Dear Mr. Parks,

Hats? Bluegrass?!?!?!

Jane Bruce

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Dear Ms. Bruce,

Bluegrass. Hats. How these things begin. There is first this problem of organization. It ain’t Elvis Presley dancing around in his skivvies and singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” And it never is. Bluegrass is just not that simple. The most obvious route and that which yields the good fruit most often is the Monrovian route, which takes us by way of Rosine and the Kentucky hill country where, we must remember, people go fox hunting.

If you go back to the early Monroe stuff, to the early Grand Ole Opry years, or if you go back to the Monroe Brothers, you’ll notice there are five basic elements to the bluegrass costume:

  • Black, shiny, riding-boots of half- to whole-calf length.
  • Khaki jodhpur riding breeches.
  • Nicely pressed, long-sleeved, button-down shirt, usually white.
  • Tie, usually diagonally striped, hung no lower than the belly button.
  • Stetson hats.

Now we’re talking 1939 here, the year of the original Blue Grass Boys. Let me say that I don’t want to be the one to speculate on Bill Monroe’s intentions—actually, I tend to think that some of the decisions vis-à-vis Blue Grass Boy dress code and stage presentation were probably heavily influenced at this time by the outside pressure of Opry impresario George D. Hay. Hay wanted everyone to look real “country” for the stage show—the more country, the more marketable. He invented countrified stage personae for his musicians and flamboyant monikers to match—e.g. Uncle Dave Macon became the Dixie Dewdrop. It is plausible that Monroe’s somewhat subversive idea was to set himself apart from the rest of the Opry bunch by going the other direction, away from the more degrading, exploitive, and self-deprecating rural caricatures Hay favored, toward an image we might call Kentucky aristocracy—in this case, wearing your jodhpurs and your riding-boots lets people know you have wherewithal enough for such leisure activities as fox hunting. However, taken a smidge further, this theory yields the dubious equation “The Cadillac is to the suburban American family of the fifties as khaki jodhpurs and high riding-boots are to the Depression-era rural Kentuckian family”—such logic assumes that Monroe bought into this nouveau-riche malarkey—that he believed his various pieces of clothing and accessories were culturally encoded, readable symbols for the Opry audience. Suffice it to say that the Cadillac theory is improbable and the assumptions it involves are borderline absurd, and inasmuch as they are recklessly anti-Monroe, something we must reject categorically.

At any rate I think it’s relatively safe to say that the point was to look nice in an effort to show respect for the music and for the audience (see below, Lesson Six and One Half). The curious part, and the part that takes us back to your colorfully punctuated inquiry, Ms. Bruce, is that the first four of the five elements listed above went in and out of the Blue Grass Boy dress code throughout the course of Monroe’s career, seemingly at random, with most of them disappearing within ten years. The Stetsons were the one constant. Straight up to the end, until Monroe’s death in 1996.

It’s generally accepted that Monroe wore an Open Road model Stetson hat for the majority of his career—I think this is more the type you’ll see in photos from about 1950 on—usually white, with a wider brim, worn turned up. (N.B.: In most photos that predate 1950, Monroe and his group are wearing shorter-brimmed Stetsons of darker colors—beige or brown. In early photos and sporadically throughout his career, Monroe’s hat is of one color, the Blue Grass Boys another.) The question has been asked: why would Monroe choose a big cowboy hat, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the West, as the one constant element of his bluegrass costume (bluegrass being a southeastern/Appalachian style)? And once you open up that can of worms there’s a whole slew of new questions, in the form of small, pinkish earthworms, covered in bits of dark, smelly earth, writhing at the bottom of the tin. Questions such as: Do hats have intrinsic meaning? Is this an essentialist reading? Also, the Open Road model is now advertised as “the famous LBJ hat”—does anybody else find that a little eerie? And while we’re at it, what the deuce happened to the jodhpurs?

Since there isn’t any literature on the subject, I brought in a couple of experts to help me out with this query. The way I figure it, who better to seek out and analyze the sartorial particulars of a musical genre than the practitioners of that musical genre? Perennial bluegrassers Matt Cartsonis, Richard Greene, and Caleb Roberts were nice enough to lend their expertise and shed some light on this issue of hats and of bluegrass. They are all brilliant bluegrass minds and their records are lovely, and I much appreciate their assistance in this investigation. I’ve divided their responses to questions on this subject into eight Lessons about bluegrass headwear.

