Guest Author - Chris Curtis
Rock and Roll began an evolution in music at a time when technology was rapidly providing a conduit for reaching the ears of millions of listeners throughout the world. Prior to that music primarily emanated from front porches and communal halls. It was raw and untainted by technological enhancements; however, the musicianship was masterful and the song writing compelling. Over the years rock and pop music have dominated the radio waves with little airplay giving voice to root and acoustic music but this mainly cultural music continues to exist moving from the front porches into small coffee houses and festival venues.
Called root music because its precursor is deeply seated in the traditions of a culture and its people. It is also often referred to as folk music but that seems too narrow a scope but some would argue the term Root Music is too broad a categorization. Regardless of what you term it, it comes from the heart of the people. The term root music covers such genres as folk, bluegrass, celtic, deep delta blues, Cajun, zydeco, Creole, Appalachian, old time, traditional, acoustic, and singer-songwriter. It is an all encompassing term covering a wide range of musical stylings that are often fused, meshed, blended and mixed to create exciting and alive sounds. Music has to breathe to live.
Radio technology lead the way to commercializing music, promoting artists and their product, their music. This gave way to the music industry and mass production of albums. Root Music also became commercialized despite the lack of widespread air play. Artists in this sphere of music often self-produced albums that were largely sold as point of sale items at shows. Root artists began to make a living from gigs and record sales.
Yet, the radio waves largely ignore the heritage of this type of music favoring the rock, pop and rap scenes and marketing to the youth – teens and young adults. Unfortunately, musical mastery and meaningful song writing in this environment often gives way to what sells in the marketplace which sometimes stifles a musician's creativity. Bob Dylan is considered an icon but he had refused to give in to marketplace pressures and allowed his creativity to flourish. He is known to be a maverick but still he has managed to be commercially viable most of his career.
Root music is rich with virtuosic singers, songwriters, and multi-instrumental musicians who are hard put to scrape a living from their music. These musicians are highly creative and have mastery command over their instruments. Yet, most them only gain notoriety within a narrow audience and many barely eek out a living from their music. Make no mistake, there are many Folk and Root music artists, that have gained notoriety. Most highly successful artists have promoters who know the ropes and get the artist heard and hired.
The question is how can root music be marketed to reach a wider audience? There are talented kids out there who are solely influenced by rock, pop and rap because they have never been exposed to acoustic and roots sounds. Young guitarists would benefit from studying the likes of Doc Watson, David Grier, Bryan Sutton, Chris Eldridge, Leo Kotsky, etc. with their amazing dexterity and clean precision. How do these young guitarist gain exposure to these masters unless the parents or guitar instructors are into the acoustic music scene and the kids are brought to jamming festivals.
Although for the most part, festival patrons are aging. Yet, there are some very gifted youthful artists performing in this realm. Artists such as Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, Lovelle Sisters, Boston Boys and the Maybelles who are highly talented do not have the exposure to mass marketing that pop and rap artists enjoy. Closely related music sees a plethora of youth including Chris Thile and his latest band, Punch Brothers, Uncle Earl, Mountain Heart, Crooked Still, Stringdusters etc. Yet, it's an older audience to which they play. Similarly in LA, young Zydeco and Cajun artists are stretching the traditions to keep the youth coming to their shows by fusing Rap and R&B into their sound, outside of LA these same bands play straight up Zydeco to an older dance community throughout the US. How do these young musicians reach their peer listening group? What does it take to awaken the younger generation to this music and to these dances that are so alive and energetic?
These questions are not insurmountable but solutions need to be found or the life of the traditional music will seep away. If you think Folk Music is Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds etc., you owe it to yourself to seek out some live music at a local coffee house or festival. I promise you, you will find a rich and brilliant world of music beyond those radio waves.