World-class mandolinist, songwriter, and singer Chris Thile refers to the kind of music he plays as “acoustic music.” I’m a fan of this description, as it moves away from the “Americana” and “folk” genre labels, which can often be more restricting than helpful. While Chris often plays alongside drums, electric bass, and even electric guitar, "acoustic music” still applies. In my opinion, acoustic music has more to do with a band’s approach to the songs and pieces they perform than the exact tools that they use to perform them.
Since the Brown Mountain Lightning Bugs’ inception, we’ve struggled to find an accurate genre description for what we do. Like many bands, we have a wide range of influences and like to use the flavor of all these influences in the music we make.
Sometimes, though, we run into situations where there’s a misunderstanding of what we do for different reasons. Sometimes people assume we’re a bluegrass band based on our name or the fact that we use traditional instruments like banjo and mandolin. While elements of bluegrass make an appearance in some of what we do, I think the term “acoustic music” fits better.
Complicating matters is the fact that we’ve shifted to using an electric banjo and mandolin for our live shows for a whole host of technical and logistical reasons. In my years of playing music, I’ve learned that many people have a VERY strong opinion and preconceived notion of what a banjo sounds like and how it should be used in music. No other instrument I know of is looked at this way. When you start using an electric banjo, it can be confusing, intriguing, or even insulting for some folks, especially when you’re not playing bluegrass with it.
So what is “acoustic music?” I think acoustic music is music that has a very direct focus on songcraft, simplicity in production, and is often lyric-focused rather than instrument-focused. Melody tends to be more prominent than rhythm. It is less performance-driven than a rock band, for example, but still comes to life in a live setting. All of the compositional elements tend to occupy their own easily-audible space, whereas a lot of electric and pop music uses more of a “wall of sound” approach to dynamics. Acoustic music can be played on acoustic instruments, unplugged, without losing anything vital to the sound.
As an example of this last point consider “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot and “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Both feature electric guitar, but the emphasis in the songwriting and composition is entirely different. The first song is entirely about the story being told and the accompanying vocal melody, while the second is about being up in your face with a huge electric guitar riff straight away. Sure, you could totally play “Back in Black” in an unplugged setting, but you’d be losing something important about the song, while “Edmund Fitzgerald” would come out more or less the same.
Acoustic music can mean pop songs, rock songs, country songs, hip hop songs, bluegrass songs, flamenco songs, Irish songs, folk songs, or even avante-garde songs. The unifying factor is that the focus and composition of what’s being played tends to match what I mentioned above. None of these are hard and fast rules, of course, just tendencies.
So yeah, I think The Brown Mountain Lightning Bugs play “acoustic music” even though we use amplifiers and electric instruments as we do it. That said, tomorrow we might end up writing something that matches none of the above and I’ll have to write a new blog to explain ourselves all over again. Should be fun!