Banjo-playing 101

Regarding your recent dreadful review of Joltwagon’s album [“Sound Investment,” Dec. 26], you twice mention bluegrass. Bluegrass is defined by the Scruggs’ three-finger picking style using metal picks. I play clawhammer banjo or frailing style, which is what you hear in old-time music.

Sorry you didn’t like the album, but as someone who lives in this part of the country and apparently gets paid to review music, I thought you should have at least figured that much out.

— Dalton Stansbury
Asheville

A&E Editor Steve Shanafelt replies: “Dalton Stansbury presents a somewhat arbitrary, and I would argue largely inaccurate, definition of bluegrass. It’s like saying that a rock song must include a guitar solo, played in the historically correct style of 1950s-era Chuck Berry. I’m pretty sure that anyone who hears Joltwagon’s debut CD will find plenty of cause for my mention of bluegrass as one of the group’s many influences.”

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14 thoughts on “Banjo-playing 101

  1. Kriss

    Steve, I’m not sure what your definition of bluegrass music is, but I certainly would not characterize Dalton’s definition as “arbitrary” or “largely inaccurate.” I’ve heard many old-time musicians discuss these technical differences in playing style which differentiates old-time music from bluegrass. I have never heard Joltwagon, so I’m not sure if they play bluegrass or old-time or some combination or perhaps something entirely different, but there is a definite difference between the two genres. First let me say I am not a musician – though I’m a dancer – but I am very familiar with traditional old-time music. And traditional old-time music is NOT bluegrass.

    But I’m not sure, as Dalton’s letter seems to imply, that the difference can be strictly defined simply by a particular style of banjo playing. Clawhammer style is, as he stated, a characteristic of old-time music and not necessarily bluegrass music. But the difference between bluegrass and old-time is much broader than that.

    As I heard one DJ on Sirius satellite radio (bluegrass channel 65) say recently, “If there was no Bill Monroe, there’d be no bluegrass.” That is true, because there was no such thing as bluegrass music before Bill Monroe came along around the early 1940’s with his band, the Blue Grass Boys, so named for the lush blue-blossomed grass of his home state of Kentucky, and that name was later given to his distinctive style. The term bluegrass somehow kind of stuck on Bill’s special way of playing and singing the old country music, and nowadays almost anything that has sort of an old country sound like almost everyone played in the 40’s and 50’s seems to come under the broad category of bluegrass.

    A lot of traditional Southern Appalachian mountain music, i.e., old-time music, that predates Bill Monroe is sometimes incorrectly referred to as bluegrass. What a lot of people call bluegrass today was just regular “country” music 40, 50, or 60 years ago.

    So, I can easily see how Dalton might take issue with someone referring to the band as having bluegrass influences if one does not have an accurate understanding of what bluegrass actually is and where it came from.

  2. Kriss: If we were in a serious academic conversation about the “true” sound of bluegrass as Monroe originally envisioned, I’d gladly concede the point. But, we’re not. We’re talking about Stansbury’s view that there’s one defining parameter that makes something “bluegrass,” and that’s a view that’s simply not supported by the rest of the world.

    Actually, we’re not REALLY even talking about that. We’re really talking about the fact that he didn’t like the review. In this context, the bluegrass/old-time argument is more of a semantic one, as Joltwagon sure ain’t playing old time.

    Back to the point: Bluegrass, like every other genre of music, has moved on since it’s founding. Saying that something is only bluegrass because of the “three-finger picking style using metal picks” is no less absurd in the modern context than saying that having a banjo at all means you’re bluegrass band, which Stansbury claimed was my view in the comments to the original article.

    What Joltwagon’s music doesn’t particularly sound like, by the way, is old-time. At all. Don’t believe me? Visit their MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/joltwagon

    Don’t get me wrong — I actually like the fact that Joltwagon is experimenting, and trying out new avenues for their music. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does make for some unexpected surprises. I do think, however, that they need to learn how to polish those ideas up into actual, complete songs before they go around charging people for their CD.

  3. Kriss

    Thanks for the link, Steve. Wow! Put into the context that you explained, and having listened to snippets of their music, I agree with you.

    “What Joltwagon’s music doesn’t particularly sound like, by the way, is old-time. At all.”

    Old-time? Not even close! Not even bluegrass either, imo. Not a band I’d ever care to listen to. I’m not saying they’re bad, but just not my taste in music.

    “Saying that something is only bluegrass because of the ‘three-finger picking style using metal picks’ is no less absurd in the modern context than saying that having a banjo at all means you’re bluegrass band, which Stansbury claimed was my view in the comments to the original article.”

    That’s pretty much what I said, in that one can certainly pick out certain characteristics that are true of one type of music or the other, but there’s a lot more to the difference than that.

  4. Kriss: The weird thing was that I never meant to imply that they were a bluegrass band in the first place. Rather, I mentioned that they were trying to fuse lots of styles together — including elements of bluegrass — and that the result wasn’t something I enjoyed.

