NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Can Bluegrass Turn Green? (Greenbacks, That Is)

Bluegrass fans will be cheering this week: Dolly Parton ’s third bluegrass album Halos & Horns debuts at No. 4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Vindication for all those years of bluegrass being derided by mainstream country disc jockeys, right? Now that everyone’s proclaiming a brand new day for bluegrass, I find myself hoping that all the articles about the music’s glowing future are right. And it is truly significant that the trade magazine Billboard has inaugurated a bluegrass album chart.

But let’s examine that Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is clearly its poster child. After 84 charting weeks, O Brother is now at 6 million-plus sales, and it moved almost 43,000 copies last week. When you cut away from O Brother’s massive SoundScan numbers, though, things look much more modest. The numbers drop off like a descent down the Marianas Trench. It was reported that Ralph Stanley ’s new solo album — his first ever to chart at Billboard — sold 100,000 copies in its first week of release. It didn’t. It sold 7,500 copies. Which is respectable for a bluegrass album, but is not blockbuster time. After five weeks on the chart, its total sales are now at 20,500 copies, with sales last week at 2,300, according to SoundScan.

And O Brother can’t be regarded as solely a bluegrass success story. Strictly speaking, it’s a roots album, not a bluegrass album. And it has become a phenomenon quite beyond any musical genre. Expectations should be more modest for bluegrass albums.

Let’s look at the numbers on some current releases. Parton’s Halos & Horns sold 18, 600 copies last week. Pretty good numbers, suggesting the album can compete against country music’s medium range of albums. Alison Krauss & Union Station are proving to be extremely durable: their New Favorite album is at sales of 561,600 after 48 weeks of charting, with sales last week of 6,700. Of course, Krauss launched a false wave of hosannas about a new revival of bluegrass after her 1995 album Now That I’ve Found You sold double platinum. It’s a measure of Krauss’ devotion to her craft, though, that she spurned lucrative commercial offers from the big record labels at the time in favor of staying on the smaller label Rounder, where she felt her music had more of a home.

A more modern paradigm is the young group Nickel Creek , whose debut album sold more than half a million copies — unheard of for a bluegrass album by a new young group. But it’s a much more realistic expectation of topline bluegrass success today. Looking at the progress of some other currently charting bluegrass albums also gives an accurate picture of reasonable expectations. The Down From the Mountain soundtrack has sold some 343,000 albums during its 51 weeks of charting, with sales last week of almost 3,000. Patty LovelessMountain Soul is at 183,000 copies, with sales last week of 2,400. O Sister! The Women’s Bluegrass Collection is at sales of 95,000 copies, with 1,400 selling last week.

Of course, the pleasure of bluegrass goes far beyond the mundane world of country music commerce. Bluegrass record labels — unlike mainstream country labels — aren’t owned by huge absentee landlord conglomerates that demand bigger profits and more sales every quarter. They are able to afford to release albums that can make profits from more modest sales numbers. And albums that aren’t required to contain radio hits tend to be a lot more free, more experimental, to push the frontiers. It’s such a pleasure to see some measure of widespread popular — and commercial — acclaim finally come to 75-year-old Ralph Stanley. I hear he’s driving a new Jaguar now and I certainly hope that he is, because he deserves it. He’s spent more than five decades playing and singing the music that he does simply because it is the music he believes in.

Mainstream country radio doesn’t play bluegrass for the plain and simple reason that good bluegrass isn’t musical wallpaper. Good bluegrass either invites you to listen or demands that you listen. Mainstream country radio wants a fairly pleasant, uninterrupted stream of predictable music as a lure for commercials. So mainstream country radio stations will likely never play bluegrass. Maybe they shouldn’t. It would only cheapen bluegrass.

NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo