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  • A "Traditional" Music Scene and Its Fringes:Experimental Bluegrass of 1970s New York City
  • Benjamin Krakauer (bio)

The 1970s were a pivotal period of excitement and controversy within a socially conservative bluegrass milieu. Many white, working-class, southern, Christian audiences at this time viewed bluegrass music as a celebratory expression of a shared cultural identity. To young countercultural fans and musicians of various backgrounds, however, bluegrass was one among many genres available for exploration and experimentation.1 Although conservative audiences accepted regional, religious, and ethnic outsiders who embraced and celebrated established notions of bluegrass tradition,2 they rejected others whose musical and cultural Otherness ostensibly threatened to destabilize their communal norms and boundaries.

In this article, I focus on the music and reception of Breakfast Special, a group of experimental bluegrass musicians from New York City who incorporated jazz, avant-garde, psychedelic, klezmer, and various non-Western musical elements into their irreverent and often absurdist performances. I explore the question of why their music was never absorbed into the bluegrass mainstream, while the newgrass and progressive bluegrass of many of their innovative peers was widely embraced. I argue that Breakfast Special's eclecticism and related aesthetic choices made [End Page 163] their music inaccessible to many bluegrass audiences and that the unfamiliar aspects of this music and its presentation exacerbated conservative southern white audiences' anxieties over the performers' regional, ethnic, religious, and cultural Otherness.

More broadly, my research foregrounds the ways in which concepts of "tradition," "modernity," and "taste" signify far more than musical values in a "traditional" music community. My research indicates that negotiations of bluegrass tradition are as much about communal identity and membership as about musical aesthetics and that a "tasteful" performance is one that articulates a cultural sensibility proudly rooted in a shared and imagined communal past.3

Although Breakfast Special may seem to be an obscure footnote in the history of bluegrass music, their music anticipates many of the directions recently explored by young bluegrass musicians in an era of digital music, relaxed genre boundaries, and the institutionalization of bluegrass at universities and conservatories. Whereas their "wild" orientation was antithetical to the "smooth" aesthetic that was ascendant in bluegrass from the 1970s through the 2000s, their combination of reckless spontaneity and technical virtuosity, along with their stylistic eclecticism, is a direct precursor to sounds that some New York- and Boston-based musicians have explored in the past several years.4

The first part of this article frames the trajectory of bluegrass music from its emergence in the 1940s to its dramatic expansion and diversification—and simultaneous consecration as a "traditional" genre—in the festival scene of the late 1960s and 1970s. The second part of the article focuses on the experimental bluegrass of 1970s New York City as performed and epitomized by the band Breakfast Special. I conclude by reframing the compatibility of experimentation and traditionalism in bluegrass by highlighting parallels between Breakfast Special and the "Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe. Throughout, I shed light on a remarkable and underexamined time in bluegrass history, when disparate social trends were clashing and commingling at southern bluegrass festivals: a newly constructed bluegrass traditionalism, the aesthetics and values of urban folk revivalism, a post-Beatles counterculture, a nascent "world music" movement, and an ascendant aesthetic of smoothness in mainstream music.

Research Methods and Scholarly Orientation

I base my observations on scholarly and archival research, conversations and interviews conducted with musicians active in the 1970s bluegrass scene, and twenty years of experience as a bluegrass musician. In developing this article, I drew from personal and professional relationships with many of the musicians I write about. I learned to play banjo and [End Page 164] guitar as a teenager from Bill Gurley, a Virginia-based musician active in the 1970s newgrass and progressive bluegrass scene, and the music of this era is the foundation for much of the music that I play.

Over the years, while attending bluegrass festivals, jams, and other events, I've been aware of an underlying conservatism that governs not only "traditional" but also nontraditional bluegrass jam sessions and performances. This conservatism is striking given that onlookers in the bluegrass community describe nontraditional jam sessions and...


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