Suits and boots: Nothing 'hillbilly' about the way bluegrass performers dress on stage

schandler@newsobserver.comSeptember 25, 2013 

  • Suits look great, but they’re hot

    Honoring tradition can sometimes get a little uncomfortable, Chatham County Line’s John Teer admitted.

    Playing festivals is a bluegrass band’s bread and butter, and it gets hot out there.

    “Occasionally, if it gets just unbearable with the heat, a jacket might come off,” he said, “but for the most part I try to keep everything on with the suit.”

    Over the years, the band has come up with some coping strategies to beat the heat.

    “There are certain sort of meditative thoughts, or Zen-like thoughts, you try to put in your head,” he said. “You sort of escape to Antarctica for a minute and try to cool yourself down in your head.”

    And you also pay attention to what your suit is made of. Worsted wool or virgin wool are good, breathable options. “Stay away from polyester suits,” he warned. “That’s a trap.”

    Another challenge is keeping the band’s suits clean.

    “That becomes an issue, for sure,” Teer said. “If we’re on a long tour, we bring a couple suits. But a lot of times we warn the fans they might want to keep a little distance after the show because these suits have been on us a few days, might have a slight smell to them.”

    In a pinch, they turn to Dryel or Febreze – or sometimes just a good airing out.

    Suits may require much more thought and maintenance than a simple cotton shirt and pair of jeans, but Teer said it’s worth the trouble.

    “We get a lot of compliments” from audiences, he said. “It stands out a little bit. I think they tend to lean more to you and become more interested in what you have to offer and appreciate the music a little bit more. There’s been a lot of pros to wearing suits on stage, too.”

    -Staff writer Stacy Chandler

When Bill Monroe wowed the Grand Ole Opry with a newfangled high, lonesome sound in 1939, you’d better believe he was wearing a tie.

The father of bluegrass always wore a tie and dress shirt – usually with a full suit and hat – while performing, and anyone on stage with him was expected to adhere to the same dress code. It wasn’t just a matter of preference: Monroe wanted to distance himself from the look and sound of “hillbilly” music popular at the time, and he wanted to let audiences know he meant business.

Today, the traditions of bluegrass are alive and well, even as the genre reaches in new directions, and bands still use fashion to send a message to the audience.

“It’s respect to the music,” said John Teer, fiddle and mandolin player in Raleigh-based bluegrass band Chatham County Line, which plays the Wideopen Bluegrass Street Festival Saturday on the City Plaza stage.

“From the very beginning, we had always been inspired by a lot of the older, great bluegrass through some of the legends in bluegrass like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley,” he said.

So right from the start, the four members of Chatham County Line decided two things: They were going to play and sing around a single microphone and they were going to wear suits – with boots – onstage.

“My whole motto is if you look good, you play good,” Teer said. “It becomes this confidence factor. What we do on stage, and presenting it to the audience, it’s respect to the people who come to the show. They feel like they’re going to get a great show.”

A cohesive look

One dramatic change in the look of bluegrass since Bill Monroe’s heyday is the number of women in bands, both traditional and progressive. And many of those women chose their outfits thoughtfully, a nod to the roots of bluegrass but also to today’s fashion consciousness.

You won’t catch members of the all-female bluegrass band Della Mae in matching ensembles, but they do coordinate their outfits so that they add up to a cohesive look.

“Basically, it’s a conversation before every show,” said mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner. Someone might ask, “‘What are you wearing tonight? This is what I was thinking…’ and we’ll kind of go from that.”

The band, playing on the Red Hat Amphitheater stage on Saturday, isn’t really trying to achieve a certain look, she said, so much as making sure their clothing matches the venue, the event and the mood.

“Everyone sort of has their own individual style,” she said, “and we’ve never tried to make a mold out of our style. We really try to feel as comfortable in our clothes as we can, and everyone expresses their individual style in a cohesive sense that will work in the band.”

But even in a casual setting, the members of Della Mae dress it up a bit.

“We’ve really tried to look professional first,” Gardner said. “We take our jobs very seriously. Stepping on stage, to all of us, is what we’ve worked so hard for, and we take it very seriously and we want to dress in a way that is respectful to the music and to our audience.”

Present-day inspiration

Reaching back to the earliest days of bluegrass doesn’t yield a lot of female style icons, but the women of Della Mae draw inspiration from the present.

Gardner listed Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and even Dolly Parton (“even though she’s a little more flamboyant with her style”) as fashion inspirations from the music world, but she said the group draws inspiration from all around them.

“Everyone in the group loves clothes and fashion so much. Being an all-female band, more note is taken of that,” she said. “There’s so much emphasis on fashion with women in general. We really try to take that and do our best with it.”

You’ll still see blue jeans

Not every modern bluegrass band is so conscientious, said Lorraine Jordan, frontwoman of North Carolina-based Carolina Road.

“I’ve seen a big change over the years with that,” she said. “People walk up there with blue jeans, flip-flops and a ragged T-shirt on. That’s just not the way bluegrass was. If you’ve got the traditional roots with the Stanley brothers and all those people, you know part of bluegrass is to be dressed.”

The five members of Carolina Road – four men and one woman – coordinate their outfits to both embrace tradition and present a modern look.

“Our roots are with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt,” said Jordan, who lives in Garner. “And back in the early days of bluegrass, they all dressed alike. They had their suits and their bow ties and their dress shirts and they even wore hats. We don’t go to that extreme, but we try to keep the tradition alive.”

Sometimes the band, playing a Bluegrass Ramble Evening session at the Long View Center Saturday night, will perform in jeans, she said, but pair them with similarly styled button-down shirts in different colors.

“We respect the traditional roots, but our music is a little bit fresher and our dress is a little bit fresher,” she said. “But we’re not getting so far away from it that we’re not respecting what bluegrass is about.”

Most important, said Della Mae’s Gardner, is making sure the look and the sound work together, because the audience is paying attention to both.

“We try our best to feel completely comfortable within our own skin and on the inside so that shows on the outside,” she said. “So far, it’s been working really well.”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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