Saturday, October 3, 2015

All over the map

My favorite story from the "Wide Open Bluegrass" festival profiled Japanese bluegrass fan and guitar player Hiroshi Arakawa. David Menconi of the News & Observer did his homework for the profile:

Arakawa’s love for bluegrass goes back to his early teenage years in Japan. His grandmother was a Christian, and after she died, her funeral featured Japanese bluegrass singer Masuo Sasabe performing the old bluegrass standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“I was 13 and had never heard bluegrass before,” Arakawa said. “I was so impressed when I heard it. I didn’t know the music at all, but bluegrass was very beautiful.”

Before bluegrass, Arakawa had listened to contemporary pop as well as the Beatles records his father played (he still picks a mean “Blackbird”). He’d also been playing baseball, but that fell by the wayside once he got his first guitar.

Arakawa would spend six or seven hours a day practicing, learning songs such as the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and Bill Monroe’s “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight.”
In marked contrast to that optimism, hipsters at the local free weekly wrote two different stories asking whether bluegrass can survive if "acts still popular in the genre don't sound so different from their decades-old predecessors." The problem, they think, is that the World of Bluegrass festival that wrapped up today "appears very much about boundary making, not boundary breaking."
I beg to differ. Mr. Arakawa could make my point, but if he's busy pickin' and grinnin', he should not be interrupted.
The thing is, they're leftists at that free paper (Indy Week) -- boundary breaking is what they like to think they do. They're not quite honest enough to say so, but they're so busy looking for a breakout performance from a gay black quintet that they don't even notice people like Hiroshi Arakawa. They might not even notice Melissa Triplett, who's the bass-playing half of the husband and wife duo that anchors The Bankesters with virtuoso aplomb.

I wonder whether Indy Week critics realize how fluid the festival boundaries already are. Three of the four bands I heard in a church concert Thursday night under the aegis of IBMA's annual shindig do not identify themselves as bluegrass acts. They've won fans recording "roots music," Americana, and country covers, yet they're welcome in bluegrass circles.

It's also worth remembering that Alison Krauss (she of the 27 Grammy awards and counting) played in this year's festival. Her early years as a fiddle champion and bluegrass angel haven't hurt her career, or kept her from later collaborations with the likes of Robert Plant. 
Personally, I do not fear for the future of any musical genre whose signature style attracts the attention of even liturgical composers.

Bluegrass Mass? Yes, there is such a thing. Who knew?

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