Over at No Depression, thoughtful bluegrass prognosticator Ted Lehmann recently reflected on the overwhelmingly number of ‘positive’ bluegrass reviews against a wider view that there seems to be fewer reviewers willing to write challenging criticisms of albums. So as not to misrepresent anything Ted expresses, I refer you to his published piece.
While I don’t agree with everything Ted argues, there is merit to his thesis. Without running the numbers, there does appear to be fewer ‘negative’ bluegrass album reviews than there should be. I have my theories as to why, including that the bluegrass world is so insular and interdependent there is little tolerance of ‘outliers’ whose opinions are contrary to the greater interests of the industry.
Simply put, to write negatively about an album is to accept that you will quite possibly be cut off the publicist’s contact list and the record label’s servicing run, not to be mentioned attacked by overly aggressive parents and colleagues, and have your inability to play “Cumberland Gap” held up as evidence that you have no right to express an opinion. Therefore, like me, if someone writing about bluegrass encounters an album they feel is lacking, it seems they are most likely to ignore it than to spend hours crafting a hatchet piece: most of us are not making the dollars writing that makes it worthwhile to rip an album to shreds, even if it deserves such. Instead, we move onto an album that we can write about more positively.
However, beyond this obvious element there is another set of reasons why I believe there are fewer negative bluegrass album reviews than which we might expect: for the most part, bluegrass albums today are pretty darn strong!
The top bluegrass performers, even when they are spinning their tires, are usually so darned good at what they do that it is difficult to criticize them for their representation of the art. They play in tune (always a good thing), understand how to feature themselves and each other most artfully, understand and execute vocal harmony, and are creative in their arrangements of familiar songs. Essentially, they know what that heck they are doing, and it sounds good.
Most often when I consider something to be of lower-quality, it is a matter of taste and opinion—I have little patience for overwrought, wimpy-arsed, watered-down, and slickly-produced bluegrass, but realize that for whatever misguided reason, some folks actually like that type of saccharine-infused, cloying sentimental trash.
When a major artist does release something less than impressive, whether due to questionable song choices, pedestrian effort, or simply misguided execution—and I am assigned to write about it—I am obligated to call them on it, whether that runs contrary to popular opinion or industry interests. Fortunately, in the bluegrass world, that doesn’t happen very often. Most of what I encounter is of a very high calibre, but if I feel a project is lacking, I try my best to communicate that in an up-front and professional manner, even if sometimes folks may have to read between the lines to pick up on it. I figure that is the reader’s obligation, and if I’ve done my job correctly, they are able to achieve it.
I guess we have to trust readers (and bluegrass listeners) to look for reviews that meet their needs. If they want reprints of promo releases and one-sheets, there is a bluegrass website for that. If they want bluegrass industry cheerleading and baby pictures where never a discouraging word is heard, there is a website for that. Heck, there is even a bluegrass site that features bluegrass only in rare situations. If they want honest opinion, mostly the good, sometimes the bad, and occasionally (usually around IBMA time) the snarky, there is a website for that. I call it Fervor Coulee!
I don’t believe we need more negative bluegrass reviews. We just have to continue to pay attention to the quality music that surrounds us.