What are the Three Generations of Bluegrass Music?

Although bluegrass music had developed in the post-war era, the genre is generally classified in three generations.

The First Generation

The first batch of bluegrass artists dominated the scene from the earliest days of bluegrass up till the 1960’s. This period is often referred to as the golden age of bluegrass music as it featured some of the best artists of the genre.

Bill Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, had also risen to fame during this time. Monroe is generally acknowledged as the genre’s founding father, and the instruments played by his band as well as the styles employed by his band members are considered standards for the genre. The band’s banjo player Earl Scruggs, for instance, had been credited for making the three-finger playing method for the banjo popular for bluegrass songs.

Other famous artists during this era include the Osborne Brothers (not to be confused with the Osmond Brothers), Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers, and Ervin T. Rouse, who created the bluegrass classic “Orange Blossom Special”.

The Second Generation

The fame of the second generation of bluegrass artists lasted till the 1980’s. Some of them had started young and were part of first generation bands. These include Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Doyle Lawson, and a lot more.

The second period of bluegrass music is commonly described as a period of refinement. Progressive bluegrass had been developed by artists like The Kentucky Colonels and the New Grass revival.

Collaborations between first and second generation bands did occur from time to time. Old and in the Way, for instance, is a band composed of Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, playing the banjo, fiddler Vassar Clements of the first generation, second generation David Grisman, playing the mandolin, and with Peter Rowan as vocalist.

Later on, bluegrass merged with rock music, thanks to bands like the Stanley Brothers. Jazz had found its way to bluegrass as well with Vassar Clements self-naming his music as “hillbilly jazz”.

The Third Generation

This period was a time in which bluegrass music had encompassed various sub-genres and matured substantially. Third generation bands had given mainstream bluegrass a whole new meaning with increased use of electric musical instruments and sound technology. Solos played by band members were given more significance since each instrument can now be independently miked while traditional songs were revived but played in modern styles. Bands with all-female members like Sweet By and By had also emerged in this era.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronnie Walker June 5, 2010 at 9:40 am

I hope Bluegrass never loses its way like country music has.

Patt Spain June 9, 2010 at 10:33 am

I was so thrilled to see the country Gentlemen on PBS not long ago. and so happy that son sings like his great Dad and while he has his own songs, keeps the sound genuine. Love to hear them sing Two Little Boys

Bluegrass Reigns!!!!!

Mary Ann September 16, 2010 at 6:26 am

I grew up on classic country as well as bluegrass-ie.The Carter Family. I consider myself fortunate. I attend as many festivals as time and $ allow. I love oldgrass and newgrass. It’s so much fun to discover new (at least to me) bluegrass stars on their way up. So go Punch Brothers,Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Horse Flies, Tim O’Brien, The Kruger Bros.—I could go on and on. And if some of these names are new to you check them out online. And thank Jah for letting me see Bill Monroe twice before he left this earthly plain. My Grass is BLUE!

Emerita Grisso November 24, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Nice website. Thanks! surely i’ll be back here soon.

Flatpicker January 14, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Thanks!

hollylynn March 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm

i love seeing the resurgence that bluegrass music is currently experiencing.bands like leftover salmon,yonder mountain string band,old crow medicine show are bringing up a new generation of bluegrass fans.thanks for all of the great work you guys are doing down in bean blossom.

John Wren March 3, 2011 at 4:26 am

I like this site of yours a lot! I have a nifty collection of good bluegrass music particularly instrumentals which are my favourites. At the moment I am collecting stringband music and can see how the heartfelt qualiity of bluegrass developed from this. Great Stuff!

Bob Lucas April 4, 2011 at 10:28 am

You failed to mention Bill Keith, who among other things played with Bill Monroe in the 60s, helped refine Earl’s D-tuners so they were compact and worked much better, as well as transcribing the songs in the Earl Scruggs banjo book. Bill’s melodic style banjo was certainly a key influence for the second, more progressive generation. As always Corey, a good article.

August Busch April 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

There is something that has always impressed me about those 1st generation musicians that I have tried to do also, because they did it: they would go anywhere and play for anyone.

When I lived in State College, PA, in the early 1990s, I remember Bill Monroe was scheduled to play down town at a place called the Brick House Tavern. We’re talking about a little old house with the 3 downstairs rooms made into walk around space and a bar at one end. A family of 3 would no more fit in there than a Mack truck, but Bill came and played all evening and they loved him. Unfortunately I had to miss that.

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