As we demonstrated in an earlier post, The Lonely Heartstring Band really lit up the hallways and stages of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival last winter with their deft interpretations of the Beatles catalogue (intermingled with the occasional classic bluegrass number). Here’s another song from the Fab Five:
The music of the Beatles, whatever the genre, has a special and irresistible pull. You’ll notice folks poking around in the background of the videos we shot with The Lonely Heartstring dudes, and there’s a reason for that: people are drawn to these familiar songs and the band’s elegant musicianship like iron filings to a magnet.
Such good vibrations notwithstanding, there have always been and continue to be plenty of skeptics out there when it comes to mixing bluegrass and pop. My friend Emily Marcus recently posted some observations on the Facebook about the bluegrass the music service Spotify was offering up. She got a lot of props when she ventured that “most songs are NOT better done ‘bluegrass style’ (i.e.: Metallica & Green Day are plenty awful all by themselves…).”
We all know where Emily is coming from. As a rule, a bad song is a bad song is a bad song. Yet sometimes the very act of translating a song from one genre to another can reveal qualities that were hidden in the original form (see Richard Thompson’s acoustic rendition of Britney Spear’s “Oops, I Did It Again”). Moreover, it’s also true that a good song is a good song is a good song. It’s hardly worth pointing out that many a bluegrass classic started out life in a different musical style (see Del McCoury and the boys’ take on Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”).
I suspect that what turns Emily & Company off about Metallica and Green Day isn’t just the quality of their songwriting but the sheer pervasiveness of their music. What makes Metallica, Green Day and any other commercial act you care to list “plenty awful” is partly that you can’t get away from them. If you listen to bluegrass and acoustic music as an antidote to the soundscape defined by The Music Industry, then naturally you aren’t going to be very happy when that mainstream, hegemonic musical industrial complex starts to infiltrate your place of refuge.
In the olden days, if you liked a song and wanted to replicate it, you had play it or sing it, and in doing so, you gave the tune your own particular spin. The music that arose from this chain of dissemination was a group effort, quite literally a “folk” product. Since the advent of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution, however, mere popularity is no longer measure of a song’s long-term cultural resonance. After all, by that yardstick, “Gangnam Style” is today’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Jeff Boudreau, the Boston-based music impresario and director of the notloB Parlour Concerts and Lord Geoffrey Presents Series laments how many bluegrass acts incorporate pop tunes into their set lists. “OK, they were influenced by pop growing up,” writes Boudreau. “Does that mean in a couple years we will be hearing bluegrass covers of Lada Gaga?”
The degree to which you chafe at the notion of bluegrass covers of “Born This Way” is probably a good indicator of the degree to which you see bluegrass as part of— or apart from— the contemporary music market. If you consider bluegrass to be a vestige of what Greil Marcus famously described as the “Old, Weird America,” then you’ll resist anything that smacks of homogenization.
I’m not hostile to the notion of bluegrass and old time music as a preserve for all things weird, organic and bent, but I also think that the Beatles in particular pose an interesting challenge to any attempt to draw a bright line between the mainstream and its alternatives. On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a musical act that’s more ingrained into the fabric of the “dominant culture” than the Beatles. To coin a phrase, their work is truly “here, there and everywhere.” Even so, the band and their music haven’t become completely commodified.
This is due in part to the care the musicians and their heirs have taken in protecting their legacy, but it also has something to do with the music itself. As anyone who has played through transcriptions of Beatles’ tunes will know, many are quite difficult and unpredictable. The song featured in the clip above, George Harrison’s composition “Something,” is as good an illustration of this as any. For every straight-ahead rock n’ roll composition they wrote, they penned another three that were rooted in other musical traditions. The group gathered the sounds from the Edwardian music hall, Indian ragas, country music and elsewhere, then combined them with their own patented, idiosyncratic chord progressions to create a body of work that was and is astoundingly varied and complex.
All that might sound like a good argument against using the Beatles as the basis for bluegrass, or vice versa— ye olde “too many chords for bluegrass” complaint. However, couldn’t the case also be made that it’s the very complexity and strangeness of their music that makes it an easy fit with the traditional string band? This might not be “Old, Weird America,” but it’s “Old, Weird Something-or-Other.”
Yer Pal— Curly