Bluegrass music

Bluegrass music

Infobox Music genre
stylistic_origins=Country music, Anglo-Celtic music, Appalachian folk music, Blues, Jazz
cultural_origins=Mid to late 1940s US
instruments=Fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, resonator guitar, and upright bass
popularity=originally Southeast US, but now diffused throughout US, and in other countries, especially Japan and parts of Europe.
subgenrelist=List of bluegrass genres
subgenres=Progressive bluegrass - Traditional bluegrass - Neo-Traditional Bluegrass
fusiongenres=Jam band
regional_scenes=Czech Republic
other_topics=Musicians - Hall of Honor

Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music, and is a sub-genre of country music. It has its own roots in Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. Bluegrass was inspired by the music of immigrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland (particularly the Scots-Irish immigrants in Appalachia), as well as jazz and blues. In bluegrass, as in jazz, each instrument takes a turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment. This is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment. Traditional bluegrass is typically based around acoustic stringed instruments, such as acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, and upright bass, with or without vocals.



Unlike mainstream country music, bluegrass relies mostly on acoustic stringed instruments. The fiddle, five string banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and upright bass are often joined by the resonator guitar (popularly known by the Dobro brand name). This instrumentation originated in rural dance bands and was being abandoned by those groups (in favor of blues and jazz ensembles) when picked up by European-American musicians (van der Merwe 1989, p.62). Instrumental solos are improvised, and can frequently be technically demanding. The Acoustic Guitar is now most commonly played with a flatpick unlike the style of Lester Flatt who used a thumb and finger pick. The style is known as flatpicking. The banjo players often use a three-finger style developed by Earl Scruggs.

Bluegrass musicians, fans, and scholars have long debated what instrumentation constitutes a bluegrass band. Since the term bluegrass came from Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys, many consider the instruments used in his band the traditional bluegrass instruments. These were the mandolin (played by Monroe), the fiddle, guitar, banjo and upright bass. At times the musicians may perform gospel songs, singing four-part harmony and including no or sparse instrumentation (often with banjo players switching to lead guitar). Bluegrass bands have included instruments as diverse as the resonator guitar (Dobro), accordion, harmonica, piano, autoharp, drums, Drum kit, electric guitar, and electric versions of all other common bluegrass instruments, though these are considered to be more progressive and are a departure from the traditional bluegrass style.


Besides instrumentation, a distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often featuring a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice (see modal frame). This vocal style has been characterized as the "high lonesome sound." There is also an emphasis on traditional songs, often with sentimental or religious themes.



Bluegrass as a style developed during the mid 1940s. Because of war rationing, recording was limited during that time, and it would be most accurate to say that bluegrass was played some time after World War II, but no earlier. As with any musical genre, no one person can claim to have "invented" it. Rather, bluegrass is an amalgam of old-time music, country, ragtime and jazz. Nevertheless, bluegrass's beginnings can be traced to one band. Today Bill Monroe is referred to as the "founding father" of bluegrass music; the bluegrass style was named for his band, the Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1939. The 1945 addition of banjo player Earl Scruggs, who played with a three-finger roll originally developed by Snuffy Jenkins, but now almost universally known as "Scruggs style", is considered the key moment in the development of this genre. Although Jenkins, in interviews, has renounced his role as being the one who invented the three-finger roll, and has said he learned it from Rex Brooks and Smith Hammett in the 1920s.Monroe's 1946 to 1948 band, which featured Scruggs, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts, also known as "Cedric Rainwater,"—sometimes called "the original bluegrass band"—created the definitive sound and instrumental configuration that remains a model to this day. By some arguments, as long as the Blue Grass Boys were the only band playing this music, it was just their unique style; it could not be considered a musical style until other bands began performing in similar fashion. In 1947, the Stanley Brothers recorded the traditional song "Molly and Tenbrooks" in the Blue Grass Boys' style, and this could also be pointed to as the beginning of bluegrass as a style. As Ralph Stanley himself says about the origins of the genre:

Bluegrass was generally used for dancing in the rural areas, but eventually spread to more urban areas and became more popular. Bluegrass is performed on acoustic, non-electric instruments, the women and men who played it grew up without electricity so they had to learn to play acoustic instruments. Electric instruments were frowned upon by conservative country music people, like the founder of the Grand Ole Opry, George D. Hay. In 1948, bluegrass emerged as a genre within the post-war, country music industry. This period of time is characterized as the golden era, or wellsprings of "traditional bluegrass."

