Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Grass is Blue: Expanding Dieselpunk Music

As I mentioned in a prior posting there appears to be a consensus or standard in the dieselpunk community as to what should be defined as "dieselpunk music."

Since that posting I have fine tuned the definition to consisting of two critical components with one optional element. The first critical component is that there needs to be some form of connection to the diesel era. It may be preference for songs that were popular in that time. Or the musicians may have a musical style reminiscent of that era. The other critical component is that it needs to be contemporary in that the musical piece in question was created after the diesel era. This means that no matter how much we may love Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, the Andrew Sisters and the other masters of the diesel era their works are not dieselpunk. The last, but not absolutely necessary, component is that the trappings and fashion of the musicians may have a feel for that era though not necessarily the same as was worn then.

One can recognize these elements being applied in the comments made by dieselpunks on the various forums and blogs. Bands that play modern variants of swing music (retro-swing, Punk Swing, etc), such as Indigo Swing or Wolfgang Parker, are very popular in the dieselpunk community. Also, popular are contemporary big bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

But if we’re true to our definition then we may be overlooking a whole genre of music that should be considered dieselpunk. In this case, I’m referring to Bluegrass music.

Origins of Bluegrass Music
As mentioned earlier one critical component of dieselpunk music is a connection to the diesel era. A quick review of the history of bluegrass shows that it does satisfy this component. According to Wikipedia:

Bluegrass as a style developed during the mid-1940s. Because of war rationing, recording was limited during that time, and it would be most accurate to say that bluegrass was played some time after World War II, but no earlier. As with any musical genre, no one person can claim to have "invented" it. Rather, bluegrass is an amalgam of old-time music, country, ragtime and jazz. Nevertheless, bluegrass's beginnings can be traced to one band. Today Bill Monroe is referred to as the "founding father" of bluegrass music; the bluegrass style was named for his band, the Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1939. The 1945 addition of banjo player Earl Scruggs, who played with a three-finger roll originally developed by Snuffy Jenkins and others but now almost universally known as "Scruggs style", is considered the key moment in the development of this genre.
Bill Monroe

Contemporary Productions
Today bluegrass is alive and well with original productions and new songs. While one can still find musicians playing the traditional style, such as Ricky Skaggs and Hazel Dickens, bluegrass has continued to evolve and create sub-genres just as swing music has. One sub-genre is progressive bluegrass (also known as newgrass) with bands such Alison Krauss and Union Station, Railroad Earth, and Nickel Creek.
Nickel Creek

Trappings and Fashion
Unlike modern big bands and swing, contemporary bluegrass bands tend to place less emphasis on diesel era fashion. This is likely the result of the early influence of the founders of bluegrass, such as the before mentioned Bill Monroe, who intentionally strived to dress in contemporary fashion though often with the addition of a Western style hat. In the diesel era Southern culture was often portrayed by popular media in a derogatory fashion (I might add that this negative portrayal by the media can often be found today) and that the early bluegrass founders felt that dressing in a contemporary fashion would help give bluegrass, as well as Southern culture in general, respectability. Most modern bluegrass musicians continue this practice by also wearing modern contemporary fashion.
Alison Krauss and Union Station

If the Shoe Fits
So as we can see that, while bluegrass musicians might not dress in traditional diesel era fashion, bluegrass as a musical genre meets the two critical components of dieselpunk music in that not only did it originate in the diesel era but that bluegrass continues to evolve with new and original productions and sub-genres. In my opinion, it’s safe to say that modern bluegrass should be defined as dieselpunk.


Jack Philpott said...

Great call, Larry! I love the Bluegrass and living in Virginia, especially when I lived in Southwest VA, affords some great opportunities to see really tallented Bluegrass musicians. I'm all for this post!

- Cap'n...

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks Jack. Lucky guy living in VA. Great people and great music.

Jack Philpott said...

Well, that's true for SW VA. Here in NoVA, aka Southern DC, it's a different story, but I digress...

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Interesting, I have several friends who live in DC. Plus, when we visited DC we were impressed by the Southern hospitality.

TuxedoCatSings said...

An excellent and insightful call on newgrass/progressive bluegrass being a sub-genre of dieselpunk music, Larry. As a resident of southeastern VA (Hampton Roads) for almost 20 years, I have become quite familiar with the genre. In fact, I have webcast my internet radio station 'Newgrass, Prog & More!' on since 2003. Just like at first glance bluegrass and dieselpunk would appear to have little in common, I created the station to co-mingle two musical genres that I had long enjoyed: progressive bluegrass and progressive rock (prog rock). I soon found out that some of my newgrass heroes, particularly the late, lamented New Grass Revival's great vocalist and bass guitarist John Cowan, had their musical roots in progressive rock. John learned to play bass partly by learning the chops of prog rock legend bass guitarist Chris Squire of Yes. I ended up interviewing both Johnny C. and Chris Squire about 5 times each when I did interviews on NP&M! between 2005 and 2008. While the station has nowadays evolved from these roots to become the very eclectic mix of music that it is today (a playlist which ranges from The Bran Flakes to Abney Park to Fleet Foxes to Pink Floyd), it still features plenty of progressive bluegrass - a dieselpunk music! Some of my favorites: Crucial Smith, Acoustic Syndicate, David Via and Corn Tornado, and Killbilly. I hope to play more dieselpunk-identified music on NP&M! in the near future.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks Tuxedo! I listened to your station today and enjoyed it. You mentioned that you've been a resident in that area for about 20 years. Being that I'm a 5th generation Texan whose ancestors helped settle this area I would say that bluegrass was in my mother's milk. :)

TuxedoCatSings said...

Thanks for listening, Larry. You surely noticed right away that the sound was not very full. I webcast at this low bitrate for two reasons: 1. the 32/11 bitrate is low enough for rural folks with 52k dial-up to have some success streaming the show. My wife and I live very rurally ourselves and I have had to go through all kinds of contortions to just recently have (relatively) hi-speed internet. 2. If folks like the music that they hear on the station I want them to purchase it from and support the artists and not simply record my webcast stream. At 32/11 folks can get a sense of the music but nowhere near cd quality. If they want that they need to support someone! Thanks again, Larry. I look forward to checking out the cool-looking links that you have on the right had side of your blog.