Bluegrass started in working-class Appalachia. So will its growing popularity on college campuses like UNC fundamentally change it?
Above: Carolina Bluegrass Band members Willem Tex (banjo) and Elisa Moore (upright bass) play during rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Sarah Redmond.
Bluegrass didn’t start out as college-going music. But does it belong on campus?
It’s a debate that has come up in recent months, sparked by Ted Lehmann’s provocative story “Bluegrass Goes to College, But Should It?” Lehman argues that university bluegrass programs like East Tennessee State University will fundamentally change a music that originated in working-class Appalachia. Is that a bad thing, however?
Having played in the Carolina Bluegrass Band since this past spring, I would answer with a resounding no.
I’d played country and folk before, but never bluegrass, and it sounded like a fun class. Director Russell Johnson (of The Grass Cats) played with me at my audition, on the songs “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” There were a few questions about previous musical experience and why I wanted to play bluegrass, and I was in.
The first practice at Kenan Music Building was actually listening to the band from the previous semester and Johnson going over his hopes and expectations. We had to be in tune and on time, since we only met once a week. And he hoped to create two bands, one of newcomers and another of veterans from the semester before. I left feeling doubtful I’d ever be able to sound as good as the other band.
By early April, the “upstairs band” of mostly new people (so-called because we rehearsed upstairs from the other band) was meeting every week outside class to get our harmonies and breaks down. With our final concert coming on April 21, no one wanted to let Johnson down.
It was an uphill battle for many of us. Fiddler players struggled to let go of their classical backgrounds to embrace the rootsy sound Johnson wanted. The banjo players had to learn to play louder — or even simply to learn to play banjo. The bassist had to deal with constant key changes to suit the vocalists. Mandolin players had to solidify their breaks, and singers like me had to learn harmony.
That meant I had to sing without vibrato, which is heavily emphasized in classical voice. I also had to learn not to strum my guitar on the mandolin chops, which muddles the sound.
“The challenges have been taking all of those different things and combining them to create a three-minute bluegrass song,” Johnson said. “So far, the students have been great at making that change. That’s exciting for me because I love to hear when it comes together.”
Some nervous jitters aside, we were well-prepared for the final concert. The “upstairs band” was hardly recognizable from the beginning of the semester, at least to our ears.
“We were able to do two 40-minute sets of pretty entertaining bluegrass,” Johnson said. “I guess that’s what I enjoy about it most, seeing the students who really connect with the music and get it out in other ways away from the class, whether learning songs on their own or attending concerts.”
Bluegrass will more than likely change from college graduates studying it from an academic as well as a performance standpoint. But changing over time is how genres stay vital and relevant. You don’t hear Elvis or ’80s synth-pop on top-40 radio anymore, even though both left their mark on today’s music.
The chance to study bluegrass regardless of background or prior experience was refreshing, and one I most likely would never have had otherwise. Growing up in Raleigh, the daughter of an engineer and an account, I’m hardly your stereotypical bluegrass musician.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the music or its history. With the assistance of college programs like the UNC bluegrass band, I can help pave the way for its future.
Read more about the UNC Bluegrass Initiative, which added its first banjo instructor this year.