originally posted on Rick's Cafe

Do you play requests?

Note: In my 20s and 30s I mostly supported myself by giving banjo lessons. Many of my students became good enough players that they played gigs. Some weren't good enough, but played gigs anyway, although I did my best to discourage this. In either case, some of my instruction was aimed at preparing my students for the world of performing music onstage, and the following discourse took form in that context. So it is directed at a banjo player playing in a bluegrass band. But the principles are universal: substitute any instrument, style of music, and set of song titles.

Here is the scene: You’ve landed your first job playing banjo in a bluegrass band. You’re playing in a small club, and about halfway through your first set some guy at the bar shouts “Wabash Cannonball!” The band leader pretends he doesn’t hear him, and takes you into the next song on your set list. When it’s over, there is a bit of applause, and the guy shouts again, louder ...because apparently nobody heard him the first time ...“Wabash Cannonball!”
   Assuming that Wabash Cannonball is not one of your big numbers, your band leader might do one of the following:

a.) Frantically ask around in the band, trying to determine whether you might be able to throw together a couple of verses or so.
b.) Continue to ignore the request (it’s not going to go away) becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the set goes on.
c.) Apologize sheepishly, admitting that we are unable to play this tune and that we are ashamed of ourselves.
d.) Snobbishly announce that we do not do requests.
...or some combination of the above, depending on his policy regarding requests.

Requests are a fact of life in the music business, and one of these days the issue will be yours to deal with. Where will you stand?

Performing musicians can be divided into two groups: those who play requests and those who don’t. Nearly every musician stands firmly on one side of the line or the other, and when pressed, will adamantly defend their position. Which of these two groups should you sign up with? Let’s take a look at these two philosophies, and try each of them on for size. Don’t worry, it’s legal to change your mind later, kind of like changing political parties. Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat, you know. In fact, years ago I used to stand foursquare on one side of this issue, and now am just about as firm on the opposite. I’ll tell you which side that is in just a little while.
   For the sake of examining the two sides of the issue, let’s give each camp a name. We’ll call them (request) Fillers and (request) Dodgers. And we’ll witness an argument between members of each camp.

PHIL: I suppose you think that you’re above playing requests.
DUCK: I’m an artist, not a juke box. If you want to pander to every bozo at the bar, go ahead, but not me.
PHIL: Artist, shmartist. We’re entertainers, and it’s our job to give the customer what he wants.
DUCK: And I suppose you think the “customer” knows what he wants, huh? If you ask me, those drunks are just shouting out song titles to hear themselves shout.
PHIL: Well, if you ask me, you’re cutting your own throat by alienating them. What’s the harm in trying to please an audience, anyway?
DUCK: The harm is that you end up floundering around and playing a bunch of junk that you barely know.
PHIL: Hey, if I know a verse or two to a song that somebody wants to hear, I figure they’ll appreciate me giving it a try. They know not to expect a tight arrangement or anything, and we all have some fun with it.
DUCK: You may call that fun, but I call it degrading. I’d much rather stick with the stuff that I know. And the stuff that I have worked up is really much better material, anyway.
PHIL: Degrading? The sounds pretty arrogant to me.
DUCK: I suppose you’d take a pie in the face if you thought it might make you more popular with the masses.
PHIL: You snob!
DUCK: You whore!
(They begin throwing punches and rolling around on the ground.)

Maybe you don’t want to be associated with either of these two. Often one’s position on the subject of playing requests can be determined as a reaction to an attitude one finds unattractive. Early in my playing days, I ran into a fair amount of that artist-snobbishness, and it sent me in the opposite direction. I subscibed to the Fillers point of view for several years, and was willing to try almost anything on stage. Know a few words, and most of the chord changes? Good enough, let’s give it a try! I would have taken Phil’s side of the above argument, almost up to the point where they began punching.

Eventually I came full circle, based mostly on what I sense to be the motivation behind the request. There are several reasons that somebody in a bar or concert hall will shout out a song title, and the possibility that he really would enjoy hearing that song much more than any other is somewhere far down on the list.

