Why Church Music Should Be More Like Bluegrass

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2013 — 3 Comments

jam-circleI think we all know where I stand when it comes to bluegrass. The rest of you can have your Chris Tomlin pablum or your oppressive baroque toccatas or all that (completely) unironic tedium from the 19th century which fills the bulk of the United Methodist Hymnal.*

As far as I’m concerned, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Jesus Christ would be a fair second place substitute for the Holy Trinity and one that would make me reconsider my denominational affiliation.

I’m well aware its considered trendy now. If so, then consider me a round peg in the circular bliss that is the banjo. My church’s Bluegrass Easter Sunrise is the largest attended service of the year. As I often tell folks why bluegrass makes for good worship music:

‘It’s as soulful as white people can get without being cringeworthy.’ 

Paula Spurr at Geez Magazine (great publication by the way…it’s like a leftist, Canadian version of First Things, which I also love) has a great piece ‘In Praise of the Banjo.’

“Stand and sing with me, number 422 in your hymnal. Ladies on verse two; men on verse three; all together on verses one and four.”

This was how I experienced worship growing up. A man stood at the front and led us like a choir. We had no say in anything.
As the years went by, worship morphed from the choir experience to some sort of karaoke rock concert, the band leading you through its set list, the words projected on the wall. You could stand or sit as you wished, but it was still a very directed experience. As a member of the audience (I just can’t call it a congregation), I had very little responsibility for the worship experience and none at all for the music, which was so loud that I could sing off-key and it wouldn’t matter.

I don’t attend church anymore, and the main way I experience music now is in the bluegrass genre . . . banjos and doghouse bass, mandolins and fiddles.

I wish music in church was a lot more like bluegrass.

In the jam circle, everyone participates.

There’s no leader. Everyone gets a chance to pick a song, everybody plays and everybody takes a solo break. If you don’t want to, you can pass and nobody minds. Those who can’t play an instrument are encouraged to sing or clap along. Sure, there are the hot players who form bands and put on concerts, and we’ll go watch and sing along, but mostly we just gather every week and jam.

Wouldn’t church be crazy if it were like that? Each member sharing in the responsibility of the music, helping other members enter in?

But churches are too big. You don’t get to know the person beside you. You just sit and enjoy the show. It’s one of the many reasons I quit going. If you need me, I’ll be on the front porch pickin’.

Click here to see the full piece.

* for those of you whose feelings are hurt, this is what writers call ‘hyperbole.’ 

Jason Micheli

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3 responses to Why Church Music Should Be More Like Bluegrass

  1. Okay, I’ll bite. Make sure you reference me by name in your sermon.

    Couple of problems with this (some yours, some from the article):

    1) No “soulful” music existed for white people before Bluegrass? Ignoring the racial slight, this is about the most “soulful”, engaging music I can think of. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCULWK4tNuc Some can equal, but none can surpass. Here is a english translation: http://www.emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv140.htm. You tend to avoid historical perspective when you talk about music. All music is derived from what came before it, either as a continuation and development of its predecessors, or as a rejection of the same. The people that wrote, performed, and listened to music throughout history faced many of the same struggles, joys and sorrows that we face today, and their music is as much a reflection of that as the music of today is of ours. The inability to recognize that or to hear that in their music is a shortcoming of the listener, not the music. Certainly some music is better than others, but durability is usually the determiner (ignoring the 9:45 service).

    2) Is the Bluegrass service the most attended because of the music? I don’t think the majority of the people who attend think that they are going to be participants in the performance.

    3) Anyone who things there is no performer “participation” in anything other than improvisatory music has never really performed music with other musicians.

    4) Even in Bluegrass, there are at least ten times as many observers as there are performers.

    5) It’s a big cop-out for the author to say that he doesn’t go to church any more in-part because they are “too big”. I’d love to have the bishop come speak about how there are too many big churches in our conference.

    6) This whole article could just as easily be an argument for why we don’t need clergy.

    7) * = classic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-apology_apology

    BTW, none of this should be construed as a dislike of Bluegrass on my part.

