Fervor Coulee Bluegrass Blog
Bluegrass, Tommy, and Silly-Arsed Names
Donald Teplyske | February 18, 2015
I'm writing the following earlier than I had wanted to and in a different format than I intended; I am feeling the pressure to share my ideas before someone else does before I am ready.
I have a daily commute along a fairly quiet secondary highway, and during those daily drives I have time to allow my thoughts to wander a little-not too much, mind; one doesn't want to run broadside into a moose or elk.
I feel that I need to get ahead of things because it appears that the bluegrass world is catching up to me...or more likely, others are just as twisted as I am.
You see, a couple years ago I got the idea for a great April Fool's Day piece. I was going to write a parody centered around The Who's Pete Townshend reinventing his rock opera "Tommy" as a bluegrass song cycle. I've amused myself on many a journey imaging Townshend's quotes as he launched the project, with each sound bite becoming just a little more absurd.
As a once rabid fan of The Who-my enthusiasm has only been tempered by the maturity of passing years-I felt I had a very specific insight into the ways Townshend might approach such a project. While I have great admiration for Townshend, I am not so obtuse to realize that he has-on many occasions-twisted his logic to sound absolutely pompous.
"I originally wrote 'Tommy' with bluegrass in mind- the ukuleles and washboard and all that- because I saw Tommy's isolation as a blind, deaf, and dumb child congruent to the despair of the hillbillies living in poverty throughout the hills of the American south," he would state.
"While I am a child of post-war England, I was raised essentially on bluegrass music- well, skiffle music, but really, it is the same thing, ain'it?"
"When I wrote "The Overture," I was playing piano, but I always heard mandolins in me head. All those delicate little notes-only a mandolin can do them justice! Other parts were written with the chop in mind-give it a listen-you'll hear what I did!"
"The Who-and me specifically-have always been ahead of others in rock 'n' roll. We've presented 'Tommy' in so many ways-as the original rock opera, as the first album to be played by a band in its entirety-something that is only now commonly done by others-as an Academy Award-nominated film and soundtrack featuring some of the biggest names in show business, like Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed, as a Broadway play, as a ballet, a puppet show, as a mime performance piece, and so many other ways-it is only natural that as The Who reaches its creative zenith in its fiftieth year we reach out to a community that we've under-served...those who have missed us because they were listening to acoustic, bluegrass music."
"I'm really excited that the IBMA have recognized my interest in their music and have asked me to host their annual awards show this autumn...I think my co-host is Joe Walsh, who has been playing mandolin with some bluegrass bands of late."
You get the idea. I was going to have great fun, even if no one else did.
But now, that idea has to be junked because The Hillbenders, a band from Missouri, have announced the forthcoming release of "Tommy- A Bluegrass Opry."
And one can't parody something that has already passed transcended parody as deconstructed art; I have every expectation that The Hillbenders will-somehow-turn the Acid Queen and Uncle Ernie into something relevant to bluegrass.
Which brings me to the next thing that I was wanting to explore, only to have someone else beat me to it.
In recent weeks, Chris Jones-a bluegrass humourist of considerable appeal and talent-has been re-investigating bluegrass band names. This strikes a nerve with me because I too-again, on those daily drives-have been thinking about how I am increasingly irritated by the names some post-folk, alt.Americana, trans-pop, nasal grazing performers are going by, and how I am afraid this trend is starting to drift into bluegrass.
In hindsight, I was okay with it when this started a few years back. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy was okay, I suppose, and Iron & Wine, despite being basically one guy, was a pretty good moniker.
But then came City & Colour- again one guy- and Bon Iver- and I'm seeing a pattern here of guys branding themselves with names their mother's never considered-Gordon Lightfoot didn't have to call himself something stupid like Bough of Pine, so why can't folks just stick to the name on their birth certificate?
But of late, the whole 'name the solo, duo, or band with a stupid-arsed name' thing has gotten totally out of hand. The ones that are really bugging me invariably have the ubiquitous ampersand in their name along with two seemingly divergent nouns. Shovels & Rope? Pandas & People? The Bird & The Bear? The Goat & the Spleen? Boy & Bear? Catfish & the Bottlement? Only one of those is made up.
Fortunately, this trend hasn't yet bled into bluegrass and let's hope it stays that way. But, I suspect, it is only a matter of time before The Leaf & The Rock are playing a festival stage near me.
What brings this concern into the bluegrass world is that The Rambling Rooks-a group I quite enjoyed this past summer-have rebranded themselves as The Ruhks. Or, Band of Ruhks. Seems they can't even decide which is the better name.
Hint, the answer is, Neither.
Now, since The Duhks already exist and Ruhks doesn't rhyme with Duhks, pronunciation becomes complicated. And this in a genre that already boasts Sarah Jarosz, which at least is her name!
I swear, The Ruhks is a silly-arsed name. As is Band of Ruhks. I don't think they are bad people, of course. But, can the Phingrpikin' Fuhks be too far away?
No, Smith, Bowman, & Rigsby would have been fine. Except for the ampersand, of course!
Bluegrass band names are perfect the way they are; we need all the Mountain, Peak, and Valley Boys, Creek, Stream, and River Bands, Brothers and Sons, and Blanktownes and Grasswhatchamuffins we can get.
We don't need silly names in bluegrass.
Although Funnel Cake & Flask may just work...