"Honor Thy Roots" - Prescription Bluegrass Guest Editorial

Occasionally, Prescription Bluegrass invites guests to speak their mind on subjects of interest to the bluegrass community. Today's editorial comments are from Shelly Mullins.

PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE  - SHELLY MULLINSThe True Bluegrasser KNOWS AND EMBRACES Their History, Their Legends and Their Stories!

Guest Comments by: Shelly Mullins,  PR Specialist

I was in a club in Nashville not long ago and saw a new-to-town female fiddle player--adorable, young, talented, pretty.  She got up and played “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” My husband and I were really impressed and felt she had a ton of potential.

Being big lovers of traditional country music, we requested that she play a Bob Wills tune or two.  Our jaws literally hit the floor when she told us she didn’t know who he was.  I was like, “Wow! Shame on you.”  That would be like a piano player not knowing Floyd Kramer or Pig Robbins, or a guitar player not knowing Albert Lee or Chet Atkins.

How does a musician hone their own chops and develop their own style if they don’t know what has already come before them?  Can you really call yourself a piano player if you have never played in Fats Waller’s stride style or Scott Joplin’s ragtime style?  Or a banjo player without studying the rolls of Earl Scruggs or the claw of Jerry Reed?  That’s crazy!!!  

So then, over the holidays, I was down at a club during New Year’s Eve.  As you may be aware, Hank Williams passed away 60 years ago this past New Year’s and we had some older country acts there to pay tribute.  Granted, these weren’t  big A-listers, but they were solid acts that should be on any country lover’s radar--HIT MAKERS from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  Yet, I couldn’t believe how many 20-somethings didn’t have a clue who they were (even as they played their hits).  Not to mention that some of these 20-something country fans were just plain disrespectful during their time on stage. 

To me, that’s just plain UNFORGIVABLE. And it’s not like they had lost their voices or their talent and were wash-ups.  These folks helped shape the sounds of the genre and have legions of fans throughout the world.  Needless to say, I was SEETHING and embarrassed by the youth of today!  What happened to “Honor Thy Roots,” “Never get higher than your raisin’s” and all that?   Is that just my small-town upbringing talking or has something gone awry?

Before I even came to Nashville in the mid-90’s, I studied the greats. I could tell you a history of Country Music that started with the Irish/Scottish Immigrants of Appalachia and progressed to the Carter Family. I could tell you about the L & C elevator operator, DeFord Bailey, who became the first big star of the Grand Ole Opry. I could talk about the original Brunswick Recordings, the first bunch of records to ever come from Nashville. I knew about the popularity of the Chicago Barn Dance and explain to you why 650-AM WSM only has 3 call letters. I could tell you about Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the Cowboy movement; talk about the rebel sons of the Outlaw Movement or the polished suit-wearing boys of the Countrypolitan Movement; relay the stories of the Bakersfield boys, the Muscle Shoals folks, the Memphis and Sun Records crowd, etc. 

I would NEVER, NEVER presume to want a job in this industry or even claim true fan-dom without knowing the basic “founding fathers/mothers” of the genre.  And while I may not care personally for their style and want to race down to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and snap up all their albums, I would still have a deep-found respect for their body of work and understand it’s importance in this ever-changing embodiment of what we call “the genre.”

I heard a story years ago (I don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard it from several people about the same former label president)…Supposedly, there was a new female singer who was considering a remake of a signature Patsy Cline song. Rumor had it that when this label president heard the idea, he said to one of his assistants, “heck, let’s just get her in here and we can have them do it duet-style.”  Really???  If this was true, how was this even possible that this guy could rise to the top of a large music label?

On behalf of “old farts and a**holes,” as our legends were inappropriately called, I share the same poignant question that the late Ray Price asked.  “How can anyone possibly move a genre forward without knowing where it has been?” It isn’t just “Granddad’s music” as a recent A-Level act recently dissed…it’s the FOUNDATION of our music!

Discouraged and disgusted, I trudged to my car and began to drive home. Begrudgingly, I scanned into a special on Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Junction with the Steeldrivers.  There they were on the airwaves with Kyle Cantrell, intelligently discussing their influences.  You could tell they were educated and had studied the voicings of those who paved their way—names like Rice, Stanley, Flatt, Douglas, Bush, Skaggs, LRB, Emmylou were talked about…styles were discussed too: finger rolls, bar chords, open tunings, etc.….it was SO DELIGHTFUL AND REFRESHING! Given the anger I had felt earlier, I was nearly overcome with joy.   

It dawned on me at that moment….of all the genres, from the biggest artist to all the millions of fans from all over the world, the true bluegrasser KNOWS AND EMBRACES their history, their legends and their stories.  They study the masters and understand the various stylings.  But mostly, and above all else, they honor their roots.  Admittedly, there are staunch traditionalists in our genre who want all acts to sound like the early records of Monroe, and then, there are those (like me) who want to hear the music that lies just outside the limits of that box (no, I’m not one of those that wants to hear a marimba in Bluegrass EVER… I still believe in keeping it real). 

But the tradition of bluegrass goes much further than staying true to instrumentation….it’s REALLY about the admiration and love for those that laid the groundwork and the respect for the heritage, the artists and the history that built the body of work we call the Bluegrass genre.  AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!  These days…Bluegrass is really the stand out for doing this better than anyone else and I’m just beyond blessed to be a part of it.

I look forward to many more years together with my friends of Bluegrass, whether it is on my turntable, radio or in this business.  A toast to you, Bluegrass Music, for renewing my faith in music (and its fans), once again.  Here’s to everything you’ve given to me throughout the years (from my earliest musical memories) and to everything that lies ahead and remembering those who paved the way on this magical musical journey!  God Bless!   

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