Lloyd Thayer

Lloyd Thayer
Steel Guitar Rant: Be Careful What You Wish For...

By Lloyd Thayer
September 2006

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In the last installment of this column, I wrote about a topic that seems to be getting a lot of attention these days: whether or not the blues are dying, or if the current blues scene is fading and on the brink of extinction.

At the risk of beating an already dead horse, I would like to continue on with that topic, under the heading, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Do we really want to be “popular?”

Think about it. Is more always better?

If you go to a show and there are a hundred people there, will two hundred make it a better show?

If we have a thousand members of the Boston Blues Society, will two thousand make us all happier?

I doubt it, and one reason is because if you have a pool party, more people in the pool are not always a good thing, if you know what I mean.

The second reason for my doubt is based on some experiences I’ve had in the past with other types of music. For example, there was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t pay people to go out and listen to live bluegrass music. Membership in the Boston Bluegrass Union was limited to a small group of devoted hardcore fans. They volunteered to help at shows, worked behind the scenes, and supported the organization the best they could.

They loved the music, and were passionate and knowledgeable about it. If you played an instrument and went to a BBU event, you could always find a group of like minded individuals having a jam session, playing songs and having a great time. At these events, small groups of players would break off into clusters to pick and sing, and participate in the music they loved.

There was a genuine feeling of sincerity and warmth at these events, even though they were often very small, and barely broke even. You could talk to people who had a great deal of knowledge about the music, its history, and the people who made it - past and present.

As time went on, the Boston Bluegrass Union began to grow. The film O Brother Where Art Thou? and some other inexplicable cosmic phenomenon caused the planets to align in such a way that the unthinkable happened, and all of a sudden, bluegrass was “cool”!!  It was as if Whitey Bulger had turned himself in, and all of the streets in the greater Boston area suddenly had street signs.

Even the Boston Globe caught the fever, as they printed a few little articles about the local scene and how, suddenly, the Cantab lounge Tuesday night Picking Party was “the place to be.”

In the past, when I had gone to the Cantab on a Tuesday night with my Dobro, I could get a seat, and find a group of people to play and sing with in a very laid back atmosphere. I could drop in at any point in the night, play a few songs, and actually hear what I was playing, learn some things and have some fun.

Gradually, over time, the place became more and more crowded with onlookers, gawkers, ambulance chasers, scenesters and other people who were boozing and whoring. They had little to no interest in bluegrass, and probably wouldn’t recognize Bill Monroe if he came in and sat on their laps.

And yet there they were, partying and yelling and carrying on, because, somehow, they had read that this music was “cool,” or the new “in” thing. The scene was starting to change, and if you wanted to be able to get in the door and get a seat, you had to get there early, and sit around and wait.

Once the music started, you had to protect your seat like a mother vulture on top of a nest full of eggs.  Many of the hip, slick and cool people who were there talked loudly throughout the night, or text messaged their friends, or talked on their cell phones, and looked at you as if you were in the way, or had a lot of nerve to be playing your instrument at a jam session while they were on the phone.

The emphasis had shifted from being on the music to being on the “scene” itself, and the social elements that surrounded it.  Many nights, there were musicians who weren’t even able to get in the door to play, because so many other people were there to see and be seen.

In much the same way, the annual Boston Bluegrass Union Joe Val Festival gradually became more and more crowded, and now sells out months in advance. Ticket prices have risen, and if you do get in to see some of the show, you are a lot further away from the performers themselves, or you find yourself sitting next to someone who is screaming “Soggy Bottom Boys!!!!”  at the top of their lungs, and doesn’t understand that George Clooney isn’t actually in any of the bands on the bill tonight.

The people you used to know at these events have been replaced by a whole different crowd, and again, at times, the emphasis doesn’t really seem to be on the music.

Now I realize that more fans mean more money, and that in theory, more money means more money being put back in to the music, but we all know how well those theories work. And at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, throwing money at a situation doesn’t always help matters. When the emphasis is on money, the music gets watered down and becomes a marketing tool for materialistic mass consumption, losing much of its original meaning and power.

I’m not sure how you feel, but it makes me want to go berserk when I see a commercial on television that is using ‘blooze’ music to sell beer, cars, or erectile dysfunction medication. Call me old-fashioned, but this music we call the blues actually means a great deal to me, and when I hear it being bastardized and being used to sell products to consumers with a wink and a smile, I get really upset. It pains me to think that the companies that are selling these products could care less about the people who actually made the music in the first place, and have little to no respect for us as a community.

I know that many people disagree with me on this, and I have good friends who are artists who would gladly give up any of their songs for commercial use, but in my opinion, there are some things that you can’t put a price on and shouldn’t be sold, and in this case, these corporations are getting a lot more out of it than we are.  All you have to do is do a search on Google under “blues” and you’ll find things for sale that have nothing to do with blues, but are merely using the name and the concept to make money.

All of this is degrading the music itself, so that future generations will grow up thinking that blues is nothing more than background music to a car commercial or something worse. When I see this stuff, it makes me feel like I need one of those chemical contamination showers.

If the music is to have a future, then that future is in our hands, and it’s up to us to take care of it and give it the respect it deserves. If we are going to keep it alive, we are going to have to pass it on to the young people, and there are better ways to do that than selling it to them in commercials or by hyping it up as the “next big thing.”

Instead, we can lead by example and put our money where our mouths are, and go out and support the artists and the clubs they play in. Sure, growth can be a good thing, and more fans and musicians are always welcome, but I think we have to be careful with the more-is-better philosophy, and emphasize quality over quantity.

In closing, I am always struck by the e-mails I get from friends in other countries where their access to blues is very limited. Places where there are no record stores, and maybe one club that puts on a blues show once a month - no radio shows, no blues societies, no nothing. There are so many places all over the world like that, and right here in our backyard we have so much: so many clubs, so many great radio shows and people who love this music, and who keep it alive.

When I finish this article, I’m going to find out where Paul Rishell and Annie Raines are playing and go and get my ass to one of their shows, or find out where Racky Thomas is holding court, or Bill McQuaid or any of the long list of great local musicians who are all over the place here.

And I’m going to sit up front and listen and have an out-of-body experience at all of the great music that’s being made all around here, and be grateful for what I have - rather than looking at it the other way around.

Til next time…

Lloyd Thayer teaches a summer Dobro class at the Passim School of Music in Cambridge. Classes meet on Mondays at 6:30 p.m., from July 24 to August 28.



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