June 8, 2006
Participatory Culture and Bluegrass Music

When you are living in Western Kentucky, especially working in the media industry, few days go by without hearing something about bluegrass music, especially since the genre has received such a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, after the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? introduced the music to mainstream America with its outstanding soundtrack.

My home county is considered "the birthplace of bluegrass music," because the man often considered the genre's father, Bill Monroe, and many other founding voices for the style, were born in the small town of Rosine. At least once a month, public debate has popped up in our small town, as the Bill Monroe Foundation hopes to gain control of the county's budget to help increase the drive for tourism traffic through Monroe's home place. (The wars over bluegrass music are more than can be detailed here, but--so far this year--they've included a public battle and debate over a semi-sacred tree on the homeplace between the county government and the BMF director and a current battle over the trailer which houses the BMF director being located on someone's property who wants it removed.)

However, bluegrass music and our neighboring Muhlenberg County's thumbpicking movement provides a space where most of the historians and scholars studying the music also play the music. In the latest Journal of American Culture, Dan Cusic of Belmont University reviews both Neil Rosenberg's groundbreaking Bluegrass: A History, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and Bob Black's Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe. He writes that, "one of the unique things about bluegrass is that almost everyone associated with it as a scholar, promoter, business person, DJ, or any other way is also a picker" (231).

While bluegrass music may not be the first place most of us think to look for media analysis, this blurring of the producer/fan/analyst line shows how we might be able to rethink and better understand how to frame the relationship between producers and fans. For all of the fans who go down to the barn on Friday night here in Rosine for our bluegrass jamboree, it's pretty hard to distinguish amateur from professional, and the heart of the music seems to lie in the community more than individual performers (save Monroe, of course).