Enthusiasm for “unplugged” music has helped revitalize the careers of middle-aged rocker Eric Clapton and elderly crooner Tony Bennett. It may also be behind the growing interest in a purely American musical form–bluegrass. Born in the 1940s and based on folk-music traditions, bluegrass incorporates guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo to create melodic musical lines.
Adults who buy bluegrass music are a small share of all music purchasers, at 2.4 percent. Yet these 4.6 million aficionados average more than nine musical buys a year, well above the U.S. average of five annual purchases, according to a new survey by Simmons Market Research for the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). The potential for bluegrass is even greater. In 2013, about 30 percent of adults said they like bluegrass music.(1)
Why don’t more bluegrass fanciers take home bluegrass tapes and CDs? One possible reason is that many bluegrass performers refuse to write and record songs expressly for broad commercial appeal. Hit singles are virtually unheard of. That didn’t stop 24-year-old Alison Krauss, a bluegrass singer and fiddler, from selling more than 2 million copies of her 1995 recording, “Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection.” Krauss wouldn’t court commercial success, even as her single got play time on radio stations nationwide. She reportedly passed on contract offers from major Nashville record labels, and eschewed large, big-money, high-publicity concert venues for smaller spaces with better acoustics.
Whether for lack of self-promotion or just the nature of the genre, bluegrass music appeals most to both the poorest and most affluent adults, and those who are young and in late middle-age. About 3 percent of those with household incomes below $10,000 or $75,000 or more are bluegrass buyers, compared with 2.4 percent on average. Low-income bluegrass fans may have more money than it appears. Many may be college students whose parents are footing the bill.
The popularity of bluegrass has been steadily increasing since it took hold as a music form 40 years ago, says Dan Hays, executive director of the IBMA. “There were enough bands in the 1950s for bluegrass to become a musical category,” he says. “Then the folk boom in the 1960s and multi-day music events in the 1970s brought a lot of attention [to acoustic music].”
Bluegrass is also becoming more popular in international circles. The IBMA has members in 28 foreign countries. Bluegrass is especially on the rise in Japan and the former Soviet Union. “Bluegrass is popular for the same reason blue jeans are,” says Hays. “It is uniquely American.”