Would Somebody Please Define 'Bluegrass'?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF you think bluegrass music is for "hayseeds" who are "barefoot in overalls, a straw hat, missing two of his four front teeth," you're way off, says Dennis Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association in Owensboro, Ky. Mr. Hays is building the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, due to open next year. Remember TV's "Hee Haw"?

"A lot of groups in the past appealed to audiences that way," says Hays, recalling the matching suits and hats of early performers like Bill Monroe and the team of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. "But it's just a matter of exposure. A lot of people who hear bluegrass for the first time, especially modern bluegrass like from (fiddler) Alison Krauss, are much amazed and surprised they don't hear more of it on radio or television. But trying to change those [early] images for television and radio programmer s is a very difficult job."

Only 15 radio stations in the United States play bluegrass, says Hays. The country's largest is WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. The Northeast is picking up the most new fans, according to figures for record and concert sales. Most radio stations (even country) shun bluegrass because they says its "twang factor" turns listeners off.

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That's missing the point of bluegrass, and the influence it has had on folk and rock music, says Hays. "Lots of folks give credit to bluegrass for a very strong influence on rock music: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, the Rolling Stones."

Another misconception is that bluegrass is as old as the hills. It's only 50 years old, and became popular with Bill Monroe and his band in the 1940s, with the signature sound of the rapid, syncopated 3-finger banjo-playing by Earl Scruggs. Before Scruggs came along, banjo was strummed or plucked with only two fingers, says Hays.

But if bluegrass is undervalued, it's slowly picking up fans around the world - from Carnegie Hall in Manhattan to Moscow. "The most interesting story we've found is there are 400 bluegrass musicians in Moscow alone," says Hays. They don't have manufactured instruments or strings or music; they make their own. Says Hays: "They think of bluegrass as truly American. They believe it's as large in America as we wish it were!"

The Japanese are also hot for bluegrass: buying bluegrass records; publishing a bluegrass magazine called 'Moonshiner'; and sending tours to visit some of the 400-odd bluegrass festivals across the US. The "Shaggy Mountain Boys," Japan's biggest bluegrass band, performs often in the US.

Still trying to put his finger on the essence of bluegrass, Hays says: "It's folk music in overdrive."

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