Dear Mr. Parks,

I believe that bluegrass music is the most authentic folk tradition we have these days. I don’t think there’s anything else—family holidays or whatever—that nails that sense of true American tradition so well as good old bluegrass. I’m a singer in the traditional bluegrass style. I see you’re a player yourself. Impossible as it may be, I believe we should all aspire to match the sound of our bluegrass forefathers. What’s your opinion of those pandering progressive acts (you know who I’m talking about) who claim bluegrass roots yet defile our bluegrass ancestors by adding rock’n’roll influences to their aesthetic?

Tim Andrews

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Dear Mr. Andrews,

In bluegrass, as in everything else, we love our buzzwords. I’ve been hearing a lot about “tradition” and “authenticity” lately. And I think this kind of talk gets straight to the heart of the matter for those of us who play bluegrass—our fear of inadequacy, of a life squandered and unrecognizable in the shadow of our bluegrass predecessors. You know this feeling all too well.

But I say to you, Mr. Andrews, that the buzzwords we favor are necessarily slippery, and they often buckle under the pressure of our discourse. As we tend to envision it, our current task is, as you say, “impossible.” We need a fresh perspective on our tired debate. Time for some visions and revisions. And so I give you—

(An Open Memorandum Seeking Critical Response)

You fiddlers, you banjo players, you dog-house bassists—beware the indifferent, destructive, and eternal Fire of Bluegrass Irrelevance! From the moment you first heard the music, you have felt Prometheus tracking you at every turn. Has it been any other way? You have tried to evade Him and He has rendered your bluegrass clumsy and vacuous. You have heard Him speak your name in the darkness and you have wept shamelessly like a small child. You have felt His hot breath sting your neck, and, trembling, you have marched on toward the same terrible and unknowable reckoning, life hilarious in that unending chase.

How now, people of bluegrass? Why so feeble? Why so meek?

Our conception of a bluegrass “tradition” has led us to this current stage. Criticism and theory of the last several decades dictate this: you are either “traditional” or you are “progressive.” Bluegrass acts are always supposed to fall into one of these two camps. Following the critical paradigm, a band’s adherence to “tradition” or, conversely, “progressiveness” may be judged on the basis of how similar or different they sound in comparison to first-generation bluegrass acts (particularly Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys). Consequently, bluegrass gains a certain marketable cachet if it is way new or way old. The cost of this critical shorthand is obvious to a fool: we’ve so totally swallowed this fallacious critical rhetoric that today our best musicians feel the need to always conform to the dogma of one or the other (critic-mandated) schools.

And I’m the last guy who’d want to take credit away from Bill Monroe. He belongs in every household, every heart, every museum. But for serious bluegrassers like you and me, Mr. Andrews, Bill Monroe already has his place: he’s the chalice from which we all have already supped. Besides, I’d argue that he was always too dogmatic about his individual vision to even consider the trivialities that now imprison us.

So what has happened to you, Tim Andrews, in all of this? What has happened to “I”? We’ve come to a cultural impasse. Don’t you see we need new heroes? New forefathers? New traditions?

To wit: “tradition” as we know it is nothing more than a wizened hussy. And also: “progressiveness” is a lewd sauce-box. Let us lock them both out of doors. Let them wander in the night and seek out some other’s will to prey upon! If we are to forestall being cast into the fire, if we are to forget about the fire altogether, we must reject the current critical paradigm and stop wielding our bluegrass in such a self-conscious way.

So join me when I say, “Goodbye Tradition!” (That wizened hussy!), and
Join me when I say, “Goodbye Progressiveness!” (Ha! Yes!), and finally
Join me when I say, “Goodbye indifferent, destructive, and eternal Fire of Bluegrass Irrelevance!!!” (I’m telling you, Tim, it was a false fire anyway).

With faith,
Richard Parks