Here’s a list of some of the most common reasons that people shout out requests:

1. To impress their friends.
I put this one first because it is the most common one I’ve seen. In its classic form, it goes like this:
Two or three couples are seated at a prominent table in the club. One of the couples has been to this club before and seen the band, and have brought the others with them tonight. If the band fills their request, their friends will be impressed with how hip they are.
   Similarly, some particulary insecure individual who is not sitting with a table of friends may be trying to impress strangers in the audience.

2. To impress the band.
“Hey, I know what you guys are all about,” they are saying, “you probably know...”
   To put a more positive spin on it, you might say that they are trying to bond with the band. Maybe they should consider buying a round of drinks, instead.

3. To stump the band.
People who make requests which they expect you will not know are either unclear on the concept, or perhaps they’re musicians themselves indulging in one-upsmanship. I’ve seen the latter occasionally, and it’s usually done for laughs.

4. They’re drunk, and they like to shout.

This one practically needs no explanation, but I can recall one situation which was the ultimate example.
   I was in a club to see some friends play one night, and a group at one table began shouting a request for a song called Rocky Top, a very popular bluegrass song to request at that time. They appeared to be having so much fun shouting “Rocky Top!” that another table of people wanted to join in the fun, too, only they had no idea what it was that these people were shouting. No matter, they imitated the sound as best they could. “Rockitaw! Rockitaw!” they shouted with glee. This sure is fun, let’s have another round. “Rockitaw!”
   Now the band had already played Rocky Top in response to the first request. And yet the chant went on. By now they had begun emphatically rolling the R.
“R-R-R-Rockitaw!” they would bellow in unison, repeatedly, and then burst out in hysterical laughter. Not just between songs, but during the music.
   The band tried to explain that they had already done Rocky Top. But even if these people had been paying any attention to the band, this would have meant nothing to them. Being the dutiful Request Fillers that they were, these poor saps even played Rocky Top again in an attempt to satisfy this request.
   But there was no stopping it. “R-R-R-ROCKITAW!!” followed by hoots and guffaws, would explode mindlessly, sporadically for the rest of the evening.

5. They know your material, and would be disappointed if they didn’t hear their favorite.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Rockitaw juggernaut, this type of request is enough to melt the stone heart of even the most hardcore Request Dodger. Usually reserved for either very famous performers or those with a loyal following, such a request is seldom ignored. However, even sincere requests such as these, if overly encouraged, can degenerate if not handled skillfully by the performer.
   For example, take Bill Monroe. During the latter part of his career, Monroe had earned the privilege of playing for audiences who knew and loved him. He always threw the show open for requests, mainly because he knew that his audience would request his own hits: Footprints in the Snow, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Muleskinner Blues, Uncle Pen, etc. They would always request these songs, guaranteed. And just in case they didn’t, he pretended they did, and sang them anyway.
   But even this ideal request scenario can turn sour when an audience member loudly persists in requesting an inappropriate number (as happened occasionally even to the Father of Bluegrass himself) or when the shouting of song titles becomes so competitive that it turns to chaos. Bill started to get edgy when this happened, and then all of a sudden we weren't having as much fun as we had been a minute ago.

In my humble opinion the unworthy motives far outweigh the worthy, tipping the scale toward not ever considering playing requests ...well, except maybe those of the #5 variety.

So if one adopts that policy, what is the best way to handle it? If you become a Request Dodger, be an artful dodger. You don’t want to chill the audience by announcing that you simply do not play requests. They’ll probably think you’re as big a snob as our friend Duck. You could take the approach of a band I was sitting in with one time: when someone in the audience asked “Do you play Cripple Creek?” the band leader responded, “Yeah, some jerk usually asks for it.”
My favorite dodge is to simply pace the set so tightly that there’s no room for requests. If you’re moving along crisply from song to song, without giving the impression that the whole thing is open to suggestion, you have a pretty good chance of not inviting any requests. When that fails, I’ll say something like “That’s a good one, we ought to learn that,” or “I doubt that we could do that one justice,” and after a few of those, they begin to see that they’re not going to get anywhere.

On the other hand, maybe you think I’m just an old poop, and you’re more inclined to cast your lot with the Request Fillers. If so, I recommend spending some time learning the hits (more on them later). If you plan on playing them, you may as well know them. You might start out with Rockitaw.

...Rick Shubb, Sept. 9, 2002