A Rose by Any Other Name: What’s in a name?

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At dinner this week while celebrating my father’s 88th birthday I was asked by one of his friends what I called my music. This person has a few of my CD’s, and loves them, but wanted to know what to call it so she could describe it to her friends and family.  It took me five minutes and hundreds of words to describe it, and I knew right then what my week’s blog post was going to be about.  Thanks Gay!

A little over two years ago I got a very interesting email from my friend and fellow instrumental guitarist Kinloch Nelson with the subject line “What’s in a name?”  It’s one of the best treatises I’ve ever read on the conundrum of what instrumental guitarists like me go through in what to call our music.  Think about it.  If someone says they’re going to a folk, jazz, blues, classical, rock, or punk concert we all have a pretty good idea what type of music we’re going to encounter. Bookers at venues know when one of these acts calls to book a gig what they’re booking.  And we know what genres we like and those we don’t, so we can support ‘our’ music and leave the rest to others. We know what bin to go to in a record store (yes they still exist), or what to look under at iTunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, or Pandora to listen or download our favorite music. For those of you who know my music, what would YOU call it. One word, no more, no less. What is it?  And you can’t be nice and say “Good” or “Great”, what GENRE is it? Okay, I’ll be nice and you can have two words. But no more.

For a while New Age worked before New Age was considered mindless arpeggios with no melody, no tension, and hadn’t bored the shit out of folks.  And sadly, for me, I arrived on the scene when New Age music was starting to have negative connotations, but that’s where the record label I was on was marketing me. At the time there were almost 1000 “New Age” radio shows around the country, and the New Age bins at record stores were populated with fantastic music from folks like Michael Hedges, Alex De Grassi, Shadowfax, etc. You know, the Windham Hill catalog. But I also was aware of the backlash beginning towards New Age music, especially as it regards live concerts. I fought being associated with New Age music harder than anything I’ve done in the music business. Why? Who the fuck wants to go to a New Age concert?  You might want some on in the background while sitting in a jacuzzi with a joint and a glass of wine, but go to a concert? Fuck that.  Seriously. How many of you would purposefully go out for a night of New Age Music?

Over the years I’ve tried different monikers for what I do. For almost a year I booked myself as a Baroque Folk guitarist. That is until I did a phone interview with someone at the Chattanooga Times Free Press and he called me a ‘broke folk guitarist’ in the article he wrote.  His was probably the most accurate moniker, ;-), but for obvious reasons that name went by the way side.  For a while I tried American Baroque; I still love that but I think folks might expect classical music and I don’t want to send the wrong message. I’m NOT a classical guitarist.  That’s why names are important.  If I say jazz you have a damn good idea what you’re going to hear. It’s important to be accurate.

Since most of my music comes from folk, blues, or jazz influences I tried to make up a word; Fojazzical.  It’s accurate, and it’s been used in newspapers and on radio interviews, and it is a conversation starter, but it hasn’t caught on the way the made up term bluegrass did. Remember the name Bluegrass was made up in the mid-60’s when they were starting to do big festivals.  Bluegrass had the same identity crisis we fingerstyle players are now encountering being called in turns Country, Hillbilly, or Country & Western before it came by the name Bluegrass. In fact most musical genres have struggled with an identity crisis of naming itself, but not for as long as us fingerpickers have. We’ve been around the edges of the music business for well over half a century and we still don’t have a one, or even a two-word answer to give you.

Why does that matter?  Here’s a paragraph from Kinloch’s email: “I submit that if  “fingerstyle” guitar is to gain any ground and recognition it needs to have a nontechnical name.  Everybody knows what is meant by jazz, country, blues, classical, bluegrass and folk guitar, but “fingerstyle”  just doesn’t instantly mean the same thing to everyone.  “Classical” guitar,  blossoming  in recent decades into new forms  continues to be identified successfully as “classical guitar.”  “Jazz” music, with us for nearly a century has nearly 50 sub categories (according to Wikipedia) but it is still easily called jazz.   Our style of music is growing and blossoming too and I think  needs a name. We need a name so that we can know how to book our gigs.  There needs to be some better name so that music stores (what’s left of them) can know how to title the bin that our CDs go in, and so that radio and other media can know how to package this blossoming music style.” Kinloch is absolutely 100% correct. It’s devastatingly difficult to market yourself when you don’t have a one word answer to offer bookers, venues, press, or radio.

Over the past 5 or 6 years many of us have adopted the phrase “American Fingerstyle Guitarists”, and it’s what I call myself, but it still doesn’t say ANYTHING about the type of music being played.  Just HOW it’s being played.  Personally the favorite phrase I’ve ever heard for my music is when an entertainment writer in Central Wisconsin called it Backporch Classical.  And I may just start using it unless one of you comes up with something better. And please hurry. I’m getting old, fat and gray, and would love to have something with which to better market my music. Pretty please?

So, what’s in a name?  EVERYTHING!

Cheers, kb

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9 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name: What’s in a name?

  1. Well, Ken, Backporch connotes barefoot toothless to me, but I’m from Arkansas. Your music is so much more than that. I’m going to think about the feeling I get listening to your beautiful music. The name is in that feeling. It surrounds me with peace and an easy feeling when I listen to it. I’ll go about my day and listen to your music, and see if something comes to me….

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  2. Well, I like the barefoot part, that’s definitely who I am, but not yet toothless. I’m waiting with baited breath for what you’ll come up with-and thanks for ‘getting it’.

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  3. I think you once referred to your music as Americana, or some such. There are tastes of so many aspects of traditional music there, as well as jazz and American classical stuff.

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    • Bob I wish I could. I still think of my music as Americana but that term is now associated with ‘hat’ music, or independent country. Think Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, et al. If I billed myself as Americana people would expect that, not what I do. But we’re edging closer.

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  4. Liz, I love the way you ‘feel’ my music, but now you understand how difficult it is to provide a one word answer for what genre I play. Just doesn’t work does it?

    Hugs friend, miss you.

    kb

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    • Hi Liz, I hope to be back to Arkansas as soon as either my back cooperates or I get the collapsable harp guitar Alan Carruth is building me. I’ve made so many friends there over the years being away for much longer is unimaginable.

      Cheers, kb

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  5. Pingback: What’s in a Name: Part 2 | Ken Bonfield's Artistry of the Guitar Blog

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