Sometimes I just have to listen to bluegrass. Maybe it’s my Scots-Irish heritage. I still have kin living in the hardscrabble hills of Missouri whose families dress them in their finest overalls before laying them to rest. There’s likely more than heritage to my fondness for bluegrass, however, since I can’t stand its kissing cousin, country music; their common roots are unmistakeable in every twang.
Bluegrass takes me back to a simpler time…not just to an earlier slice of Americana, but literally back to my childhood. The Ozarks were a repeat vacation spot when I was a kid. We camped in the mountains that I still consider the most beautiful in America, and I’ve seen the Rockies, the Smokies, and the Appalachians. We’d visit Silver Dollar City, the down-home theme park, watching craftsmen making horseshoes and lye soap and candy the same way our elders did, all against a constant backdrop of bluegrass music. For me, bluegrass is an instant, virtual time machine back to a carefree time.
Yet bluegrass isn’t really feel good at its core. The skill required for Dueling Banjos is formidable, and one can imagine the camaraderie present at its composition. But bluegrass gospel lyrics are all pretty much the same: climbing mountains and going home and escaping the difficult burdens of life. There is nothing in them to romanticize what was, and still is for many, a tough existence scraped out of the hills.
We may romanticize a simpler life and time as the technology and complexity and stress of our modern “life of leisure” underdelivers on its promise. I suspect we will eventually learn that life will never be easy, it will only become easier in some ways and harder in others. But we won’t be able to help ourselves, and we’ll still listen to bluegrass and yearn for a simpler, better time that never was.
“You know for most of its life bluegrass had this stigma of being all straw hats and hay bales and not necessarily the the most sophisticated form of music. Yet you can’t help responding to its honesty. It’s music that finds its way deep into your soul because it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.” –Alison Krauss
Music is powerful; I can feel my blood pressure drop at the first few notes of a favorite song. Music is nearly universal in how it impacts us, yet it is still inexplicable in why it does. Probably the closest I’ve gotten to understanding it was reading the fascinating book Musicophilia, by neurologist Oliver Sachs. There are also the sociological theories that music binds us together and provides a vehicle to pass down our histories. But none of the theories fully explain its power.
Today it’s easy to take music for granted. It’s been less than 15 years since Steve Jobs profoundly changed how we interact with music. Before 2001, music was bulky, inconvenient, and not very mobile. It was expensive, too: you had to buy a full album to get that one favorite song. The iPod replaced CD’s, which had a dynasty of just more than a decade and which in turn replaced cassette tapes with a heyday of less than 20 years. While our children don’t remember a time when music wasn’t instantly accessible and mobile, those of us over 40 remember music choice as something special. I could only afford the radio, with no choice in song selection, only genre, and I had to suffer through commercials. I’m still in awe that today I can own any song I take a fancy to for a buck and listen to it an infinite number of times, anywhere that I am.
Specific songs are a powerful time machine, taking me back to a certain moment in time and place. One song reminds me of Geneva (I had a terrible cold when I visited the Matterhorn), another to Liverpool (we bought our lunch at the nearby Asda every day for two weeks), and another reminds me of my first few weeks commuting to work in Minneapolis (it was bitter cold, and I was missing my friends). I love the term “ear worm”, for when a song gets stuck in your head until you listen to it enough times for it to release its hold on your mind. Only in the last 50 years have we had that luxury; for the first 10,000 years of human history, only those who had the means and leisure time to learn to perform music could scratch that itch.
I’ve sometimes pondered the irrelevant question about which sense I’d give up if I had to. Watching a friend with macular degeneration lose her sight tells me that’s not the one. But hearing is right up there as well, solely because I can’t imagine living without music. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is. I’m just grateful to live in a time and a place that it can be.
“Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent.” –Victor Hugo