By Lucy Salcido Carter
One of the reasons I love bluegrass music is because the best bluegrass songs tell real stories and express real emotions. You don’t have to have experienced exactly what the song describes to be able to inhabit the song as the singer and player and to feel the emotions as the listener. You just have to have a way to get into the overall feeling of the song.
Some bluegrass musicians focus primarily on taking instrumental breaks; I focus on vocals, lyric, melody, and rhythm. Bluegrass really requires all of the above, of course. But, although I know that good instrumental breaks can hold intense emotion, for me the emotions sit in the lyrics and vocals.
When I am looking for material to lead in jams, I choose songs that I can relate to emotionally. I choose songs with stories and melodies that conjure feelings I can express when I sing them.
If I’m feeling blue and nostalgic for home, I choose Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home.” If I am feeling like life is hard and full of struggle, I’ll sing “I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled.” If I’m remembering a time when my heart was broken, I’ll pull out Clyde Pitts’ and Billy Deaton’s “Sad Situation,” or if I’m feeling sad, but a little self-righteous, about a love lost, I’ll sing “I’ll Stay Around.” Or if I’m noticing how hard and comprising work life can be for family life, I’ll go for “Dream of a Miner’s Child.”
Placing my emotions into these songs as I sing and play helps me feel better and helps me sing and play with more depth and conviction. Have you noticed how raw Hazel Dickens sounds when she sings? She isn’t affecting feelings; she’s feeling feelings as she sings. With some bluegrass musicians, male or female, I can’t feel the raw emotions as they sing and play. The bluegrass style is there, but the depth of emotion doesn’t seem to be there. For me, the best singers have raw emotion coming through.
"I’ve found that bringing out the guitar and starting to sing sad songs can turn an emotionally tense situation into a calm, happy one."
I’ve also found that when I put real feelings into my singing and playing, I give listeners a place to put their feelings too. I bring a really human element to already very downhome music. In fact I’ve found that bringing out the guitar and starting to sing sad songs can turn an emotionally tense situation into a calm, happy one—as if the sad songs absorb the bad feelings in the room and make things right again.
For example, last Thanksgiving my partner and I went to visit my parents. My mother is 77 years old and was responsible for most of a Thanksgiving dinner for 18 people: the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the twice-baked potatoes, the creamed pearl onions, and the peas. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge by itself, my mother did not grow up celebrating Thanksgiving. She grew up in Mexico and so never learned how to fix Thanksgiving meals. Over the years, she has learned American Thanksgiving traditions and tries very hard, as many immigrant parents do, to give her family and guests a perfect American holiday experience. Needless to say, things are tense in the kitchen every year on Thanksgiving as she works to get it right. Last year, we offered to help prepare the food with her, but our presence in the kitchen only made her more nervous.
Finally, I suggested to my partner that we get out our guitars, sit in the sunroom off the kitchen (but not in the kitchen!), and sing and play for my mother. Almost immediately my mother’s mood began to change; she became happy hearing the music. She kept saying, “Oh, that’s so sad. Sing another sad one!” My father, who has learned over the years to keep his distance from the kitchen, came closer and hovered by the doorway, listening but not making his presence too obvious.
We played only sad songs for about an hour and a half. Little by little and song by song, we felt the tension in the house lift. My mother became happy and relaxed and was happy and relaxed for the rest of the day. And her dinner was a resounding success. I can only chalk those results up to the fact that we gave her a place to put those hard, tense feelings she was experiencing. And off they came.
So next time you are at a party or home with family and things don’t feel quite right, pull out your instrument and sing with feeling and conviction those sad and lonesome bluegrass songs, and watch the mood get brighter. You’ll be warming up the room with beautiful bluegrass sounds, and you’ll be creating a place for people to put their feelings and to feel better.