Lesson One: Monroe’s hat may not have been an Open Road model Stetson.

GREENE (Blue Grass Boy fiddler in the late sixties, fiddler of many styles): The only rules were that the Blue Grass Boy hat had to be in the Stetson “Western” style and that it had to be white. The hat was required to be worn during ALL performances by ALL Blue Grass Boys. I have no idea if LBJ figures into this at all.

ROBERTS (Mandolinist for the contemporary Colorado-based bluegrass group Open Road): I don’t know if this is true but I’ve been told that many of Monroe’s hats were custom-made at a shop in Nashville. They look Western to me but maybe not exactly like a Stetson model.

(N.B.: The Father of Wisconsin Bluegrass, Bill Jorgenson, has one of Bill Monroe’s old hats, although I’m not sure whether he performed in it or not. Inside it reads, “Custom made for Bill Monroe by the Blue Grass Boys.” You can see pictures of it at www.bjorgensonbluegrass.com.)

Lesson Two: The West was perhaps something well-regarded in early bluegrass circles.

CARTSONIS (Mandolinist, guitarist, banjoist of various musical loyalties): Hats are worn by cowboys. The westward expansion is inextricably linked to bluegrass culture. As the covered wagons rolled West, their drivers not only uncovered new territories and species and cultures to extinguish, but as well created a romantic world of “sleeping out every night” and “drinking coffee from a can.” Cowboy hats were an essential part of this fantasy. Not only could the wearer drink coffee from his hat should a can be unavailable, but wide-brimmed headwear could be used to swat away an offending scorpion or to fan the hot Western air from a sweaty mug.

ROBERTS: My dad has often told me about how popular Western films were when he was young, during the Depression and the war. Maybe a Western look was, in part, a way to capitalize on the popularity of those films.

Lesson Three: On the flip side, maybe the Stetsons could be seen as emblematic of Kentucky.

GREENE: I think this whole “riding” equestrian thing had to do with Kentucky, the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky the horse state, the bluegrass state, etc.

ROBERTS: I believe read somewhere that Monroe said that he dressed the way the gentlemen farmers and ranchers did in a particular period. I’ve been told that the smaller-brimmed hats such as the Open Road and other models were worn by ranchers and such folks when they went to town—distinct from the styles of hats that they wore to work.

Lesson Four: Hats have aerodynamic properties.

CARTSONIS: Hats have aerodynamic properties.

Lesson Five: Hats sell bluegrass.

CARTSONIS: Bluegrass is show bidness. Hats can be expensive, and look good from a distance. The typical bluegrass fan of the Bill Monroe-era would have had to sell several goats and possibly a pig or cow to pay for a good, well-blocked Stetson. Few would be willing or economically able to make such a costly fashion commitment. Many more would be content to let their mythological icon live out their fashion fantasy for them. This phenomenon continues through the present day, pan-culturally (ref: Michael Jackson, Dr. John, Elton John, David Bowie, David Lee Roth).

ROBERTS: I believe it’s true that our home region is part of why we wear Western hats, boots, etc. Only two in the band are from the West but I don’t think they wore the hats before playing in the band. I’m from South Carolina—and the only time I remember seeing Western hats they were on “professional wrestlers” or on the head of the University of South Carolina’s poet laureate James Dickey. Wherever we are, they are an excellent promotional tool. There’s never a mistake about who’s in the band.

Lesson Six: Hats make you look good.

CARTSONIS: The same hat that allows a Kentuckian’s head to breathe will as well cover and disguise (often for the life of the performer) any real or imagined lack of hair. There is a long tradition of hat-wearing by hair-impaired men in rural musics (ref: Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Dwight Yoakam, Shotgun Red). It should be noted that in some cases, garish hairpieces may be used in place of the cowboy hat with some success (ref: Hank Snow).

ROBERTS: They help us look good, as do the suits.

Lesson Six and One Half: Looking good is a kind of respect for others.

ROBERTS: Along with a suit, the hat serves well to demonstrate a respect for the audience. I believe that many audiences desire to see performers who are dressed a little better than they are and recognize this as one component in demonstrating the appropriate respect for the audience. I also see this as a sign of our respect for the music we play and those who have gone before us to establish this valuable music tradition.