Bluegrass is not and never was folk music under a strict definition; however, the topical and narrative themes of many bluegrass songs are highly reminiscent of "folk music". In fact, many songs that are widely considered to be bluegrass are older works legitimately classified as folk or old-time performed in a bluegrass style. From its earliest days to today, bluegrass has been recorded and performed by professional musicians. Although amateur bluegrass musicians and trends such as "parking lot picking" are too important to be ignored, it is professional musicians who have set the direction of the style. While bluegrass is not folk music in that strict sense, the interplay between bluegrass music and folk forms has been studied. Folklorist Dr. Neil Rosenberg, for example, shows that most devoted bluegrass fans and musicians are familiar with traditional folk songs and old-time music and that these songs are often played at shows and festivals.

First generation

First generation bluegrass musicians dominated the genre from its beginnings in the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s. This group generally consists of those who were playing during the "Golden Age" in the 1950s, including Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Reno and Smiley, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, Buzz Busby, The Lilly Brothers, Jim Eanes and Earl Taylor.

econd generation

Bluegrass's second generation came to prominence in the mid- to late-1960s, although many of the second generation musicians were playing (often at young ages) in first generation bands prior to this. Among the most prominent second generation musicians are J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Harley "Red" Allen, Bill Keith, Del McCoury and Tony Rice. With the second generation came a growth in progressive bluegrass, as exemplified by second generation bands such as the New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels,The Dillards. In that vein, first-generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, progressive mandolin player David Grisman, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo) and Peter Rowan as lead vocalist collaborated in the band called "Old and in the Way"; the Garcia connection helped to expose progressive and traditional bluegrass to a rock music audience.

Third generation

The third generation in bluegrass reached maturity in the mid-1980s. Third generation bluegrass saw a number of notable changes from the music played in previous years. In several regards, this generation saw a redefinition of "mainstream bluegrass." Increased availability of high-quality sound equipment led to each band member being miked independently, and a "wall of sound" style developed (exemplified by Tony Rice Unit and The Bluegrass Album Band. Following the example set by Tony Rice, lead guitar playing became more common (and more elaborate). An electric bass became a generally, but not universally, accepted alternative to the traditional acoustic bass, though electrification of other instruments continued to meet resistance outside progressive circles. Nontraditional chord progressions also became more widely accepted. On the other hand, this generation saw a renaissance of more traditional songs, played in the newer style. The Johnson Mountain Boys were one of the decade's most popular touring groups, and played strictly traditional bluegrass.

Recent developments

In recent decades bluegrass music has increasingly reached a broader audience. Major mainstream country music performers have recorded bluegrass albums, including Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless, each having released several bluegrass albums. Since the late 1990s, Ricky Skaggs, who began as a bluegrass musician and crossed over to mainstream country in the 1980s, returned to bluegrass with his band Kentucky Thunder. The Coen Brothers' movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), and the resulting "Down from the Mountain" music tour and documentary, have contributed mightily to expanding the audience for bluegrass music.

Meanwhile, bands such as the Rocky-Grass, Yonder Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá Tráva in the Czech Republic have attracted large audiences while pushing at the edges of progressive bluegrass in the college-jam band atmospheres, often called "jamgrass." A crossover of bluegrass and jazz styles can be heard in the music of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Doc Watson, and others. An interesting and rather peculiar crossover of bluegrass and heavy metal has been popularised by John 5; this blends bluegrass with heavy distortion and shred-like techniques, such as sweep arpeggios, tapping and string-skipping.


There are three major sub-genres of bluegrass and an unofficial sub-genre.

Traditional bluegrass

Traditional bluegrass, as the name implies, emphasizes the traditional elements. Traditional bluegrass musicians are likely to play folk songs, songs with simple traditional chord progressions, and use only acoustic instruments. They generally follow the pattern set by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in the late 1940s. In the early years, traditional bluegrass sometimes included instruments no longer accepted in mainstream bluegrass, such as the accordion and harmonica. Traditional bands may use bluegrass instruments in slightly different ways (claw-hammer style of banjo playing, or multiple guitars or fiddles within a band). In this sub-genre, the guitar rarely takes the lead (the notable exception being gospel songs), remaining a rhythm instrument. Melodies and lyrics tend to be simple, and a I-IV-V chord pattern is very common.

