It occured to me watching Barn Star (aka Old Train and the Refugees aka The Jake Armerding Band) that maybe pretty much everyone making bluegrass over the past fifty years has missed the plot. Zack Hickman, the incomparable bass player of the group (and also Josh Ritter's bass man) summed it up when he noted, "We have a reputation for being a bluegrass band for people who don't like bluegrass." It's easy to see why: the group eschewed the typical covers of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scraggs, and traditional Carter Family songs (more on that later) for a modern pastiche of Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith (a version of "Janie's Got a Gun" that Hickman described as a "vanity project"), Neil Young, Tom Petty, and, surprisingly and hilariously, Tiffany's famous "I Think We're Alone Now."
The crowd ate it up. Every solo, whether on Taylor Armerding's mandolin, his son Jake's fiddle, or five-stringer Wes' rolling banjo, was met with raucous applause. The band traded leads and harmonies between the Armerdings and guitarist Mark Erelli, and all were well-regarded by the audience. It's a blast of a show, and if you're lucky enough to see them, you definitely should.
I really enjoyed the opening act by Carter Family cover act Sunshine In the Shadows, but it seemed like I might have been the only one; the large crowd, no doubt packed in early to get a good spot for Barn Star, was not interested, and talked throughout the set. The male-female duo, despite tight harmonies and playing and dressing in festive bolo tie and red dress, didn't do much to engage the audience, eschewing even comparatively popular Carter Family tunes like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Wildwood Flower." Which leads me back to the original thought that started this post: why do this? Anthropologically, we need to preserve the Appalachian folk tunes that are part of this country's heritage, but if the folks listening won't hear, what's the point of playing? And if the folks won't listen, is it their fault, or the performers'?
I don't have an answer. It's clear Barn Star and Sunshine In the Shadows have different approaches. That's fine, but Barn Star is the only one I can recommend without reservation.