A number of years ago I was attending a concert with a friend of mine. He was in his early twenties and hadn’t been exposed to the world of bluegrass for the most part. He had however been born and raised in Nashville so he had certainly heard it in his peripheral ears. The artist on stage was The Grascals. Now for the record, I think The Grascals are a perfectly fine band. The following has nothing to do with the talent, character or artistry of The Grascals. So don’t come at me bruh! Anyhow, The Grascals were a good song or two in their set when they began to perform the song “Dooley”. My friend, after a verse and chorus, began to have a perplexed look upon his face. I leaned over and whispered, “What is it?” He responded, “For some strange reason, I think I’ve heard this song before.” I informed him that it was highly like because the tune was “an old bluegrass standard.” The perplexed look didn’t diminish. Then, like he was struck by a bolt of lightning, his eyes lit up! “Oh! You mean it’s a cover!” Like a good bluegrass kid would, I corrected his verbiage, “In bluegrass, they call them standards,” to which he responded “Oh that’s just good marketing.” That’s just good marketing. That’s just good marketing? For all of my bluegrass enamored life I’d never once considered the thought that many of the bands that I adored and held in such high esteem were “cover bands”. Oh by the way, just as a word of warning, this article might be slightly triggering to cover bands and the like. So to all of you Nearvanas, Gerle Haggards, Poo Live Crews and Pete Loafs out there, I apologize. Bluegrass cover bands? It felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode. My reality was crashing all around me. Maybe G-runs weren’t the best way to end a song? Wait, drums are acoustic? My mind was reeling! It was painful but necessary. I had new eyes and, for the first time, I could now see things for what they were.
Here lately I’ve begun to notice something else that seems askew. Something that might be slipping by those good bluegrass kids like my former self. I recently had the opportunity to watch the entire IBMA virtual conference and festival. Now, I’ve already discussed my full thoughts on that event over on Instagram so if you want my “hot take” head over there for the scathing review (it’s not that scathing). I considered writing this article at that point in time but decided to sit on it. Then, a few weeks ago, I attended a bluegrass festival near my hometown and it sealed my suspicions. BLUEGRASS IS BEING INFILTRATED BY COSPLAY COVER BANDS!!! What is cosplay you ask? The fabulous, always reliable resource that is Wikipedia describes cosplay as “a portmanteau of the words costume play, a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character.” Yep, we’re definitely being infiltrated. I saw it in several bands at the IBMA shindig and then again at the festival. As with the rest of the world of cosplay, I’m not fully sure what the reasoning behind such an act might be other than having fun playing make believe. And don’t think for a second that this is like Halloween for some folks. This is not a Jim Halpert “Hello My Name is Dave” name tag kind of costume that you throw together at the last minute to mildly amuse your friends with your subversive wit. No, this is serious dedication! Of course, being that this genre’s roots stem from the 1930s and 40s, literally all of the cosplay is based upon the fashion stylings of that day. For the men, it mostly looks as though Lester Flatt and Colonel Sanders had a love child. The ladies look like extras straight off the set of “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” which if I’m being honest, I don’t mind so much. But, I digress, the point isn’t if some of them are pulling off the look, rather why is this becoming a thing?
Now, if it’s their lifestyle then I concede. You do you! From what I can tell though, this cosplay epidemic (too soon to repurpose that word?) is only applied to stage time and photo shoots. If you’ll allow, let me wax philosophical for a moment. I believe the cosplay is actually a cover up. Yeah, yeah, I understand that costumes are literally a coverup of sorts but I believe that its actually a thinly veiled attempt to appear more “authentic”. Or in this case, for the music to seem more authentic. Let’s dive deeper. Cosplay seems to only be rampant among the traditional style of bluegrass. The trad side is very, very intense upon capturing the sound of Mr Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and every mutton-chopped brother in arms in between.
You can easily go to any social media platform or Reddit channel that discusses high lonesome things and quickly find a gaggle of tradgrass stormtroopers marching around ready to blast any post that remotely challenges their delicate notion of what bluegrass should sound like. They apply a stringent set of rules that, ultimately, even their idols, themselves, could not and would not ever uphold.
The tradgrassers-only regime will claim that anything outlying the original Scruggs sound has no right to be claimed bluegrass. Their strong, well-meaning, belief is that newcomers will “poison” and corrupt the entire core. A belief which flies in the face of what the ever-talented Sarah Jarosz, keynote speaker of this year’s IBMA WOB, called a music that is “storied and strong” and would inspire outsiders to take it up and further establish the roots for generations to come. Open the gates I believe was her final intent and call. I agree.
With all of this being said, I would assert that the larger fear that the trad-grassers should have is not that the music be poisoned by newbies. Good music, of any style, never goes out of style. [NOTE: Disco went out of style because it was never good.]. Bluegrass throughout the years has had some really bad press when it comes to lifestyle. Movies alone, starting with Deliverance and even, dare I say, O’ Brother, have push folks away by representing all who wield a banjo and a fiddle as backwoods, cousin-marrying , educationally-challenged, ne’er-do-wells. If we examine the situation, though, it’s not the music that gets the backlash from these larger exposures to culture. It’s the actions and fashion that seem out of step. Bluegrass as a music is loved by the masses already. I’ve often heard it described by the unindoctrinated as “happy sounding music” or, in case of the prodigious picking, as “shredding” or even “punk”. All of which are fantastic first responses. Visuals matter though! Marketing shapes the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. If the world sees bluegrass artists draped in fashion that is clearly out of sync with today’s fashion they will assume the music is not for this culture. Ask Rockabilly how things are going! Let the music speak for itself. If you want to transport people to another place and time then write better songs, construct sweeter melodies and soundscapes. The traditional style of bluegrass is extraordinary music. This cosplay culture that is beginning to permeate the traditional stages will do so much more damage to it than a stampede of those pesky free-thinkin’ liberal bluegrassers sneaking in. Let them be and get your own house in order.
So to all of my hard and fast traditional grassers out there I give this plea…be not afraid of inspired offshoots of your formidable historic sound, be not afraid of original music that uses strange chords and might incorporate a cello (just think of it as a big ole fiddle), but, I tell you, be very afraid of the cosplay cover bands. They, and they alone (not really- there are many reasons I could talk about but this works better for a dramatic reading) will be your undoing! Mr Monroe, himself, dressed according to the age in which he lived. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to shed the hillbilly persona that had started to pervade his culture. So if you wish to honor Bill, do as Bill would do. Don’t cosplay. Write original music. Be your own artist. Thank me later.