Why Doesn't Dallas Have a Bluegrass Scene?

A gorgeous day at a recent Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival in Farmers Branch
A gorgeous day at a recent Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival in Farmers Branch
Bluegrass Heritage Foundation Facebook/Derrick Birdsall

For fans of most genres of music, it takes but only a few moments scrolling down our Concert Calendar, a Twitter feed or your Facebook page activity to stumble upon a local concert that interests you. Chances are you have a small handful of favorite venues that more often than not will have a bill suited to your musical tastes. Rock, hip hop, metal, country and DJs are all readily represented. In short, there's little to complain about in North Texas if you are an admirer of most forms of music.

But don't tell that to a fan of traditional bluegrass.

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It's rather shocking to acknowledge there's nothing resembling a true bluegrass scene here in North Texas. There are plenty of fantastic roots-inflected acts that regularly draw praise and crowds at shows here locally, but playing with a banjo doesn't a traditional bluegrass band make.

The O's are rootsy, but no one with a modicum of common musical sense would pin them with the bluegrass label. Same goes for folk and acoustic-intensive acts such as Fox and the Bird or Bad Mountain. Denton's A.M. Ramblers and Dallas' beer-swilling Shotgun Friday impressively offer a progressive style of bluegrass, but with their array of instrumentation and rock-flavored vocal styles, not even they are fitting the bill in this case. Admittedly, traditional bluegrass isn't a format that enjoys its artists straying too far from a specific structure, which is a common criticism by many fans looking for varying attitudes and sounds in their rootsy tunes.

Seeing a group unify with a mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and tight harmonies is a pretty thrilling deal in a live setting. In old-school bluegrass, there's some room for improvisation, but not much room for any of the players to take it easy during any number. Each member has an important role to play in making each individual song fully be what it's supposed to be.

It's not that there aren't any traditional bluegrass bands at all around here, but there's not as many as one might think. One will find himself delving well outside of Dallas-proper to find a band such as The Herrins, a gospel-intensive group that knows its way around classics such as "John the Revelator" as well as anyone. Indeed, this is surprising and perhaps a bit embarrassing for those of us who love the acoustic style of music Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley helped bring to prominence in the late 1940's. While bluegrass isn't a part of this region's historical fabric the way country music is, or the way it is in other spots around the country, there's still a lot of carry-over.

In fact, one of the nation's best advocates of bluegrass music is based right here in Dallas. The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation has been a national beacon for bluegrass music for years. Alan Tompkins, the host of the long-running Bluegrass Heritage Radio Show every Sunday morning on KHYI 95.3 The Range, has long been a leader in the foundation. Tompkins and the BGHF still put on top-notch events that have become destination festivals for bluegrass lovers from across the country.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation, really," explains Tompkins, a bluegrass musician himself. He points specifically to the difficulty of playing bluegrass properly, with the deceptively simple seeming combination of mandolin, guitar and bass, as one of the challenges to cultivating a true bluegrass scene here. "Most of the folks who can really do bluegrass well, due to a lifetime of hearing and playing it, are centered around Nashville, central Kentucky and east Tennessee. It's a long trek for us to get them to Dallas, which is expensive, so we don't get to bring them nearly often enough."

Next month, the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation-produces Lone Star Fest, starring true-blue national stars Suzy Boguss, Marty Raybon and the Boxcars. Another BGHF annual event, the free-to-attend Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival which takes place in Farmers Branch, brought in thousands of people last fall for sets from Grammy-winning Rhonda Vincent and many others over its two days. But while the line-ups for these two specific annual events are simply star-studded, they are anything but packed with local acts.

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One of the reasons there may not seem to be a bustling set of players, promoters and fans focusing on traditional bluegrass in our area may be the target age of the typical bluegrass fan. Indeed, the demographic of traditional bluegrass events skew older than that of the average Deep Ellum club show or of one of the many rock-centric festivals such as Index, Clearfork or even the Big Folkin' Festival. When one compares last fall's Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival line-up to one of those events, it's startling to see the disparity in the number of local acts.

But selling festival tickets and packing clubs is, understandably, often about selling beer and booking the bands that will help accomplish that. There's no argument to be made that traditional bluegrass is a party-ready format. And the purest form of bluegrass often features heavily spiritual themes and gospel tunes, which isn't conducive to the firebrand style of "newgrass" bands such as the Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band or acoustic-heavy folk-rock acts which may appeal to a broader (drinking and partying) audience. Tompkins believes this is where traditional bluegrass fails to hit many local promoters where it counts.

"The nature of bluegrass is such that it's typically not music that people either drink or country dance to, although you can certainly clog or mountain dance to it, but that's not something you see much of in Dallas! Since it's not a very drinkable or danceable music, promoters can't make money presenting traditional bluegrass bands if they are trying to sell beer. Modern country is perfectly suited for that task, and does a fine job with it."

It's hard to argue with that, but it would still be a great development to see a more accessible pool of festivals (especially in a region mad for festivals) and bands plying their time-honored bluegrass craft here in North Texas. But until then, there's real bluegrass to be heard around here. You just have to listen a little closer to hear it.

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