On the Subject of "Bluegrass"

From the Austin Chronicle, 1999

Mark Rubin, bass and tuba player for Bad Livers, has this advice:

"Anyone who sets off on that path has to be aware of the fact that there is only a certain amount of economic recompense. The people I know who are the happiest at this stuff do it as part of a familial tradition, or a cultural tradition. That's where it's rewarding."

According to Rubin, unreasonable expectations are what lead many practitioners to fret at the state of bluegrass in today's popular music market.

"The bluegrass music industry is in a state of operative denial," states Rubin. "The operative denial that's in place is that bluegrass is a commercial music. The fact of the matter is it's not. It hasn't been since the mid-Sixties when Flatt & Scruggs stopped having hits with Bob Dylan covers. Like many musics that are based in traditional forms, at one time it was a commercial entity."

When contemporary artists discover these old forms of music and are so inspired by them that they attempt to copy or revive them, the resurgence of artistic interest, combined with the lack of a commercial interest, brings the music into the realm of the folkloric. For example, bluegrass is a folkloric art, while swing jazz is not. With respect to bluegrass, many of the form's originators and first wave of practitioners are still around, offering tips and wisdom to those looking to keep the music alive. But, with bluegrass, it doesn't come easy.

"Bluegrass music requires the study of a lifetime," says Rubin. "That's the problem. You end up trying to commercialize all this effort and you run into a brick wall. So, within the bluegrass music scene is the attempt to somehow improve bluegrass -- the catch phrases are 'Expand its horizons' or 'Push the tradition.' A friend of mine calls that rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"I think that's exceptionally misguided, because you have to be awake with the modern age and understand that once you're in the study of bluegrass music it's akin to the Civil War recreation or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's only going to be a hobby. Tom Ludwick and [Leon Valley Bluegrass] epitomize what bluegrass music is today. They are people who are music fans who got turned on to this particular art form and then devoted themselves to it as an all-consuming hobby, which then becomes a lifestyle."

Leon Valley Bluegrass
Rubin's own band, Bad Livers, is often referred to as a bluegrass band, a title Rubin and bandmate Danny Barnes -- a banjo player and guitarist of extraordinary skill -- flat-out deny. "I have far too much love and respect and admiration for bluegrass to have ever chipped away at its reputation by assigning our dumb asses to it," says Rubin.

Rather, both Rubin and Barnes were well-versed in bluegrass and went on to develop their own style of music, which was based as much in the ethos of punk rock as it was in the style or instrumentation of bluegrass. While it's tempting to relate banjo music to bluegrass as a means of discussing the music of Bad Livers, the weight and focus carried by the bluegrass tradition makes its title something to be taken more seriously than a word like, say, "rock."

"It's like the word 'folk,'" continues Rubin. "Folk now includes these pathetic singer-songwriters telling you all about their girlfriend. The whole detestable singer-songwriter phenomenon now goes under the moniker 'folk.' I think Big Bill Broonzy is a folk artist, not this stuff. Just because the whole situation today is jive doesn't mean the terminology has to follow it too."