You may be heading over to the IBMA Wide Open Bluegrass festival in downtown Raleigh this week, and you may be asking yourself, “What should I wear to blend in with the bluegrassers?”
The answer to the question would have been a simple one in 1946, when Bill Monroe first assembled what many consider to be the first bluegrass band, with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Cedric Rainwater. Back then you would wear a “High Homburg” Stetson hat (you may Google that), and a shirt and tie (please don’t Google “tie”). Jodhpurs optional. End of wardrobe story.
Bluegrass is much more diverse in 2016, though, both musically and in fashion choice. What you wear to fit in with the professional pickers might vary dramatically depending on the kind of band you’re going to see.
Though the hat, shirt and tie combo (with or without suit) has remained a constant among the most traditional bluegrass acts since 1946, the look of some bluegrass musicians has evolved gradually through the decades, with innovations like the skinny tie, the wide tie, the T-shirt (introduced in the ’70s, along with long hair, by Sam Bush’s band New Grass Revival), the leisure suit, the white belt, the mustache, the goatee, the bolo tie, the perm, the mullet, and finally, the untucked shirt.
It’s not western wear
Many mistakenly associate western clothes with bluegrass music: boots, hat, leather vest, etc. Today this is a look more often associated with Nashville tourists, or the attendees at an Austrian country music festival.
Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and others did wear western hats with their suits at various times, and the western look did enjoy a brief heyday in the bluegrass world during the “urban cowboy” craze (a dark period in our nation’s history, falling about mid-way between the McCarthy era and 9/11), but in general, bluegrass has always been more eastern than western in appearance.
An ironic western look is seen from time to time, though, among the hipper, jammier bands. Call it “Brooklyn/Western.” This is a look that can be achieved, for example, by combining a designer western-style shirt purchased from a store that has never seen horse tack with a cowboy hat that’s two sizes too small.
Off the prairie
Women in bluegrass have had more freedom of fashion expression in some ways, since their involvement in the music came later in its history, and there wasn’t a 1940s style precedent.
In earlier years, some women favored the Laura Ingalls Wilder-style long floral dresses. It was a look that made you feel that at any moment the fiddle player might start churning butter on stage.
This gradually gave way to more contemporary clothing choices. In fact, the prairie pioneer look was sported by the early lineup of The Dixie Chicks, a band that grew out of the Dallas bluegrass scene.
The fact that their astounding commercial success came after they had adopted a more modern appearance may just be a coincidence.
Chris Jones is a bluegrass musician, host of SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction and a contributor to Bluegrass Today. Jones has won IBMA awards for songwriting, humor writing and broadcasting, and is nominated this year for Songwriter of the Year. He’ll perform at Wide Open Bluegrass – Chris Jones & The Night Drivers – Friday night on the Davie Street Stage.
Choose your look
Today, bluegrass music comes in many varieties, from retro to jamgrass. Below is a guide to what you might expect to see these performers wearing. Make your own fashion choices accordingly.
Retro (as exemplified by the award-winning Earls of Leicester, who pay tribute band to the Flatt & Scruggs band of the late ’50s and early ’60s): suit, hat, string tie
Traditional/Old School: black suit, red shirt, grey hair (except for the 15-year-old mandolin player)
Mainstream/modern: goatee (except for the women), untucked shirt, spiked hair (except for the women, usually)
Traditional (west coast version): grey suit, vintage tie, Birkenstocks
Jamgrass: Bob Marley T-shirt, flip-flops, tie-dye anything, mountain man beard
Bluegrass gospel: big hair, pastel sport coat
Throwback/old-time: ironic overalls, shirt and vintage tie, freshly sat-on felt hat, goodwill shoes
When in doubt, try blending looks by combining overalls, tie-dye, spiked hair, a pastel jacket, flip-flops and a High Homburg hat (now that you know what it is). Then you’ll fit in with any of the Wide Open Bluegrass bands. Or, people will just think you’re an eccentric DJ.
More bluegrass coverage
Get wall-to-wall bluegrass festival coverage at nando.com/bluegrass.