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Is bluegrass fading away?

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by Steve Killingsworth, Jul 31, 2008.

  1. Over the last few years I've noticed audiences getting grayer and smaller. It also seems like I see fewer and fewer young musicians on the local scene.

    Last week I saw Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder at the Ryman in Nashville. The show was a sellout but I would estimate that 75% of the crowd was well over the age of 50.

    It all makes me wonder if our music is on the way out or if this is just a temporary decline like what happened in the late 1950s.

    What's it look like in your area?
  2. wld3


    Jun 22, 2008

    To begin with, I've got to say that I don't know much about bluegrass. However, I would think that perhaps you are just witnessing a bit of a down cycle.

    I remember a few years ago that a revival of sorts occurred with the popularity of the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and the emergence of contemporary acts like Nickel Creek.

    More recently, and presently ongoing, Alison Krauss is touring with Robert Plant. Though I'm not sure how well attended or reviewed that show has been, and it certainly isn't a 'bluegrass concert,' it may give credence to the idea that there is some ongoing appeal and a viable market for bluegrass musicians.

    Beyond that, I don't have much by way of insight to offer.


  3. MyUsernameHere

    MyUsernameHere ?????????????

    Nov 3, 2007
    Lexington KY
    Living in Kentucky as I do, I can say for certain that the audience for Bluegrass shows are generally small and graying.

    Its not a particularly popular style of music. The appeal is always going to be small and I don't know how much of a audience trend you can gather from one show.

    I think that bluegrass will survive just fine the way it always has. The older people who like it now will introduce their kids to it. The kids will rebel against it since its not on top 40 radio or MTV. Eventually, the kids will grow out of their peer-pressure induced listening habits and rediscover bluegrass. Shows will continue to be played...infront of smallish crowds with older audiences.

  4. lowEndRick


    Apr 8, 2006
    I live in the Northeast and things seem different here than what you describe where you live. I just got back from the Grey Fox festival in Oak Hill NY. There must have been 10,000 people camping in the field and there were tons of young people. Most were pickin in their campsites, others were there simply to watch and enjoy. The newer young bands seem to be attracting younger crowds. Bands like the Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, Sparrow Quartet, Steep Canyon Rangers and many others are young bands with bluegrass roots. Some are straight ahead bluegrass and others are pushing the boundaries a bit.

    In NYC there is quite a renaissance of roots music going on. Acoustic music, much of it bluegrass, is totally hip in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Read this article.


    In the burbs many of the shows I attend or play at do have the smaller graying crowds, but closer to the city there is much more vibrant music going on.
  5. Stinsok

    Stinsok Supporting Member

    Dec 16, 2002
    Central Alabama
    Maybe younger players are gravitating toward other types of acoustic music instead of being bound to the rules of traditional Bluegrass. It's not dead, it doesn't get out as much as it used to (like me.)
  6. I don't think you can ignore the fact that in most western countries with declining birth rates the "average person" is older and grayer than a decade ago. So naturally audiences will reflect this.

    I think "usernamehere" does not speak with forked togue when they said ..

    "I think that bluegrass will survive just fine the way it always has. The older people who like it now will introduce their kids to it. The kids will rebel against it since its not on top 40 radio or MTV. Eventually, the kids will grow out of their peer-pressure induced listening habits and rediscover bluegrass. Shows will continue to be played...infront of smallish crowds with older audiences."

    Bluegrass continues to be popular in Europe, Australia and eslewhere, even if we don't get access to the great festivals that you American's run every summer. Audiences do tend to be in the 40 plus age bracket, but who wants to listen to rap, emo, thrash, or whatever the latest musical fade is for their whole life??

    With age comes wisdom..... and dementia!!
  7. MyUsernameHere

    MyUsernameHere ?????????????

    Nov 3, 2007
    Lexington KY
    (Forked tongue off...)

    Actually, we've done pretty well with birth rates over here in the U.S. One of the few (if not the only) industrialized, first world country with positive population growth.

    (Forked tongue back on...mwehh:mad::bassist:)

  8. I live in Northern Ohio and attend festivals all summer long. While I do agree the crowd is getting older I have found a lot of younger folks attending the festivals. One in particular is the Kendallville Indiana festival. Lots of young ones there and it is promoted by their association there with training in the schools. It is down from what it was in the 80's and 90's but I believe it is coming around.
  9. bluegrass seems to be alive and well in south georgia and north florida. the live oak festival in florida is slap full of young folks as well as the merlefest in north carolina. the younger folks seem to be people that missed out on the grateful dead tours and have gravitated towards festivals. as far as locally most of the gigs im doing are primarily 20 and 30 year olds in the audience. in fact im finding people are facinated with acoustic music and are over electric cover band jams. just my perspective on it, but it seems to be getting more popular where im living.
  10. MollyKay


    Sep 10, 2006
    Southern PA
    Bass Hobby'ist
    Bluegrass music is not fading but may be in a corrective down swing after the huge swell of interest with “O’ Brother”. Probably the same thing happen after the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” with Foggy Mountain Breakdown and then again with “Deliverance” and Feuding banjo’s (also know as Dueling banjos…Don Reno did the original version before it was re-named).