  5. Kriss

    I just went back and read your review, which I hadn’t read before. I’m surprised that Stansbury’s complaint seems to only be with your use of the word “bluegrass,” as if that made a big difference, and as if your using the term “old-time” instead would have made the review much more favorable. Regardless of how he plays the banjo, I heard nothing remotely resembling old-time in their music.

  6. David Bradshaw

    Kriss, you’re right–it wouldn’t have made any difference if Shanafelt had used the word “old-time” instead of “bluegrass.” To anyone that actually listens to the music, it is obvious that we are neither. It should also be obvious that we are not “grunge” (where in the world did that come from–IMO, “grunge” isn’t even a genre) or “swing”! Oh, ok, there is a clarinet in one song–now we are a swing band! Good lord. The folks I have talked to even wonder if Shanafelt actually listened to the entire disc. As for the songwriting, for a little perspective, here’s a blurb of a review we got in the UK magazine Maverick Magazine, where our disc received 4 1/2 stars:

    “Brilliant debut Americana CD mixing pop harmonies with superb playing and song-writing…. Fantastic melodies and harmonies; symbolising predominant pop…. This is a one of those albums that is surprisingly adventurous but always remains reassuringly familiar.”

  7. David: Grunge isn’t a genre? I think there’s A LOT of people who would disagree with you. Unless you mean it’s more accurately called a subgenre of alternative rock, in which case, I’d agree.

    Did I listen to the entire disc? Yup. Twice. Every song, all the way. Some songs I played another two or three times. Why? Because I wanted to get my mind around why it wasn’t working. Ultimately, it’s because the album is all over the map and yet hasn’t bothered to work out where’s it’s actually going to by the end.

    As far as the Maverick Magazine review goes … they rated Joltwagon’s album above the works of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, but yet not as good as those of Toby Keith. Seems to be a bit of an arbitrary system to me. And, just so we’re clear on the kind of magazine we’re talking about, here’s their site http://www.maverick-country.com/

    But, let’s turn this around, and look at what the band [i]thinks[/i] their music sounds like. Joltwagon’s MySpace pages proclaims that the band is “forging its own blend of Americana with intriguing songwriting, soaring guitar work, and [b]old-time[/b] banjo. [ Didn’t Bradshaw just write that ‘… it is obvious that we are neither”?] While captivating with its pop sensibility and harmonies, the group moves effortlessly from straight country to gypsy/klezmer instrumentals to haunting psychedelia. As listeners are swept along in an eclectic mosaic of sound, they might imagine Crazy Horse meets John Hartford with a little Jayhawks on the side.”

    Great copy by Smoky Mountain Navigator Magazine, I admit, (then again, they didn’t become “The Most Tourist Friendly Publication In The Smokies” by publishing unhappy prose … http://smokymountainnavigator.com). But, back the point, that’s not what I heard on the album. I stand by the review. Bluegrass, gypsy/swing and all.

    I also encourage everyone so inclined to visit the group’s MySpace page and Web site to decide for themselves.

  8. Kriss

    David, I admire that you and Dalton are sticking up for your band. There’re only two groups of people you really need to worry about pleasing. First and foremost, yourselves, and second, your audience. It would be nice if the critics liked you as well, but that’s not always going to happen. Your music not being easily pigeonholed I think is always going to work against you if you’re looking for fame and fortune. I guess the direction and how far your band goes depends a lot on what your goals are. Personally I just can’t see a large fan base for that type of music and that sound, but what do I know? I’m no expert in the music industry, I just know what I like – and it’s not that. Perhaps a lot of others will have different tastes and love your music. I wish you the best of luck.

  9. Nam Vet

    Ah Steve, another young transplant who thinks of himself as an expert on mountain music. I listen at your knee your knowingness. :)

  10. Kriss

    You got it wrong on two counts, Nam Vet. I’m not young, and I’m not a transplant. I was born and raised in Asheville. What’s your problem anyway? Did I say something you don’t agree with?

  11. Kriss: I rather thought Nam Vet was making a jab at me, not you. I’m certainly no expert on mountain music, but having written professionally about local music in all its forms for nearly a decade now, I feel pretty secure in making a distinction between old-time and bluegrass as an influence on an album — just like I’d feel confident about making a distinction between punk and garage.

    But, assuming that was aimed at me, he is right about the transplant thing. I moved here in ’92.

  12. Nam Vet

    Yes, I was teasing Steve. 1992 is long back enough Steve. No offense meant to anyone. I love mountain music and the banjo. Glad we have plenty of it around here.

  13. Kriss

    I misread your post, Nam Vet. Thanks for clearing that up. I looked at your post a long time to try to figure out what you meant. I finally concluded you were addressing Steve but referring to me.

    And I’m certainly no expert in mountain music either, but I’ve listened to it and enjoyed it all my life – my daddy was a banjo player (my mother was a church organist and piano teacher) – and that, as well as many other genres of music, including classical and rock, have always been a big part of my life.

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