Nationally popular traditional bluegrass bands include Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass.

Progressive bluegrass

Another major sub-genre is progressive bluegrass, roughly synonymous with "newgrass" (the latter term is attributed to New Grass Revival member Ebo WalkerFact|date=July 2008). Progressive bluegrass came to widespread attention in the late 1960s and 1970sFact|date=August 2008, as some groups began using electric instruments and importing songs from other genres (particularly rock & roll)Fact|date=August 2008. However, progressive bluegrass can be traced back to one of the earliest bluegrass bands. A brief listen to the banjo and bass duets Earl Scruggs played even in the earliest days of the Foggy Mountain Boys gives a hint of the wild chord progressions to come. The four key distinguishing elements (not always all present) of progressive bluegrass are instrumentation (frequently including electric instruments, drums, piano, and more), songs imported (or styles imitated) from other genres, chord progressions, and lengthy "jam band"-style improvisation. String Cheese Incident is a good example of a band that occasionally coordinates a bluegrass tune mixed with a jam band feeling (especially original tunes like "Dudley's Kitchen"). A twist on this genre is the combining of elements that preceded bluegrass, such as old-time string band music, with bluegrass music.

Bluegrass Gospel

Although nearly all bluegrass artists regularly incorporate gospel music into their repertoire,Fact|date=July 2008 "Bluegrass Gospel" has emerged as a third sub-genre. Distinctive elements of this style of bluegrass music include lyrics focused on Christian faith and theology, soulful three- or four-part harmony singing, and occasionally subdued instrumentals.Fact|date=July 2008 A cappella choruses are popular with bluegrass gospel artists, though the harmony structure differs somewhat from standard barbershop or choir singing.Fact|date=July 2008 Although some "mainstream" bluegrass artists such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Third Tyme Out have produced extraordinary bluegrass gospel music, others, such as The Issacs, Mount Zion and The Churchmen have chosen to focus on it exclusively.

Neo-Traditional bluegrass

A newer development in the bluegrass world is Neo-Traditional Bluegrass. In the 1990s, most bluegrass bands were headed by a solo artist such as Doyle Lawson and Rhonda Vincent, with an accompanying band.Fact|date=July 2008 Bands playing this sub-genre include The Grascals, Mountain Heart, The Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers and Cherryholmes.

ocial and musical impact

In movies

* "Songcatcher"
* "Cold Mountain"
* "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
* ""
* "That High Lonesome Sound"
* "High Lonesome: the Story of Bluegrass Music" (documentary)
* "The Ralph Stanley Story" (documentary)
* "Bill Monroe: the Father of Bluegrass" (documentary)
* "Deliverance"
* "Harlan County, USA"
* "Bonnie and Clyde"
* "Bluegrass Journey" (documentary)
* ""


* Bluegrass Festival Guide []
* Bluegrass Unlimited
* Flatpicking Guitar Magazine []
* Bluegrass Now []
* Cybergrass Bluegrass Music Magazine [] , a bluegrass ezine
* Bluegrass Works [] , a bluegrass webzine
* Banjo Newsletter []
* Bluegrass Europe []
* Moonshiner (Japanese) []
* Women in Bluegrass Newsletter (has suspended publication) []
* Bluegrass Music Profiles []
* British Bluegrass News
* Dissertation on The Social Context of Bluegrass Music []

Opera and theater

* The Original Bluegrass Opera of Detroit []


*International Bluegrass Music Museum Owensboro, Kentucky
*Bill Monroe Museum Rosine, Kentucky
*Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Country Star Museum [] Bean Blossom, Indiana
*Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center [] Clintwood, Virginia
*The Bluegrass Bus Museum [] Nashville, Tennessee


*Kingsbury, Paul (2004). "The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517608-1.
*Rosenberg, Neil (1985). "Bluegrass: A History". University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-00265-2.
*van der Merwe, Peter (1989). "Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music". Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.
*Trischka, Tony, Wernick, Pete, (1988) "Masters of the 5-String Banjo", Oak Publications. ISBN 0-8256-0298-X.


External links

* [ International Bluegrass Music Association] .
* [ Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America]

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