Op-Ed

Larry Webster: Legislature must man up and protect bluegrass

June Carter Cash was a delightful human being, but her career as a singer was complicated by the fact that she couldn't sing.

Many years ago my wife bought me for Christmas one of June's CDs, and that $10 turned out to be a brilliant investment, for the next Christmas thereafter I wrapped up that CD and gave it back to her.

From then on, each of us saved a few dollars by giving that CD back to the other, wrapped and tied.

Sadly, years ago, that CD, as they say, went missing, no doubt purloined by a music-loving burglar. Since that CD was lost, we have had to spend money on each other.

But no more. We have found another to take its place. This year, she was captivated by the media accounts of a new project by Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn combining bluegrass-style banjo and old-time clawhammer style banjo, and wrapped me up a CD of same.

Fleck is a hero among people who know little enough about bluegrass music to think he plays it and who have no respect for the boundaries of our music. Fleck plays music with no perimeter — which is more Stravinsky than Scruggs, more New York than Hyden — and is no more entitled to be called country music than that intolerable uptown crap that gets the CMA awards.

His music always reminds me of what Loyal Jones said an old mountaineer banjo picker named Frank Proffitt declared the first time he heard Earl Scruggs: "I wish I knew how to play like that and then not do it."

Washburn, who knows how to play like Proffitt, has apparently decided not to do that either. She is an example of when you let city people learn mountain music and then not restrain them.

By teaming up with her husband to produce in the name of banjo picking a new-age sound which gives up the power of both bluegrass and mountain music in favor of cabaret big city smoothness, we have merged progressive bluegrass and progressive old-time music.

As a fellow progress-hating and real mountain musician, Kay Justice, used to say about jazzy, progressive stuff — when you hear this music you keep waiting for them to strike the tune.

Bluegrass music is a broad metaphor for things rural, simple, orderly and traditional. After almost being ruined a few years ago by people whose fingers work well but who have never been a part of the metaphor and who play outside of it, bluegrass is returning to its roots. So stuff like our new perpetual Christmas present must be halted by law.

The Kentucky legislature — with insufficient courage to raise the gasoline tax, poised to address the heroin problem which was caused jointly by the legislature and UNITE, and poised to bore us with their little House bills and Senate bills with their little numbers — ought to man-up and pass a law protecting the integrity of our state music.

There should be a law against calling the kinds of stuff the Fleck family does "bluegrass." That would be a start.

Then we could go on and address the larger issue of all those city people trying to twang up their voices and sound southern and rural and recording Las Vegas stuff and calling it country.

Larry Webster plays an old-time clawhammer banjo. His band, The Mule Band, is the longest continuously playing old-time band in Eastern Kentucky. Its musical talents are roughly equal to those of June Carter Cash. Reach him at websterlawrencer@bellsouth.net.

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