Bluegrass charts have long- at least in my mind- been a bit of a joke.
I loved Bluegrass Now but its chart had some serious issues- a two-year old album could suddenly find itself at number three for a one-month reappearance. One of the magazine's final 2007 editions had Nickel Creek's 2000 Sugar Hill debut disc at #2 while NC's other two albums and six Alison Krauss discs were included in the top 20. Whether or not the album had more than a passing connection to bluegrass was frequently also a problem on the BN chart, in my mind. I suspect a small reporting sales sample was the culprit there.
And don't get me started on the Billboard Bluegrass chart which always seems to have an album from The Wailin' Jennys on it. Nothing against the band, but bluegrass? I don't think so. This week's chart has "Paper Airplane" at number 1, and I assume that is accurate based on sales. I always thought the Billboard chart was based on album sales recorded through SoundScan, but airplay is mentioned at the bottom of the chart, so I guess that factors in. But which bluegrassers are buying all those Trampled by Turtles albums?
The Bluegrass Unlimited survey has been around longer than many of us and has long been the only #1 that really matters. This month The Gibson Brothers top the charts with the song Help My Brother and the album which shares its name. The BU National Survey is based on a wide-range of reporting stations and radio hosts. The problem with the chart is that it can seem a bit stale, with movement up and down the chart sometimes glacial in its pace and always lagging by several weeks.
The latest bluegrass chart comes to us from the folks over at Bluegrass Today, the website that grew out of The Bluegrass Blog. Based on weekly airplay from reporting stations, the chart not only itemizes the songs but shows the number of plays each song received the previous week. As a result, songs move up and down rapidly.
This week Cody Shuler & Pine Mountain Railroad hit #1 on the chart with their song Big River having had 262 plays, up from 165 a week ago in their debut week which had the song at #24. Sharing the #1 slot with PMR is Blue Highway, who was at the top the previous week. Two weeks ago I Ain't Gonna Lay My Hammer Down was at #20. The new Doyle Lawson tune Love on Arrival debuts at #2 (really three when you consider the tie at the top) having received 233 spins.
What is also interesting is that Help My Brother, the current Bluegrass Unlimited #1 song is nowhere to be seen on the Bluegrass Today list. Their Walkin' West to Memphis climbs to #7 this week, having received more plays each of the three weeks the chart has appeared.
With reporting available at the click of a button, the timely nature of the Bluegrass Today chart is appealing. Being so responsive, and with the chart based on weekly plays, songs are going to move up and down on this chart at a pace that is rare in the bluegrass world.
Also interesting is the lack of importance placed on cumulative spins. A Far Cry from Lester and Earl, from Junior Sisk and Rambers Choice's excellent new album, has had 506 total plays over the three weeks, but comes in tied for the last chart spot at #20 based on the past week's 160 plays. Over the three weeks, the song has had many more plays than the DLQ song as well as this week's #3 from The Expedition Show, but this chart is weekly making all previous plays and positions moot.
It will be interesting to watch this chart develop. It has the potential- depending on who is reporting to it- to become as influential and respected as the long-established Bluegrass Unlimited charts. I believe the danger comes in the same factor that is its greatest appeal:its immediacy. With a chart that chamges so quickly, bluegrass becomes that much more disposable and fleeting- what is hot today could be gone tomorrow. Our attention spans are already short. With the chart changing dramatically week-to-week, do we risk having bluegrass music's 'hits' become less established, less lasting and impactful than they might be in a three, four, or five month journey on the BU charts?
Hear today...gone tomorrow?
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