Changing The Image: Playing Head Games

We have had a lot of presentations over the past few months in class. We’ve seen people discuss everything from rooms in the bluegrass house to children’s songs; covers of songs and string-making; music stores and tour buses; and of course we’ve learned a lot in our journey to survey contemporary bluegrass.

But there is a particular subject that we have not covered yet. I feel it just does not get its due. And it’s a shame, since it’s sort of the “crowning achievement” of some of these musicians that we talk about, listen to, and watch every day.

I ask you to consider the topic of hair in bluegrass music.

I’m very serious. I believe that there’s more to this subject than first meets the eye.

Let us go back to Peterson and his many “authenticities”…but let’s instead focus on the concept of “hard-core” vs. “soft-shell” musicians. The whole point of this side of Peterson’s argument is that certain musicians that are considered to be “hard-core” (a.k.a. “authentic” for some reason or another) are the same ones that have a certain amount of characteristics reminiscent of the original innovators of the music. For example, on the topic of attire, Peterson explains that in country music, the “hard-core” dress code is the “currently appropriate version of hillbilly or western-style leather or denim outfits”, while the “soft-shell” musicians tend to wear “tailored reflections of the mature popular singer style of the times with perhaps an echo of the hard-core look of the time”.

What exactly does this have to do with hair? I actually propose the theory that just like clothes, hair gives a certain amount of panache and personality to a performer. It makes them more memorable. It lends a certain air to their overall look. It often helps a first-time audience member get a grasp of precisely what this performer’s sound will be like. And it often helps these artists to get hordes of adoring fans…

(Now, before we start, in the interest of staying within the time limit, I would like to state that I will only be discussing male bluegrass artists.)

First of all, I feel like we should start with the Oldie-But-Goodies. This includes the more classic styles, such as:

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Larry Sparks’ “Wave and Widow’s Peak”…

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J.D. Crowe’s “Variation on the Theme of a Pompadour”…

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…and Bill Monroe’s super simple combed back hair to put all the attention on his hat – and his sideburns.

As time went on, however, we started to see more ostentatious styles taking the stage. This was the era of experimentation and individuality, often in the name of utter disregard to styling whatsoever. Some of the more memorable coiffures to spring from this time period included styles such as:

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“The Mart-llet”…

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“The Shaggy Dawg”…

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…and the “Rice Tail”.

As well, any discussion of hair from this time would not be complete without this man…

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…who eventually became famous for this curly mop…

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…Sam Bush.

Some bluegrass musicians are simply more conscious of the fashions (or lack thereof) of the times. I believe that perhaps the best example of this is the veritable hair chameleon himself, Ricky Skaggs.

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And just in case you think that I have limited my follicular musings to those who are more generously endowed, think again!

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Mike Compton…

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Frank Solivan…

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…and the 4th place finisher in the 2012 Bluegrass Today “Who Has the Best Hair in Bluegrass?” poll, Sammy Shelor, all prove that one can be effortlessly slick while standing out from the crowd.

This subject has not been overlooked by the excellent guide to all things bluegrass, Bluegrass Today:                                            

The bluegrass hair wars

Ricky Skaggs on bluegrass hair

The Bluegrass Intelligencer has even found this topic worthy to be acknowledged by their website:

Natural Disaster Obliterates DelFest, Fails to Disrupt McCoury Hair

Finally, I am extremely pleased to see that the hair baton has been passed on to the next generation. As styles have changed, one can spot artists like Chris Thile branching out into trendier, modish looks (not unlike his music)…

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…while musicians such as John Meyer are keeping tradition alive with smooth vintage aesthetics.

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This appears to be a trend: many traditionalists are sticking with the most conservative of hairstyles, while the progressive willing to cross the line of genre definition are often as a whole more experimental with their coiffeurs. It’s an interesting thought, certainly not the only debatable topic that can be brought up on this subject.

And finally, to end on a high lonesome note and to save the best for last, here is the man whose headstock is just simply so much of a cut above that his hair has remained as perfect as it was when he played with Bill Monroe.

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The man whose 5th search suggestion under his name when it is Googled is “hair”: the man, the myth, and the legend, Mister Del McCoury.

older-del

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