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If Nobody's Listening, Is the Grass Still Blue?

James ReamsBy Special Guest Contributor, Bluegrass recording artist James Reams
There's a raging debate going on in the world of bluegrass between traditionalists and futurists. But bluegrass isn’t going to make a sound if nobody’s listening a generation from now.

In 2009, a study by Simmons Research for IBMA revealed that 79% of the bluegrass audience was 34 years of age or older, and a quick examination of that report shows that the median age of today’s audience is 48-50 years of age. But where are their kids? Next time you go to a bluegrass festival or concert, look out over the crowd and see if you can find a teenager or family with little kids. Most times it’s like playing “Where’s Waldo?” in a blizzard.

Almost every festival touts itself as “family-friendly” and the tickets are usually budget friendly too. Bluegrass festivals should be as crowded as a Chucky Cheese on a Saturday. So why aren’t they? Why aren’t young families flocking to our festivals by the SUV-full?

In these days of video games, smartphones (a matter of opinion), leaping learning games, etc…it seems like kids are being further isolated and insulated from social gatherings. They “live” within the shell of the electronic device du jour and rarely venture out even for family meals. Their eyes glued to tiny screens, they shuffle through the day like video zombies.

And music has joined the video game feeding frenzy. Luckily e-games featuring fake instruments have been replaced in recent years with real instruments, but it’s still no match for the hands on experience of playing an instrument with a group of friends or family. Yet the popularity of these games proves that kids and young adults are still drawn to music like wi-flies to the Internet. Now, I’m not saying that technology is bad, I’m just saying that things seem to be a bit out of balance between isolation and socialization for our young people.

What can we do to break these kids out of their selfmade shackles and into the wide blue yonder of bluegrass? How can we make the bluegrass experience more friendly and inviting than the latest electronic gizmo?

People are still social beings and bluegrass music is a social thing — it’s meant to be played by a group. We can used this instinctive longing to belong to get people out of their plastic-plated world and disembodied peer groups and into the flesh and blood world of music. Grandpa plays the harmonica? How cool is that! Aunt Betty can whistle like songbird? Who knew? Next thing you know dusty fiddles, like skeletons, come out of the closet and the family is actually laughing and having a good time — together. This music of ours is a unifying force to be reckoned with. So how do we get our foot in the door?

I think we start by recognizing that sound isn’t the future of bluegrass…kids are. We can holler about music styles ‘til we’re blue in the face, but if the next generation doesn’t embrace bluegrass then we’re just blowing smoke. And where’s the best place to find kids? The schools. There are lots of great articles out there on the Internet (https://ibma.org/node/67) about how to get bluegrass into schools. For teachers, one of the most successful tactics involves simply bringing your musical instrument to school. That’s how Anni Beach got JamPak (http://www.jampak.com/) started in Arizona.

Bluegrass associations can be a great resource for drained teachers and bled-dry school districts. Almost every association has some kind of youth program and should be reaching out to schools to bring in their groups for performances. Just think of the reaction at a “show and tell” featuring canjos and washtub basses! Remember, what kids experience today will be the voice of bluegrass in the future.

And speaking of associations, you don’t have to be a musician to join a bluegrass association. Most of these organizations need every single able and disabled body they can get! Even if you can’t get out much anymore, your dues will help fund programs like school concerts, youth groups, and instruments for the underprivileged.

Jamming is one of those rare art forms that embraces everyone, no matter their age or skill level. It’s like a rollercoaster, exciting and fun to watch, but even better if you can be a participant. Seasoned jammers have a great opportunity to share their knowledge with a beginner or wannabe musician that may be too intimidated to join in. Watch for those fringe-feeders, engage them in conversation, break that unbroken circle and encourage them to pull up a chair. Pete Wernick at DrBanjo.com has some great suggestions about jamming with newbies (http://bit.ly/1jXGXBA). And jamming isn’t limited to festivals and assigned meeting places. When the weather’s nice, sit out in your front yard and pick (please pick responsibly!). It won’t be long until you’ll have more than pigeons for an audience and dogs as backup singers.

Bluegrass festivals need our help. I’m not talking about the mega-festivals here, but the local, small-town events that are the bread and butter for many bands. The younger generation just isn’t going to sit still and listen for hours to stage performers that move around less than an opera singer and don’t even have a dancing purple dinosaur. Some kid friendly-activities are needed at these events. How about clogging classes? Musical note hopscotch? Hog calling contests? Cake walks, square dancing, go fish ponds…the list of possible events is only limited by the volunteers that will staff them. Tapping into organizations like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, local churches, Rotary Clubs, VFW, Moose Lodge, PTA, even Fire Departments and Police Departments can provide the much needed manpower to make a festival into an all day family event that families will actually attend.

A friend of mine recently commented that bluegrass festivals are like the Stealth bombers of the music world. They sneak into town and out again before anybody knows they’ve been there. Most promoters just don’t have the budget or the time to cover all the bases. The next time a bluegrass festival is in your area help get the word out. Pass out flyers and posters wherever you go (make ‘em and/or print ‘em off the website). Call your local radio stations and ask about the festival. If they don’t know about it, tell ‘em! Talk up the festival to waitresses, hairdressers, barbers, teachers, grocery store and hotel clerks, even send a Letter to the Editor of your local paper. If you’re even minimally handy with tools, whip up a batch of canjos (http://www.instructables.com/id/Making-a-Canjo/) to take to the festival. Most can be made for about $5. And, if you’re a musician, volunteer to lead a festival workshop geared to kids…after all, who’s going to be buying your CDs 20 years from now?

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I’m talking about Internet-based meetup groups or discussion groups in your area. If there aren’t any bluegrass-based Internet groups near you, then start one! It’s pretty painless to do and why not use it as an opportunity to connect with a young person in your life. You might find out that your neighbor down the street has been hiding a bluegrass addiction! And, where 2 or 3 are gathered…you have a bluegrass jam!

We all have a part to play in the future of bluegrass. And, with our help, the next generation will still be listening and it’s gonna sound great! I want to know what you’re doing to promote bluegrass music. Send your ideas and comments to me at james@jamesreams.com. I’d love to hear them.

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