    In economic down times people make the best of a bad situation and bluegrass music’s soul is in the heart of poverty and hard times. Many of the best picker’s came out of hard times…which is why they write such great songs and have the drive to work their way into a better life by making music. I have listen to Doc Watson tell the story that he didn’t plan to make his living playing music. He would rather have been a carpenter, electrician or engineer…but god had a different plan for him…and thank goodness he did. What a national treasure Doc is…just as down to earth as you can get and still an excellent picker at 84 years young. Earl Scruggs in no different…playing a banjo was his way out of the cotton fields, same goes with Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, Chet Atkins…music was a passion and a way to make a better living.

    The best way to keep the music alive and strong is to inspire a youngster or share the music with your family or a friend. Bluegrass music came out of the mountains and the fields where family and community was a way of life. The music was passed along to the next generation by people who cared deeply about keeping it alive, the tradition of the music, the meaning behind it all. I don’t think you can judge the health of the music by looking at big or expensive venues. The music is alive and well in small venues like coffee shops, music stores, barber shops…in Bristol, TN you can pick at the Shell gas station at noon time on Tuesdays…and I see young people…not just older folks.

    Satellite radio and You Tube are a gold mine of traditional bluegrass music to inspire a younger generation in their own “high tech language”. When you go to a jam or festival encourage the young ones to join in…make them feel welcome…even if it is a small child who just wants to dance and jump to the beat of the music…it is all going into their brains. It is making a mental impression whether you can see it of not. Give the young ones guidance for being in tune, timing and etiquette of a jam…in other word show them the ropes. They are the future caretakers of the music.

    There is no greater reward then to inspire…a candle does not extinguish when it lights another candle…meaning you lose nothing by giving the gift of music to another…it is all part of the bluegrass tradition. It keeps the music strong…there in lies the whole meaning of the “circle of music”…invite someone into your jam circle, encourage a new player, take a friend to see a live bluegrass show, support your local venues. The music will stay healthy as it has for generations, however it may not always be commercial as it has been at it heights of popularity.

    When we went to the Carter Family Fold on a Saturday night in November ‘07 for $5.00 a person it was one of the most awesome night of music I have enjoyed for a long time. A thousand people from all over the valley (Japan and Australia too) clogging, talking and having a blast…all for $5.00 a person while watching Hunter Berry, Mickey Harris, Josh Williams, Daniel Grindstaff and others…what a night. This hoe down is only second to the best night of music which was “Live at the Ragged Edge” with Tom Adams and Mike Cleveland. If you have never heard this award winning CD check it out. This “live event” was at a small local coffee house with 20-25 people on a cold Tuesday, March evening in 2002; it was a FREE concert of fiddle and banjo music. I knew it was going to be an awesome night of music with Tommy and Mike but had no idea it would be a Grammy winning live concert…and I (we) were there…and you can hear me on the live recording laughing and hollering with joy…when we left that night I KNEW I had just been part of something very special…so my long winded point is…the best bluegrass music doesn’t always happen in big venues…if you look you will find bluegrass is alive and healthy in the smallest of venues. Check out the “Crooked Road” in Virginia if you need affirmation, all is well.


    Below is a picture that shows I do what I suggest. Here is a picture from last Friday nights jam. The little girl in the picture in a great niece who think the “big bass” is cool…so cool she took her guitar and turned it upright like a bass and wanted to play it that way. I satisfied her desire to play by, I would play one string and she would play the other. I am sure we were disruptive to the beat of the jam but I only get a few short moments to capture her interest…I hope the seed is now planted.

    Bluegrass is not fading…it is a tradition that will live on. :bassist:

    Attached Files:

  11. LilRay

    LilRay Commercial User

    Dec 27, 2007
    Between my Roscoe and Leather
    Owner: Cockeyed Cow Custom Leathercraft
    Bluegrass will never fade away, nor will blues and jazz. They are the roots to all music.
    Keep playing with all your soul and energy. Folks will come around.

    Later R.
  12. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    Good question.

    There was a good mixed crowd at Sooke, which doesn't draw the hardcore US pickers because its at the same time as Weiser.

    At Darrington, the biggie in the PNW, there were definitely less people in attendance.
    I really missed a bunch of great players that usually come up from the Portland area and attributed that to the cost of fuel.

