Where do we stand on Bluegrass? Is it still niche? I worry that I’ve lost sight of where the music loving public’s feelings lie; sure, people like the middle-class cod-Country ramblings of Mumford&Sons (shudder) but do they like the proper stuff? Because Mumford and his troubadours are not bluegrass. They barely qualify as folk. To me they continue this millenial tendency to culturally appropriate anything different and water the source down into an easily sellable commodity. Cash flooding in while a distance grows between performer and community. Though don’t get me wrong, I may dislike Mumford but can readily appreciate the reasons for their success. I just prefer a scotch over homeopathy. I know I’m not an authority on bluegrass form but I know why I like it. It’s the sheer technical mastery of the instruments and speed of playing. It’s the tricksy rhythms and awkward phrasing. It’s how the artists can make a familiar sound-world so unnerving with relentless tonal shifts and passing notes. You never really know what will be coming next because these players can feasibly take you anywhere. All you know is that it will be worth it come the end. Mumford has lost this. Or at least they strip it down to it’s most basic, chugging form.
Chris Thile is a revelation. So is Edgar Meyer, of course, but Chris Thile seemed to follow me around for most of last year. First in The Goat Rodeo Sessions and then Punch Brothers. He’s a scotch. He’s a solid double. I like bluegrass, I do. I really like country too. It’s just so free. I am mostly a computer based composer with each sound being edited and manipulated to the point of no purpose. It’s a very clinical method and of course it can be incredibly satisfying; but sometimes I worry that I do all these processes to mask my shortcomings as a performer. When I see a group of people with nothing more than a stereo microphone creating magic, I’m reminded of how tangled I’ve become with technology. To hear (and more importantly, see) bluegrass played is liberating for me. Obviously, this is merely personal reflection and has no bearings on the aesthetic merits of the genre as a whole; this is why we turn to Chris. Watch that video. Can you hear the mastery over the melody. It’s so flipping precise and clear. Honest, organic sound. A piece that sums up everything I love about the form. It’s not simple. It doesn’t follow the expected rules and it is all the richer for it.
Traditional music is in vogue, or at least this amorphous concept of ‘folk’ being distilled into ukelele covers of pop hits. I briefly mentioned my thoughts on folk when discussing Jethro Tull; to add to what I said then, folk is owned by everybody and nobody. You can take forms, melodies and ideas and do what you like with them. There are no rules. It’s why I have to accept the Mumfords, they took a form readily available to them and turned it into something else. Something I personally don’t find engaging. Chris Thile also takes bluegrass (and the country idiom) as a starting ground. He too takes the form and turns it into something else. But to my ears, he takes nothing away and adds everything. Little bit of progressive indie? Check. Little bit of jazz? Of course. Classical? Thile can take it all on and then some; each influence and experience flowing straight into his evolving style. It’s so utterly refreshing to see from a genre often mired in caricature. How foolish for us to think it nothing but moonshine.
That said; I’m clearly not the only one to know this judging by the Punch Brothers upcoming sold out London shows. But there is a depth of character here that needs highlighting and ramming home relentlessly. There are no barriers in music other than those you make yourself. Too many times have I have seen the classical or progressive indie worlds claim the monopoly on pushing boundaries to the detriment of others. Too many times have I heard people scoff at traditional music, often using the stick of Morris Dance to ram home the point. Morris Dance is cool and interesting. Seriously. Traditional music is incredibly cool and interesting. Traditional music has progression in it’s soul. Still not sold? Maybe I’ll end by letting Thile explain it himself.
You are my sire, man. You are my yoda.
The Phosphorescent Blues by Punch Brothers is released on January 27th. Pre-order your copy here.