. If someone isn’t having fun, either in the audience or on stage, the other musicians know something is wrong. See at the 0:55 mark in the video how the two mandolinists engage in a mock musical duel. Some of these professional musicians are dancing around while they play. There’s a constant playful give and take just like this between musicians in a bluegrass jam. The audience plays a role, too, throwing in friendly heckling and suggestions to artists with with little wall between them and the performers.
I’m off to bed to prepare for another day of bluegrassing and bluegrass jamming tomorrow. Expect a full update on my findings from this roots music Mecca.