By the time he died this September, country musician Bill Monroe, bandleader of The Bluegrass Boys, was an official monument of American culture. This status was certified by the highest authorities. In 1995, Monroe received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
Years earlier he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the Folk Art program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Let me start by noting that while my affection for bluegrass music as music is not unbounded, it is deep. I certainly consider that music to be a part of who I am, and of what my country is. And, as a critic, I second the notion that Monroe was one of the most important artists of this poor, dying century. But I also know that the rush to carve the stern face of Monroe into our cultural Mt. Rushmore simplifies some very complicated matters.
The Reagan-era NEA's identification of Monroe as a "folk artist" points to some of the most interesting ambiguities about his career and his contribution to American popular culture. He was, in fact, a folk artist. But only by a standard that would also validate the folk credentials of Elvis, James Brown, and every rock, country, or hip-hop band in the United States today. All of these musical artists, like Monroe, work in the vernacular of their communal traditions to give voice to the concerns of the common people. They are not officially "folk" because their traditions and their voices are transmitted electronically.
But by that standard, Monroe was "pop" because he was one of the first electronic transmitters. He gets it both ways because he was born at the time when folk culture was transmuting into pop culture via the new media of radio and phonograph recordings. Bluegrass music now bears the nostalgic stamp of pre-pop "authenticity."