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Bluegrass Music Grows in Popularity with Exposure and Awareness

Bob CherryThe popularity of bluegrass music is growing and growing. The Internet, artists traveling further and further from their home, services for promotion such as AirPlay Direct and more all contribute to both an increased presence as well as the ability to introduce new people to the genre. New methods and exposure channels that are evolving are helping bluegrass to gain a wider audience and appreciation.

Part of the increase in interest in Bluegrass Music may also be attributed to more fringe areas where some outstanding groups are pushing the traditional boundaries beyond where they have ever been. This trend has been ongoing for years with groups like the Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer/Chris Thile, Infamous Stringdusters and others which continue to pack audiences in everywhere they go.

Audiences who tune into these string bands frequently go in search of other similar music and that journey can easily take them to the more traditional artists of the genre.

Many national touring artists are certainly touring more and further away from their bases. This is the result of more large festivals bringing in more artists but, also, popularity is creating an awareness of the genre and its entertainment factor. Professionalism is certainly a contributor but one cannot discount the impact that entertainer Steve Martin has had on creating a popularity for the banjo and its familiar bluegrass foundations.

Steve Martin has brought greater exposure to national audiences on late night entertainment programs watched by millions. Playing with an established bluegrass act, the Steep Canyon Rangers, again, adds to greater awareness and exposure. People who like what they hear go in search of more. Many young fans today may not have even been aware of bluegrass until after their initial exposure.

Alison Krauss & Union Station are credited with expanding the awareness of bluegrass and her massive collection of 26 Grammy awards as a result of an amazing 39 nominations is a solid confirmation of her impact. She has shared recordings and the stage with artists covering a broad spectrum of styles expanding her reach. Her recent project with Led Zeppelin artist Robert Plant is just one success story of these collaborations. She has also performed with Mark Chesnutt, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill and more.

The more popular bands are finding themselves crisscrossing the nation and even performing internationally more and more. Bands like The Special Consensus and Lonesome River Band with Sammy Shelor are performing from California to Virginia. They are on TV specials and are frequently on the music news sources. The television exposure creates demand which allows these touring bands to perform more and more at a more diverse venue domain. No longer small cafe's and small gatherings, these bands are filling auditoriums and drawing large crowds at festivals. People want to experience these artists live and in person because of the new exposure.

The Internet can't be ignored either. Easy sampling of an artist's work – including videos and articles about them are just a search engine away. YouTube has plenty to select from for virtually every artist touring today. Even the smaller artists are able to take advantage of this new rise in bluegrass popularity. View, sample, listen and buy all go together. Albums are digital today and the new young audience is not afraid to take advantage of iTunes, Amazon and other outlets to experience bluegrass music.

While radio stations and associations were the primary exposure media in the recent past, those are certainly being replaced by alternative methods. There are those who haven't turned a traditional radio on for a year or more. They listen to the music on iPods, Pandora Internet radio and dedicated sites like www.worldwidebluegrass.com or even going directly to the artist's site on Facebook or MySpace. There is a major paradigm shift taking place and those artists that can keep up will certainly be successful.

Big wheels turn slow but the industry does not. Record labels will also need to adjust rapidly if they are to survive also. When a group like the Infamous Stringdusters or Leftover Salmon can pack venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre and online. fans, and they don't even release CDs but rather have their performances online for download, then it becomes apparent that the times are a changing. More and more artists are trending away from the way "its always been" and going out on their own. Even the popular Del McCoury started his own label and is pushing the envelope with a new syndicated radio program via AirPlay Direct and performances with a Jazz Band. More confirmation that the successful are doing things different than before.

Cracker Barrel Restaurants are also feeding the popularity with their exclusive releases of albums by artists Alison Krauss, The Grascals, Dailey & Vincent (2 CDs), Ricky Skaggs, and Bill Gaither have their talents available at the restaurants and online. More successful exposure in an nontraditional way.

Today's artists must be busier than ever to handle all the above changes and then deal with social networks like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn which require a lot of time while keeping a consistent image for their fans. Successful Social Networking is a learned ability – it has to be used properly if it is to be monetized for the artist. Many an artists spend a great deal of time on these social platforms but fail to turn that time into increased sales or audience.

Taking a look at the recent Billboard Bluegrass Album Chart finds that the turning point is occurring. The author's own data analysis confirms much of what is presented here. Take a look at the top 10 albums and they are not what many traditionalists would consider bluegrass but, they will bring fans to experience a more traditional presentation of the genre.

Here's what we have for this week:

  1. Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss and Union Station
  2. Rare Bird Alert, Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers
  3. An Appalachian Christmas, Mark O'Connor
  4. Redneck Christmas, Slidawg And The Redneck Ramblers
  5. Why Can't We, The Isaacs
  6. Follow Me Down, Sarah Jarosz
  7. Bluegrass Gospel, Steve Ivey
  8. Best of Bluegrass, Steve Ivey
  9. Bright Morning Stars, The Wailin' Jennys

Billboard's 2011 year wrap up of top 100 albums is very similar featuring many of the same. These are Billboard's top bluegrass albums for 2011:

  1. Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss and Union Station
  2. Rare Bird Alert, Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers
  3. Up On The Ridge, Dierks Bently
  4. The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer/Chris Thile
  5. Follow Me Down, Sarah Jarosz
  6. The Grascals and Friends: Country Classics With a Bluegrass Spin, The Grascals
  7. Palomino, Trampled By Turtles
  8. Bright Morning Stars, The Wailin' Jennys
  9. Genuine Negro Jig, Carolina Chocolate Drops
  10. Best of Bluegrass, Steve Ivey

We don't see our top IBMA award winning artists for 2011 here. No Dailey and Vincent. No Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. Where are Rhonda Vincent, Dale Ann Bradley, The Gibson Brothers, and the other award winners? They aren't here. Billboard bases their list upon sales as reported by SoundScan.

Bluegrass music is gaining in popularity but not necessarily in a way that hard-core bluegrass fans would like. Traditional boundaries are being stretched. What we consider as bluegrass is definitely expanding. The bluegrass universe is expanding and growing and evolving. Just as any life form, it must be allowed to venture on its own. Bluegrass music is doing just that and, it is an exciting journey to watch and experience.

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