History of Bluegrass Music

If football symbolizes the all-American sport then in music, nothing can boast of a greater American heritage than bluegrass music. From its earliest roots in the rural areas during the 1940’s to the eclectic range of sub-genres it boasts of today, bluegrass music is ultimately about self-expression, which is constantly displayed by its trademark instrumental solos.

The Bluegrass Instruments

One of the things that greatly distinguishes bluegrass music from all other genres and even its closest cousins, country and mountain music, bluegrass is mostly played with the use of acoustic and stringed musical instruments.

A typical bluegrass band would have members playing the fiddle (most varieties are considered acceptable), the acoustic guitar and upright bass, the mandolin, and the five-string banjo. The two last instruments may have, in fact, enjoyed increased popularity primarily due to its involvement in creating bluegrass music. Another increasingly common instrument used for bluegrass music, albeit quite different from the rest, is the resonator guitar, which may be more popularly referred to its brand name, Dobro.

The choice of instruments for creating bluegrass music was gradually derived from the original instrumental selection used by country music and dance bands. Although this selection later on decreased in prominence as local musicians looked for new instruments to play newly emerged genres like jazz and blues, it was then that the same group of instruments sparked interest in European-American communities.

Nowadays, the use of bluegrass instruments highly focuses on producing solos that are almost always improvised and often requiring a display of technical excellence or virtuosity from its players.

New styles for playing such instruments have also emerged due to its involvement with bluegrass instruments. The legendary Earl Scruggs, for instance, had popularized a three-finger playing style for the banjo while his one-time partner and fellow Bluegrass Boy (from Bill Monroe’s classic band, but more about that later!), Lester Flatt, introduced to musicians a new style for playing the acoustic guitar. Instead of going with the typical use of flat picks, Flatt had preferred to employ finger picking for playing the acoustic guitar.

All in all, the actual list that makes up instruments used for producing bluegrass music is still a matter of debate for scholars, musicians, and fans alike. Many prefer to cite Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys as the classic example for determining the most common instruments used in bluegrass music.

Others say that the instrument list would mostly depend on the exact type of bluegrass music that’s performed. Bluegrass gospel music, for instance, generally requires four-part harmony and little to none instrumental solos, hence the substitution of lead guitars for banjos.

The list of instruments used for bluegrass continues, however, to grow. Nowadays, it’s not just the Dobro that’s a frequent addition to bluegrass music. Popular individual and group bluegrass acts have also been known to use drums, autoharps, pianos, harmonicas, and accordions. At times, instruments are no longer purely acoustic as some bands prefer to include the use of the electric guitar as well as other electric versions of classic bluegrass instruments.

In time, the continued and increased use of electrical musical instruments led to the creation of a new sub-genre: progressive bluegrass music, which is also known occasionally as newgrass music.

Vocal Harmony

Vocal harmonies are another distinctive element of bluegrass music. A song can have any number of vocal harmonies but rarely greater than four. Vocal harmonies used for bluegrass are not ordinary; they often contain in them a dissonant tone, one that’s usually sung in the highest pitch, a style known as “high lonesome sound” and popularized by the grandfather of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.

Stacking is one of the more common types of arrangements for vocal harmonies used in bluegrass music. A standard stack would feature a baritone voice playing at the end while the tenor stays on top. In between is the middle voice, which sings the main melody or lyrics. Sometimes, other kinds of stacks may be used and most especially when a female voice is involved. Alison Krauss and her band, Union Station, provide a great example for a different stacking style used in bluegrass music. Tenor and baritones share the lead while the female vocalist sings at a pitch that’s higher than usual by a notch.

The Development of Bluegrass Music

In the 1940’s, during and after the war, rationing of supplies was strictly enforced to ensure that the most integral parts of society. As such, the creation of music records was vastly limited in the years of World War II, which highly suggests that the bluegrass music only developed when the war had well reached its end.

Although Bill Monroe is widely acknowledged as the grandfather of bluegrass music, not even his most loyal of fans credit Monroe for single-handedly creating the genre. As with other kinds of music, bluegrass developed as a gradual derivation from other genres, which in this case would be ragtime, country, mountain or roots music, and jazz.

