From a March article I wrote about how young people are increasingly turning to old music and old-time instrumental styles. On reflection, it’s interesting (and logical) how this trend is unfolding in light of the music industry’s scramble to renew itself and in light of the growing conversation about how mass media and mass culture are splintering (due to the rise of culture on demand), resulting in more and more young people following their own paths, not the paths laid out for them.
When Mark Holladay started taking his 5-year-old son, Ryan, to bluegrass festivals, he saw a lot of other people like himself: parents taking their children to hear the traditional music mom and dad loved.
Within a short time, though, he noticed something different.
“After a couple seasons, we saw all these kids carrying instruments,” Holladay said. One of those people is his son. Now 14, Ryan is a phenomenon in the bluegrass world with a CD on the Skaggs Family Records (that is, country and bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs) and an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s “World’s Most Talented Kids.”
“I don’t want to stray too far from the original music,” Ryan said. “I’m just doing it because it’s interesting and creative and fun. I think it’s cool that so many young kids are trying to pick up instruments. The banjo is cool.”
There once was a time when no self-respecting teenager would say such a thing. Guitar, yes. Bass, totally. But banjo? That’s for hillbillies, right?
Well, no more. We are now amid a resurgence in traditional forms of music. From country to jazz, from blues to bluegrass, the next generation has deemed traditional music to be cool, and the musicians performing at this year’s Savannah Music Festival know they ain’t just whistling Dixie.
“One day this boy’s daddy asks me if his son can play few songs for me,” recalled Marty Stuart, who performs Friday. “Darned it he don’t sound just like Earl Scruggs.”
The teen’s name was Trey Hensley. His age? 15. Stuart invited him to play on the Grand Ole Opry. The youngster has since made three records for Hog Holler Records.
“Right there’s a case in point of the tradition being alive and well,” Stuart said. “Go to bluegrass shows. Those kids can really play banjos, sing lead and write songs.”
‘Hordes of kids’
Bluegrass is an elastic art form. It has its purists, like Ralph Stanley. It also has its mavericks, like David Grisman, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer, who add elements of jazz, blues and even classical music into their high, lonesome interpretations.
Mark Holladay believes the flexibility of bluegrass attracts creative youngsters. One of the genre’s leading exponents is mandolinist Chris Thile, who has won over young audiences with his innovative blending of bluegrass with other styles. One can see why young people would be attracted to Thile. He’s young, hip, good-looking and exceptionally gifted.
But why traditional bluegrass? That, Holladay said, is a bit harder to explain.
“I don’t think bluegrass will ever become mainstream,” Holladay said. “But I can’t remember a time when there have been so many young people into it. There are just hordes of kids.”
‘Trad is rad’
The return to traditional music has been most intense recently in old-time music. A rash of string bands, including Uncle Earl, which performs at the music festival tonight, has closed the gap between old-time songwriting and a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility.
Perhaps the trend can be summed up best by the Mammals, a young folk-rock quintet. Their motto, much repeated in old-time and bluegrass quarters, is “Trad is rad.”
But the trend is happening everywhere, said Gary Nunez, leader of Plena Libre, a Puerto Rico dance ensemble that performs at the music festival Saturday.
Youngsters are tired of what they find on the radio, he said. They are searching for something beyond pop culture and commercial radio.
“Part of this is a reaction to what the major labels are doing,” Nunez said. “People are tired of these formulas. They want something that tastes different.”
There’s a reason sales of old music are stronger than sales of new music, said Brian Stoltz, guitarist for the New Orleans funk band Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, which performs at the music festival Friday.
That reason is authenticity.
“Young people are searching out music with roots, for music that comes from a somewhere,” he said. “They are starving for something real, so it’s natural for them to check out Ralph Stanley, Muddy Waters and ‘Mississippi’ Fred McDowell.”
Moreover, there’s something about live music passed down and added to by generations of musicians.
“It stays alive as opposed to computer-generated music on the radio,” Stoltz said.
The power of access
Bemoaning the state of popular music is popular among performers of traditional music. When pressed, they concede that a lot of popular music is indeed good and worthy of attention, praise and reinterpretation (as evidenced by classical pianist Christopher O’Riley’s reworking of Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, for instance).
So traditional music’s resurgence must have other causes.
One might be a reconnection with native culture.
According to Anoushka Shankar, who performs at the music festival Thursday, there is a new generation of Indian-Americans hungry for the authentic sounds of Indian classical music. “In dancing, they are returning to the utmost classical form far more than they are even in India,” Shankar said. “It is becoming their own beautiful way of connecting to their culture and they do it with so much authenticity.”
Another reason for traditional music’s reprise might be technology. Young people are now accustomed to downloading an infinite array of traditional music from any number of online music retailers, such as iTunes.
“Ninety-nine cents and boom. They have all they need,” said John Pizzarelli, a jazz singer and guitarist who will perform on March 31. “If I mention a guitar player to a student doesn’t know him, he can go back to his computer and find out everything he wants to know. It’s amazing.”
In the past, the only place to buy music was a record store. If you were going to buy jazz, which was stored in the back, you typically had to know what you were looking for before you bought it.
With greater accessibility, Pizzarelli said, youngsters are more conversant in jazz, but that’s not all.
“They’re becoming more proficient on their instruments sooner,” Pizzarelli said. “They’re becoming influenced by more than just Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery (two of the more well-known jazz guitarists). They’re starting to find those third-line guys.”
How classical music is changing, too
Accessibility might be why another kind of traditional music – classical – seems to be experiencing a kind of resurgence, though it remains to be seen whether it’s a resurgence among young people.
When the BBC made available Beethoven’s nine symphonies for free in 2005, there were 1.4 million downloads in two weeks. Online sales of classical music were up 23 percent on iTunes last year, according to Nielson SoundScan.
Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchestra are banking on Internet sales to show that classical music’s problem for the past decade has been about delivery, not the product.
“I believe in the music utterly,” James Undercofler, president of the orchestra, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I believe that it is simply a matter of getting it to market.”
But even if Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is online, where most young people get their music, the masterpiece of romanticism still sounds the same to the average person.
“Bluegrass has evolved,” Mark Holladay said. “But classical hasn’t changed.”
Ryan Holladay, who performs Friday with his dad, agrees.
“Music needs to change,” he said. “Classical’s always been the same.”
Classical music’s move online may be that very sign of change.
“All responsible organizations are doing what art museums did, adding cafes, shops and audio guides,” said cellist David Finckel, who is co-director with his wife, pianist Wu Han, of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “They need to provide young people with context, to pay attention people’s experience of the music.”
Finckel and Han perform a recital Sunday.
“If you look around, the next generation of performers knows how to talk to audiences,” Finckel added. “It is the first generation that knows it is responsible for bringing in new audiences.”
Daniel Hope, who performs numerous recitals at the music festival, said composers of new music are also heeding the call, citing Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose composition, “A Slow Pavane,” the violinist will perform with the Beaux Arts Trio on March 31.
“This is the kind of music that is taking over,” said Hope. “You are seeing more and more highly erudite composers unafraid of melody being embraced by audiences. Their writing grabs people’s attention immediately. That’s how classical music is changing.”