    • Jason Micheli March 4, 2013 at 8:52 PM

      Thanks for the comment(s) Tom!
      #1- Mainly, I just like Bluegrass and other Improv forms of music and like picking on the narrow confines of what counts as ‘contemporary’ or ‘traditional’ music. My problem with both actually echoes your point #1: they adhere to too narrow a slice of the Christian timeline. There’s great music in all periods and forms and crappy music in all periods and forms. I think I’ve blogged about this somewhere. When I say ‘soulful’ what I really mean is (and this is the context I usually say it): Older, White choir people shouldn’t be singing and clapping to black spirituals. But ‘soulful’ can also mean: people in the crowd aren’t embarrassed to clap to it. The folks at 9:45 who refuse to clap will clap on Easter morning…so there’s a user ease they experience in one area they don’t in another.
      #2- We’ve not done a survey or anything but the service ballooned 3x when we added bluegrass to it and we have lots of people call the weeks leading to Easter to see if they’ll be playing, which we don’t have for other worship styles so I think it’s safe to say that yes bluegrass draws. The late Xmas service this year also dropped from last year when we switched from BG to Jazz- though I enjoyed the Jazz more. Part of it I’m sure is that roots music has been trendy the last ten years, from O’Brother to Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons. (Actually, its the improv/spontaneity of both genres that I find appealing. Related- I think- is that improved music has an authenticity or organic feeling (ie, less produced) that contrasts with much contemporary Christian music. I think that’s what I resonate with and its what most of the college folks I know resonate with too. I think this explains the popularity of bands like the Welcome Wagon that are, admittedly, doing an Indie/Christian takeoff.) I’d also bet the appeal of Bluegrass owes to the fact that overall ‘Country’ is the most listened to genre.
      #3- Agree
      #4- Yep, but I think she said this as well.
      #5- Well, we don’t have any UM churches that count as ‘big’ by cross denominational standards so…point taken.
      #6- Yes, but that’s also a valid argument. I’ve come to the conclusion the rigid clergy/lay divide is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to UM’s growth in the future. Too many people won’t a hands-off faith where the pastors ‘play the music’ so to speak. For example, I’ve stopped wearing my robe at the traditional services and its provoked more negative emails, calls, anonymous letters to the higher ups than the freaking muslims at church…I think a bivocational clergy is the way of the future and will be healthy. Pastors and churches both will be freed if so much isn’t determined by pay and pension. And pastors would be much less beholden to their denominational structures- and probably more effective- if they weren’t earning their entire salary from a local church. It would force, say the UMC, to no longer make the appointment process the driver of all decisions. I only wish I had like an actual marketable skill.
      #7- It made me smile that you took the time to WK that when it was really my (foolish) attempt to avoid an angry email from ___________about the beauty of Bach. Incidentally, I have Yo Yo Ma playing Bach on right now.

      Bottom Line, I think her point was about making church more participatory and engaging. Music aside, I couldn’t agree with that point more. From folks not singing at the middle service to traditional services where people passively receive ‘special music’ it’s a definite problem.

  2. I agree with this article (and not just for the Ricky Scaggs plug).
    The participatory part is key. I have never felt more included or involved in music than when I am in a bluegrass setting. There is no judgement. I have felt judged, not in a pointing fingers way, but in a self conscious way, when participating in music at church. I feel like it is a constant balancing act on the line between seeming like I like it too much or being generally apathetic. Bluegrass on the other hand seems to have a way of melting those inhibitions and involving people of all ages. Music should be a way to become a part of the service, not an opportunity to watch a concert, and that becomes harder with many styles of church music.
    I would also like to note that a lot of bluegrass is based on hymns, and definitely has a historical piece to it. People wouldn’t be able to gather and jam (without sheet music) if there were new songs every week. They are songs that generations have grown up learning, instilling values and messages just like “church music” but everyone knows them – which is what makes the participation possible.
    It does come down to taste, but regardless of music style, I think that this idea of active participation is a good one.
    Plus there is noting quite as relaxing as listening to bluegrass on Sunday morning Blue Ridge radio :)

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