Ivey Sees Bluegrass As a Bridge Between Folk and Country

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Country music is in “a big ol’ funk” right now, and bluegrass music can help it find its way out again, says Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and former director of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Ivey’s remark came Wednesday (Oct. 18) during a lunchtime, keynote address to the International Bluegrass Music Association. The observation drew applause from hundreds of IBMA members gathered at The Galt House Hotel here for their annual meeting.

Country music has “too many songs about positive love, with a snappy hook line, songs that are really created for radio rather than for audiences,” Ivey said.

“Every five or 10 years, country music either goes back to Bill Monroe or Hank Williams in order to figure out where it is and kinda start over again. It’s about time, right now, that that happened again,” he continued, drawing more applause. “Bluegrass, as always, is poised to provide that essential connection with tradition and that new inspiration.”

In his address, Ivey described the close connection that has existed since the 1970s between the NEA and bluegrass music. As examples, he pointed to grants to festivals and music tours that have included bluegrass artists and to National Heritage Fellowships presented to bluegrass artists including the late Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Kenny Baker and Jim & Jesse McReynolds.

“The Endowment and its investment in America’s cultural heritage will only grow, as we partner with you in bluegrass,” he vowed.

Ivey has headed up the federal arts agency since 1998. He told the IBMA audience how his own appreciation for bluegrass grew out of his start as a “folk revival baby.” He recalled attending an early bluegrass festival in 1966, making frequent visits to Monroe’s Bean Blossom music venue while a graduate student in folklore at Indiana University and learning about the bluegrass repertoire from fellow student Neil Rosenberg, who would later become a top country and bluegrass scholar.

Large record companies, Ivey said, are complex components of “multinational entertainment conglomerates that often don’t have the sense of imagination or the freedom to experiment on a new performer, and don’t have the commitment to artistry to maintain the careers of singers and instrumentalists once they’re no longer automatically delivering Top 10 hits.”

Relatively inexpensive digital recording technology, Internet marketing and the modest cost of manufacturing digital products in small quantities can all boost the fortunes of bluegrass, he said.

“Bluegrass has always been something of a stealth business,” Ivey went on to explain. “You’ve always been a little bit under the radar screen and have always found ways to do well.”

The NEA, Ivey said, feels bluegrass is positioned almost exactly between folk music and commercial country music. “Bluegrass,” he said, “is a kind of bridge connecting those two worlds, and there’s a lot of flow back and forth.”