    There were a lot of younger players, especially young women, who I'd never seen before, so I'd say that on balance, we're doing alright. We'll see how things look at Mt St Helen's in a couple of weeks.
  13. M Ramsey

    M Ramsey

    Mar 12, 2005
    North Carolina
    Some of the contestants in the instrument competitions at MerleFest keep getting younger and younger. Aaron Williams won it at 14 (I think) on Mandolin a couple years back. He's now playing for The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band. He's from Blacksburg, VA.

    My son, Aaron Ramsey, won the mandolin competiton there in 2002 at the ripe old age of 17. It was the first contest he ever entered. Aaron now plays for Mountain Heart after a 1.5 year stint with Randy Kohrs. He'll be playing the Opry tonight during the 9:30-10PM slot (EDST). Chris Harris won it in 2003 at about the same age.

    Young Ken Whitesides won the banjo contest there this year at the age of 14. He'd already won 2 other contests at that point.

    There's no shortage of young people learning to play the music. In an age where gas prices can affect how much traveling an underage (for driving) kid can travel, to play with other good players, may become part of the equation.

    I like to see kids become interested and I love to spur them on. I know another 14-15 year old guy, Seth Taylor, who can hold his own on 6 instruments, in the bluegrass field. Banjo, bass, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and dobro. He won RenoFest 1.5 years ago on both guitar and banjo.

    The banjo prize was a Robin Smith banjo and the guitar was a Henderson, patterned after Don Reno's old prewar Martin.

    I've been encouraging him to sing.

    There's tons of young'uns playing the bluegrass music in the southeastern states.
  14. Oric


    Feb 19, 2008
    Georgetown, Kentucky
    All I can say is I'm nineteen and I'm a huge fan of bluegrass. I'd love to be able to join or start a bluegrass band, but I think I'd get some strange looks if I showed up with my fretless Jazz... and my mandolin skills aren't quite up to par yet.
  15. Jason Sypher

    Jason Sypher Supporting Member

    Jan 3, 2001
    Brooklyn, NY
    The music is not fading away, quite the opposite. I see so many young folks at the festivals these days, some playing trad and some just messing around with it. Music fads come and go but traditional music always survives. I think the scale of the music business around us is so enormous that it's easy to think trad music is small in comparison.
  16. +1000000000.

    I play blues, and I find the same peaks and valleys. My feeling is that when the 'pop' music gets to a certain point, then the roots music makes a resurgence, if to do no more than to remind people where it all starts.
  17. I agree that there are some hot young pickers out there. Just about every contest I have been to features some unbelievably good kids who are younger than a broken-in set of spirocores. I sometimes play with group who features a 13-year-old fiddler who is really good now and will be an absolute monster in a few years.

    But are young folks like that the exception? I think about when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies. There were scores of musicians of all ability and age levels in this area. Now there is just so much competition (Internet, video games, organized sports, MTV, CMT, ETC) spending hours and years learning to play music is just not compatible with microwave attention spans.

    I think several of you are right in that there will always be a small but hardcore audience but I fear much of the tradition could be lost if the number of pickers continues to decline.

    But again, maybe this is just a localized situation, or I have been listening to too many Stanley Brothers tunes and am depressed. :D
  18. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    Definitely lay off the Stanley Brothers for a while!

    Try Aubrey Haynie's 'Bluegrass Fiddle' and call us in the morning. :)
  19. Traditional music is not disappearing and I would agree with Jason and several other posters that it is very alive. Everyone only sees a small piece of the big universe, but from my little niche it looks like there are lots of younger players and bands, certainly in related styles, if not pure bluegrass.

    There are of course always up and downswings and even more so in particular subgenres (like this newfangled style of commercial country music that Bill Monroe invented after world war 2). Old-time styles seem to be more popular than they were 20 years ago, lots of young bands. This young Round Peak band is playing to 2000/3000 people, young except for the guitarist (who has the "legend" credentials of being on Tommy Jarrell's recordings). But in his previous 50 years, he never played shows of that size.

    So traditional music is doing great.
  20. I'm playing in an Old-Time band right now, and it's by far the most successful group I've played with to date. Being in western NY state, alot of folks don't know the distinction between Old-Time & Bluegrass (and we're actually kind of a hybrid of those styles anyway), but we almost always get a big & attentive audience at our shows, and we've quickly developed a fanbase around here. As soon as the line up was completed when I joined about a year ago, this band just took off (on a local level, at least). We've always got offers for gigs & weddings, and we've gone down to play gigs in NYC twice - good gigs too, not chopshops. I'm not saying we're the most popular group around here, but there's a real interest in roots music, and people really dig it. So maybe the popularity of it is a regional thing, in part?