Fred Bartenstein

“Bluegrass was a way for me to connect with emotions…”

Interview with Fred Bartenstein
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.

At the end of September 2013, I attended the International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass conference and festival, which took place in Raleigh, North Carolina. On September 24th I interviewed Fred Bartenstein, award winning bluegrass writer and scholar. Here is what he shared with me:

Fred, we met first at the Leadership Bluegrass Program in 2005, where you worked as facilitator of the meeting. Is this your main job?

No. I’ve had many jobs in my life. The most recent is “Organizational Consulting” with NGOs, non profit organizations. When I was younger, between 16 and 23 I was fully involved with bluegrass: I was a musician, festival manager, wrote for a bluegrass magazine.

You have a clear voice, you speak slowly and people listen to you. Have you had some coaching?

My training started when I was working in radio. I was 15 years old. I tried not to sound like a child. I learned to communicate with my voice. I also had classical choral singing experience. When I started to work as a mediator, I did have some facilitation training, how to work with human beings in group.

Where does the name “Bartenstein” come from?

From Germany. My great great grandfather came in the 1830s. He was a composer and musician.

What do you like about bluegrass music? Why are you in it?

I think the answer from many people is: I don’t know! It spoke to my soul. I first heard bluegrass when I was 6 years old. I spent some time with relatives in Virginia and heard this sound on the radio. Back then it wasn’t called “Bluegrass”.

What is the thing that grabs you when you hear bluegrass?

The emotional content. One is through the singing and particularly through the violin playing. The banjo communicates great happiness. The Dobro sets the mood for the blues. But the fiddle and the human voice communicate the emotions very, very strongly. This is what grabbed me.

What are the emotions in bluegrass?

Sadness, great happiness, deep joy, love of all ages – old people, children and grandmothers, neighbors. Also emotions of anger, dark feelings, depression. They can come out in bluegrass in a safe way. My family wasn’t very emotional, they were reserved people. I think bluegrass was a way for me to connect with emotions at an early age.

What instrument do you play?

Guitar and a little bit of mandolin.

How would you describe bluegrass music to a newcomer or foreigner?

It is like a recopy for a full dish, where you take pieces of many other things. Let’s say, you’re going to make a soup. You take some peas and carrots and beef stock and some potatoes. When you eat the soup, you taste all these ingredients. It is called “Vegetable Soup”. Bluegrass music has taken ingredients of many early forms of music and created a particular dish. Things were put together in a new and exciting way, that was appealing to people. Bluegrass is 3 things: it is an art form, it is an industry, it is a community.

What other music do you listen to?

Classical music, choral singing. I’m also very fond of jazz. I listen to folk and country music.

What do you like about country music?

The honesty and simplicity, the beauty of the melodies. And I mean, the country music until 1980. After that, it became something different. Classic country music is a brilliant form of art.

Thanks Fred. Good luck.

Lilly Drumeva