His band, the Bluegrass Boys, may have been formed in 1939 but it was only in 1945 and with the key addition of Earl Scruggs that it started forming what would serve as the classic foundation of a typical bluegrass band. It was around this time that the Scruggs style of playing the banjo was popularized, a style that was originally invented by Snuffy Jenkins. The latter mentioned in interviews, however, that the three-finger style was something he had learned in turn from Smitt Hammett and Rex Brooks during the 1920’s.

The succeeding years showed Bill Monroe’s band welcoming other new key members: Lester Flatt, who played the guitar and added vocals, Chubby Wise on the fiddle, and Howard Watts (who liked to perform using the name Cedric Rainwater) on bass. With Bill Monroe on mandolin, they collectively constituted the classic example for a bluegrass band.

In their first years of performance, Bill and his Bluegrass Boys played music like no other. But of course, other acts soon followed. In 1947, another act showed signs of following Monroe’s footsteps as the Stanley Brothers released “Molly and Tenbrooks”, a song that was distinctly bluegrass-inspired in tone.

During those years, the term ‘bluegrass’ still hadn’t been used to describe Monroe’s music. It was just referred to as hillbilly music since it was mostly played in rural regions and used to accompany buck dancing, clogging, or flat footing. Eventually, the “fever” spread to urban regions and Monroe’s music began to be popular there as well.

During the formative years of bluegrass music, bands still mostly used acoustic instruments but not entirely out of preference. Back then, household electricity wasn’t yet widespread and as such, use of electrical music instruments wasn’t as practical or convenient. Moreover, traditional fans of country and mountain music, and those who mainly lived in rural areas, did not approve of its use and since these people served as their main fan base, what they wanted they mostly got…at least at the start. Even George D. Hay, the Grand Ole Opry founder, was of the same mind.

Throughout its history, the link between bluegrass and mountain music is undeniable. The themes sung for bluegrass music are very much reminiscent of those used in folk music. It is important to note, however, that the two are not interchangeable. Furthermore, unlike with mountain music, the direction and development of bluegrass music had always been set by professional musicians. Certainly, amateur bluegrass musicians play a significant role in the culture that bluegrass music had given birth to – and one you can glimpse or experience in the numerous bluegrass festivals that take place every year – but amateur jamming sessions or parking-lot picking mostly benefited individuals rather than contributing to the evolution of the genre itself.

The Generations of Bluegrass Music

There are three different stages of evolution that bluegrass music had undergone. First-generation bluegrass music spanned the first years of the genre, particularly from the mid-1940’s and all the way to the mid-1960’s. This stage is popularly considered as the genre’s Golden Age and when majority of the legendary acts of bluegrass act had been born.

Besides Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and the Stanley Brothers, there were also the likes of Jimmy Martin & the Osborne Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers, Jim & Jesse, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, Mac Wiseman and Buzz Busby, the Sauceman and Lilly Broters, Ervin T. Rouse, Jim Eanes, and later on The Foggy Mountain Boys, a band that Flatt and Scruggs had formed when they left Monroe’s band.

A wave of new bluegrass musicians entered the picture in the mid to late 1960’s and remained at the peak until the 1980’s. Many of them had played with first-generation musicians during their younger years before developing styles of their own. Such artists include J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson, Del McCoury, John Hartford, Bill Keith, Norman Blake, Sam Bush, Harley “Red” Allen, and Frank Wakefield.

Progressive bluegrass also emerged during this era and its proponents include Seldom Scene, The Dillards, The Kentucky Colonels, and the New Grass Revival. Around this time, collaborations between first and second generation bluegrass acts had been highly popular.

In the mid-80’s, the third and current generation of bluegrass musicians entered the scene. By this time, bluegrass was almost a completely different genre from how it started before, having spawned several genres and expanding past the boundaries of rural regions and even national borders.

Technology also played an important role in the continuing development of bluegrass music. Thanks to the best and most innovative sound and music equipment, each and every member of the band enjoyed having their own mikes, which made it easier for all members to perform more improvised instrumental solos and get involved in vocal harmonies. The Tony Rice Unit is a great example on how this kind of arrangement benefited bluegrass music.

Besides the continued increase in the use of electrical music instruments – especially the electric bass – another element that the third generation of musicians had promoted was the use of non-traditional chord progressions. It was also with this crop of musicians that the earliest and classic bluegrass works had been revived and remade.

