Bluegrass music has a tiny—devoted, but still tiny—following, and sometimes bluegrass musicians will look upon country, pop, and rock music, and moan with envy over the huge audiences those genres attract. Many of them are honestly baffled that their clearly superior brand of music goes unnoticed by the public.
I’m sympathetic to their bafflement, since I think bluegrass (and mountain music in general) does certain things far better than the rest—harmony singing, melodic soloing, creating drive without resorting to percussion. But I’m also baffled by their bafflement, because the big difference between bluegrass and other audiences stares me in the face every time I watch a live performance: bluegrass listeners don’t dance, while country, pop, and rock listeners do. Bluegrass is some of the fastest, most rhythmic music around, proudly so, and yet the most movement you’ll get from an audience is some subdued toe-tapping.
This is not to disparage bluegrass listeners. If that is the sort of experience you want, a bluegrass festival is the place to find it. But since the existence of bluegrass music is not some sort of well-kept secret, the small audiences tell us more or less how many folks want that kind of experience, as opposed to the kind a country or rock or pop concert offers them.
I don’t think the dancing is key, though. There are performers who draw big audiences who play music that isn’t danceable. I think most people look to music to transport them, to provide an absorbing experience outside the norm. And the performers who draw big audiences are the ones who can connect with listeners, and then take them somewhere else. Alison Krauss used to play bluegrass—and then she figured this out. Neither Gillian Welch nor Darrell Scott play dance music, but they can mesmerize their listeners in other ways.
The cruel irony is that bluegrass music used to be able to do this, in its own way. When people said it had a “high lonesome” sound, they meant that it triggered the same deep yearnings that good blues or good gospel can sometimes access, yet with a distinctive touch that captured the sensibilities of mountain people. The words of early bluegrass and early country songs were usually mournful and homesick, pining for dead relatives and simple childhoods and lost loves. But back then the words connected with the audience, spoke to them, transported them.
I don’t know that modern audiences relate to those words in the same way, or if it is even possible. Often the folks who are touched when we sing those old songs are the ones who grew up with them, long, long ago. But occasionally we stumble across one that transcends age and background. Those are gold for us.