Lesson Seven: Hats are often made of felt.

CARTSONIS: Hats are often made of felt.

Lesson Eight: They’re just hats.

CARTSONIS: Hats cover heads—probably the most practical truth about headwear of any kind. The cowboy hat tends to have more space between the crown of the head and the inner top boundary of the garment, offering ample air exchange to the scalp. This is particularly important in bluegrass and other southern musics where performers tend to use amounts of hair oil and styling product far in excess of other proximate cultures.

ROBERTS: Open Road was chosen as our name in part because of the name of the hat. It’s also just a good bluegrass band name if you didn’t know about the hat. We don’t actually wear Open Road model hats although we’ve had a couple of guys in the past who wore them. Mine is a similar-shaped old Stetson in dress-weight felt that barely holds its shape and I really think I ought to get another hat that’s in better shape.

GREENE: I chose to wear a fiberglass fake-weave white hat, less sweat.

Postscript: An elegy for the bluegrass hat as we (perhaps) have discussed it here.

There is a handful of groups that go in for the whole classic bluegrass look these days who dress the part: Open Road of course, and Matt Large reminded me that David Peterson and 1946 is also one, and Karl Shifflit and Big Country Show is another. However, in the main I think the trend tends toward what the Del McCoury Band does—nice suits of any inoffensive color, no hats, looking good, but nothing too far outside of what you’d wear to the office—no cowboy hats very much any more (I don’t know a single group who has brought the jodhpurs back and that’s one thing I’d like to see). Otherwise, there’s the casual approach—bands like the Newgrass Revival and Old and in the Way ushered in the whole long-hair/goatee/close-fitting jeans/ironically-irrelevant-thrift-store-T-shirt thing back in the seventies, and lots of groups perform in their civvies these days, sometimes with hats, sometimes without. I once played with a group called the Bluegrass Bastards for a period of three hours in 100-degree heat at a biker bar in Ojai and I assure you that for that entire length of time the dobro man whose name I think was Cisco did not remove—nor have I ever seen or heard of him without it—his short-brimmed fedora hat that’s covered entirely in gold sequins, and I think was adorned with some type of bird feather.

It’s possible that the whole Nashville “country music” industry and the people at MTV have claimed the cowboy hat for the bad guys once and for all, and that’s the reason most bluegrassers stay away from the headwear of their predecessors. That is to say that there is perhaps something of the corporate in all of this—I’m reminded of those lines from the late John Hartford’s 1999 Rounder release Good Old Boys, “Now I’m layin’ in this tanning booth, a-dreaming of my youth / The gangster rap and the cowboy hat just make me feel uncouth.” John Hartford—now there was a man who could color you, me, and your mother bluegrass five ways from Sunday—a man with a profound and revelatory sense of irony, a man who always looked dashing in a bowler hat of the type we see in Magritte, and I believe we should take his words to heart—gangster rap and the cowboy hat are now equal parts in the apparatus of show business, and the real people are scared to death of it all.

So what’s my point? I guess it’s that there are no hard-and-fast rules (any more). It’s anyone’s game, and no one’s got it right. And for some reason I find this a little bothersome—I’m nostalgic for a time when things were more black and white. It’s statements like that that get me in trouble with my university friends—Matt Frassica told me the other night that I speak of bluegrass as if it were a fascist mechanism, with statues of Monroe and the whole bit. I see his point, but even so, time and time again I find that as soon as you stray too far away from the source, the center no longer holds. I think we’re lucky to have the authority figure we have in Monroe. It comes back to the old maxim: If it isn’t straight from Monroe, it " ain’t no part of nothin’," as the man Himself put it. I think Matt Cartsonis nails this idea in something he wrote to me, which might help put things perspective and is a nice place to end:

In a band of any kind, and especially in the rural, traditional forms, pan-culturally we observe that if hats are worn by only one member of the group, that member will invariably be the leader. This phenomenon can be seen in the Norteño conjuntos of Mexico, the choirs of the Vatican, and the Gamelans of Indonesia. It is no great leap to associate hats with tallness with leadership with power. And in bluegrass, the power of Bill Monroe could never be disputed. He wore a hat. And he wrote tunes with power names, including “Big Mon.” The casual student may not understand the literal meaning of “Mon,” nor is there time or space to discuss it here, but it is indisputably big.

Cheers,
Richard Parks