Other Developments

The latter years of bluegrass music showed country music artists like Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton producing bluegrass albums. This crossover pattern is repeated in other music genres. Its reverse has also been known to happen. Prior to the turn of the 21st century, Ricky Skaggs had made the jump from bluegrass to mainstream country. Eventually, however, Skaggs returned to his roots and formed his current band, the Kentucky Thunder.

The inclusion of bluegrass music in other works of art also helped propel the genre in other markets. In 2000, the film O Brother, Where Art Thou was released by the famous Coen Brothers and featured Oscar winner George Clooney. It used primarily bluegrass and old-time music for its soundtrack, and this led to a successful music tour and even a documentary for the Down from the Mountain band.

The Different Genres of Bluegrass Music

By now, you no doubt understand that traditional or classic bluegrass music is characterized by the use of folk themes, traditional chord progressions, and acoustic instruments. Earlier bands had used the harmonica and accordion, but they did not feature largely when Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys emerged and dominated the music scene. Lyrics and melodies also tend to be simple. Famous bluegrass acts that still play the traditional way today include Kentucky Thunder, the Del McCoury band, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and the Southern Grass.

There are, however, other and just as interesting and excellent sub-genres of bluegrass music.

Progressive Bluegrass

This term is often used interchangeably with newgrass, the latter of which was supposedly coined by Ebo Walker, a member of the New Grass Revival. Progressive bluegrass is best characterized by the considerable use of electrical music instruments as well as the piano and drums. Its songs have either been derived or directly imported from other genres. Its chord progressions are definitely more complex than those used in traditional bluegrass and instrumental parts of the song are often lengthy and performed in a jam-like arrangement instead of solos. String Cheese is one great example of this type of bluegrass band and the use of jamming and imported songs are best seen in their song, Dudley’s Kitchen.

Bluegrass Gospel

Another essential sub-genre is bluegrass gospel, one that has reached considerable proportions, enough to spawn its own festivals and stable of artists. Nevertheless, many mainstream bluegrass acts either include a number of gospel records in their works or occasionally produce purely bluegrass gospel albums.

Besides the use of Christian lyrics, another key element of bluegrass gospel is the inclusion of soulful vocal harmonies, usually composed of three to four parts, and subdued instrumentals. Similar to choir music, bluegrass gospel also often features a capella choruses, albeit using a different harmony structure.

IIIrd Tyme Out is one of the many mainstream bands that play bluegrass gospel music as well while Mount Zion & The Church Men plays purely bluegrass gospel music.

Neo-Traditional Bluegrass

This still relatively young trend first entered the scene in the 1990’s and is characterized by having a single lead vocalist supported by its band. Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson are just a few bluegrass acts that use this setup.

Redgrass

Another new trend, redgrass is characterized by its inclusion of traditional Chinese stringed instruments like the sanxian, liuqin, and the pipa.

Bluegrass Festivals

There is no better way to experience the rich and vibrant culture of bluegrass music than by participating in any of its multiple-day festivals. Arguably the most famous of all these festivals would be the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which takes place in Lyons, Colorado.

Many of these festivals have rich and wonderful stories to tell. The Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Festival , for instance, is the longest continuously running bluegrass festival. It was founded by the great Bill Monroe himself in Bean Blossom, Indiana. At the same music park, festival attendants may also enjoy a tour of Uncle Pen’s Cabin, the home of Pendleton Vandiver, Bill Monroe’s uncle and one of his major sources of inspiration in his musical career.

Ralph Stanley also founded his own bluegrass festival. Last May 2010, Stanley successfully organized the 40th Annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival at Hills of Home Park in Virginia.

For the best bluegrass festival that’s completely free to attend, check out the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival , which takes place in San Francisco, California. The event has multiple concert locations and boasts of a lineup made of the very best performers in the industry as well as up and rising bluegrass bands. It was originally named Hardly Bluegrass Festival, but the addition of the word “strictly” was deemed appropriate when the lineup soon expanded to include artists from other genres.

Bluegrass festival is not, however, a purely American event. People from all over the world have appreciated bluegrass music and as such, it’s not entirely surprising that bluegrass festivals outside of the United States have also been organized.

Canada’s Tottenham Bluegrass Festival, for instance, has already celebrated its 27th year this 2010 at the Tottenham Conservation Area. Festival tickets are good for all festival events and include on-site camping. It is popularly referred to as Ontario’s Top Family Festival, thanks to its waiver of entrance fee for children 16 years of age and below. The most popular events of the festival include its youth talent content, barbeque or “Rib Fest” night, and its Sunday gospel show.

