Bluegrass music is growing like a weed

By CRYSTAL CAVINESS  |  Aug. 18, 2003 at 11:29 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- "I love bluegrass," said Kid Rock. "Bluegrass is like heavy metal for me. My heart's still with the traditional."

Detroit rapper Kid Rock is not the only unlikely fan of bluegrass music.

In a 1997 survey by the National Endowment of the Arts, 43 percent of American adults said that they listen to bluegrass. That number is up from 1992, when 29 percent reported listening to bluegrass music.

"That's huge given that we don't have a couple of thousand radio stations programming bluegrass 24/7," said Dan Hayes recently from the Nashville office of the International Bluegrass Music Association, where he is executive director. "We don't have a television station, or two or three, devoted to this music. The people who do enjoy it are extremely loyal to it."

The growth in bluegrass fans comes at a time when most musical genres are experiencing lower market shares and diminishing fan bases.

In 2002, the only two musical genres to experience market share growth over 2001 were country and religious music, according to Billboard, considered by many to be the voice of the music industry. Bluegrass, as a subset of country music, would be included in that upward growth trend, according to Wade Jessen, director of country, Christian, gospel and bluegrass charts.

Perhaps a more telling indication of bluegrass' industry growth is the introduction in July 2002 of a chart in Billboard detailing the top bluegrass album sales.

"Chart space in the magazine is at a premium," Jessen said recently from his Nashville office. "For us to dedicate even as much space as we do certainly says that it is a genre worth the space and that we have subscribers interested in knowing what the top-selling bluegrass titles are."

Hayes has seen growth in other areas, as well.

"The number of listeners, the number of consumers, everything we're seeing in terms of broadcast exposure, the number of hours of bluegrass music on radio, has more than doubled," Hayes said. "The number of concerts and festivals, listenerships, all of those numbers for us are up."

Some may immediately credit the success of the 2001 movie and subsequent soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" for bluegrass' current success. While it is true that the "O Brother" soundtrack, from the film starring George Clooney, sold more than 7 million copies, was the top-selling country album of 2001 and earned Grammys for many of the bluegrass musicians who performed on the CD, industry experts said the growth had already begun.

"Even before the 'O Brother' soundtrack got so big, we had begun to notice there were more bluegrass titles appearing on the top country albums chart," Jessen said. "Bluegrass albums have always been eligible to compete if they sold well enough. The occasional (album) by Ricky Skaggs or the old catalog by someone like Flatt and Scruggs, we would see those from time to time. We had noticed that they had started selling better and that was solidified by the 'O Brother' soundtrack."

Hayes agreed.

"The media tends to draw itself to big events," Hayes said. "If the last 40 bluegrass albums had sold 7 million copies, 'O Brother' wouldn't have been a story. It took something like 'O Brother' to say this music has been growing all the time."

The upward trend is likely more than a decade old, Hayes said, although few formal statistics are around to support that thought.

"The change started happening in the early nineties," he said. "I would credit a number of things, but probably the most important was a young teenager at the time named Alison Krauss...Alison (who) was very much the one who was plowing the front row out there."

Krauss, who sings and plays violin, signed a record deal in 1985 with Rounder Records at the age of 14. She has had phenomenal success, both as a bluegrass artist and a mainstream country artist. In 1993, she joined the Grand Ole Opry, the first bluegrass artist to be inducted in 29 years. In 1995, Krauss was named female vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association and won single of the year honors for her No. 1 song, "When You Say Nothing At All." She has recorded with the likes of Dolly Parton and cellist Yo-Yo Ma and served as producer for young bluegrass band Nickel Creek and Reba McEntire.

Krauss, a standout for the pristine and unique quality of her voice and her superb fiddle playing, possesses qualities common in bluegrass music.

"It's just phenomenal musicianship," Hayes said of the genre. "(The musicians) are improvisational wizards with their instruments...Almost none of them are classically trained in any form of music. They play by ear, they improvise, about 95 percent can't read music," he said. "They hear it."

Not only do the musicians need to be standouts, but the music requires physical stamina, as well.

"Bluegrass is a music that takes quite a bit of energy," said Del McCoury recently from a Nashville office. "It's folk music in overdrive. It's really a challenge to play in a bluegrass band."

McCoury and his band meet the challenge time and again. A favorite top-selling band, the Del McCoury Band is taking bluegrass where it has not gone before.

Members of veteran rock jam band Phish have been longtime fans of McCoury's music, having performed a McCoury tune in their set for the past decade. Through the years, Phish has invited McCoury and his band to perform with them. Out of that has grown a cult-like following from jam band devotees and has resulted in the Del McCoury Band being the only bluegrass band asked to perform at the Jammies in New York City, an annual jam band festival. They have also played Bonoroo, a rock festival where fans in the crowd held up signs requesting songs, much to McCoury's surprise.

The appeal to a younger, left-of-center audience is a mystery to the McCourys.

"Dad has never changed what he's done," said son Ronnie McCoury, who plays mandolin in the band.

The Del McCoury Band, which released its new CD, "It's Just the Night," on Aug. 12, is currently touring with Cajun/rock/roots band Leftover Salmon.

In addition to expert musicianship, bluegrass music has an added element that makes all of the difference, according to Hayes.

"What they do comes from their heart," he said of the bluegrass musicians. "It is art.

"What happens many times in mainstream music, is it is commerce disguised as art. The buying public, and particularly a new generation of young people, see through those things...The integrity of that is enormously attractive to people."

Another benefit to the genre of bluegrass music is that many of its pioneers are still making music. While some have died, including Bill Monroe, considered to be the father of bluegrass, others remain active in the business. Ralph Stanley, a septuagenarian, is at the pinnacle of his career. In 2002, Stanley won a Grammy for best male vocal performance for "O Death," from the "O Brother" project, and performed the song a capella on the live telecast.

Currently, a PBS special titled "Three Pickers" is airing nationally, featuring the music of bluegrass veterans Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs. The album of the same name is at No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass albums sales chart.

In addition to the older generation, a solid group of young artists is emerging. Nickel Creek has wowed critics and fans with their music, along with Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, Dan Tyminski (who was the singing voice for Clooney in "O Brother") and the Lynn Morris Band.

In some instances, bluegrass bands will cross over to country, as is the case with Krauss and Nickel Creek. For the most part, however, bluegrass is its own game with a different set of rules.

An artist such as Rhonda Vincent may sell 75,000 to 100,000 albums the first year, according to Hayes. Alison Krauss has platinum (more than 1 million copies sold) and gold (more than 500,000 copies sold) albums. The average bluegrass artist, however, will consider 20,000 albums sold as a success.

One might compare that with country music.

Last week, word came from Arista Nashville that Deana Carter was being dropped from the roster. Carter, who had a huge hit in 1996 with "Strawberry Wine" and 'We Danced Anyway" on Capitol Records, had released her first Arista project, "I'm Just A Girl" in March 2003. The album debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's top country albums chart and yielded one Top 10 single, "There's No Limit." The title track had been released earlier in the summer. Despite a strong beginning, the album had sold approximately 70,000 copies to-date, according to The Tennessean. Obviously, 70,000 units sold is considered slow sales at Arista, whose parent company is global entertainment giant BMG.

"It's the difference between mom and pop versus a large corporation," Hayes said. "We've got the luxury of (making music) on a boutique scale...It's a whole different economic bent. The simple fact is that there are very few mega corporations involved in bluegrass music. Why that's important is that for small independent labels and producers, their motivation isn't 'Can I exceed last quarter's profit projections?' They don't have stockholders saying 'Can I get a better return?'

"Their motivation," Hayes said, "is for the love of the music."

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