There’s also the European World of Bluegrass festival, which is on its tenth year, and takes place in Netherlands.

With bluegrass festivals, on-site camping is often offered as well, one you’re highly encouraged to attend if you’d like to enjoy bluegrass culture at its most authentic. Many festivals treat early arrivals with welcome parties that may offer pot-luck styled dining.

Numerous acts perform in bluegrass festival. At times, you may have to purchase a different festival ticket in order to attend the evening set of festivities prepared.

Open mic sessions are one of the most common events included in a festival itinerary. With open mic sessions, amateur individual and group performers are invited to perform for free on stage. Slots are usually offered at a first-come, first-served basis.

Another common element of bluegrass festivals are the numerous contests and workshops that are sponsored by the event’s organizers. Contests could be for the best amateur band, the best vocalist, or the best mandolin player. But don’t worry as there are also non-musical contests frequently taking place in bluegrass festivals.

Workshops are usually for free.  Sometimes, festival participants may even enjoy the opportunity to learn from the pros themselves although in such cases, slots are vastly limited and may also require payment. Workshops usually feature vocal and instrument playing lessons. Sometimes, there are also lessons offered on how to establish and manage a bluegrass band. Workshops may be categorized according to level such as beginners, intermediate, and advanced.

Jamming sessions are one of the highlights of bluegrass festivals. Day or night, fans would gather together and create music together. That’s why festival participants are highly encouraged to bring their own musical instruments.

But the best parts of bluegrass festivals would no doubt be the fantastic food – usually offered by the event organizers and a wide assortment of concession stands – and the new friendships you get to form with other festival participants.

International Bluegrass Music Association

The IBMA is the premier award-giving body that recognizes outstanding talent of bluegrass music artists. Its vision is to continuously promote bluegrass music and protect its long and rich heritage. Its Bluegrass Hall of Fame includes the top bluegrass artists in history. It hosts a long line of concerts and other events – collectively known as World of Bluegrass events – at Nashville, Texas. IBMA also constantly sponsors educational classes and workshops for aspiring and amateur bluegrass musicians, including 2005’s Our Music Heritage, a workshop for 100 local parents and students in Nashville, and 2006’s New Bluegrass in the Schools, a teachers’ workshop in Missouri.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Polly September 23, 2010 at 7:53 am

Thanks for some great information! I do have one thing to correct though. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is held in Telluride, CO, not Lyons, CO. Lyons is where Planet Bluegrass, the organizer of the festival, is located.

John Wren December 30, 2010 at 4:31 am

I enjoyed reading this article. I must be one of the oldest English guys to enjoy this wonderful music and it all begin back in 1952 when, as 12 year old schoolboy I used to visit my Grandma.She went without a lot of things because she was poor and also had no electricity.However she did have an old 1930 style radio which ran off accumulators without recourse to electricity. On weekday afternoons I used to listen to the American Forces Network from Germany and a show called “Hillbilly Gasthaus” On this show the presenter – happy Southernar with a loud laugh always played two fiddle tunes and to this day it is my favourite music – bluegrass or old time I love it!

ron gross January 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm

i am a ukelele player that jams with blue grass and the other jammers love the sound of my uke’s..i am also learning the 4 and 5 string “jo”. been playing uke’s since 1947!.. so you can add ukelele’s to the list of blue grass instraments.

Flatpicker January 17, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Thanks Ron. Will do!

theresa redden February 10, 2011 at 10:35 am

Just love to read this!! i hope the tradition will always be there,there are some that think its hillbilly music-well hey we are down to earth people, and that is -nothing- to be ashamed of!! in fact im very proud!!

zay August 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

how do u play a guitar cuz i only no the basics

Han Shot First! October 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Han Shot First!

khalidedris April 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm

I really learned alot about bluegrass music it was really cool to know all that thank you for doing all this for me and other people that read it.

stacy smith April 22, 2013 at 3:05 pm

alot of great information

thanks!!!!!

Gabrielle Gray July 17, 2013 at 5:08 pm

About the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco: Warren Hellman, founder of this festival, told me it was originally called Strictly Bluegrass Festival. He added the word Hardly so that his genre-bending event could present Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens every year, neither of whom are considered strictly bluegrass musicians.
Gabrielle Gray

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