Bluegrass

Updated: May 19, 2011

Born of the traditions and experiences of the people of Appalachia and neighboring regions, bluegrass is an ensemble music placing equal emphasis on heartfelt vocals and instrumental virtuosity.

Born of the traditions and experiences of the people of Appalachia and neighboring regions, bluegrass is an ensemble music placing equal emphasis on heartfelt vocals and instrumental virtuosity. The structure, delivery, and repertoire of bluegrass owe a debt to Anglo-, Scots- and Irish- influenced American folk music, to string bands that  flourished in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century rural South, and to blues, ragtime, jazz, and gospel traditions.

Instruments conventionally associated with bluegrass are the mandolin, fiddle, five-string banjo, acoustic flat-top guitar, upright acoustic bass, and dobro (resonator guitar). The instruments alternate playing lead parts while the bass and the remaining instruments provide a rhythmic back- ground. Traditionally, all instruments were acoustic, but efforts to attract urban rock audiences, especially from the 1960s through the early 1980s, often led to the incorporation of electric instruments, including the electric bass guitar, sometimes the pedal steel guitar, and occasionally drums and electric guitar. Instrumental virtuosity and improvisation are hallmarks of bluegrass music.

Bluegrass vocalization is characterized by a high- pitched and intense delivery, contributing to a sound often labeled “high lonesome.” Voices generally combine to form two-, three-, and four-part harmonies. Vocal parts include the lead, which carries the melody; tenor, which is usually sung a third interval above the lead; baritone, which usually provides the fifth of the melody, usually below but some- times above the lead (the latter is called a high baritone); and the lowest part, bass, which generally handles the root notes of each chord. In this way, bluegrass harmony singing is derived from the harmony duo and gospel traditions of Appalachia, while the tonal character is influenced by the modal vocalizations in traditional Appalachian balladry.

The bluegrass repertoire includes instrumental tunes; secular songs by known composers based on such themes as the vagaries of love, nostalgia, and comedic situations; folk songs; and gospel music. A typical bluegrass song consists of several verses sung by the lead singer, each of which is followed by a chorus in two-, three-, or four-part harmony. The verse-chorus pairings are interspersed with instrumental interludes, each one showcasing one or more of the lead instruments.

Bluegrass music evolved from the innovative musical efforts of mandolin player and native Kentuckian Bill Monroe, the acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass Music.” Although he was born in western Kentucky, Monroe’s cultural heritage was heavily influenced by the Appalachian region, and his musical influence was in turn felt throughout Appalachia. While Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, most scholars agree that the classic bluegrass sound emerged with the 1945 introduction of Earl Scruggs’s three-finger banjo picking to the group. Key members in the various lineups of the Blue Grass Boys came from Appalachia, including Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Don Reno, Red Smiley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and Sonny Osborne. By the late 1940s, Monroe’s group was inspiring other country string bands. However, bluegrass was not employed as a label for the genre until the mid-1950s. In the mid- to late 1950s, when many country musicians were either opting for the commercial Nashville Sound or incorporating elements of the new rock ’n’ roll genre, the hard-core traditional country music audience embraced bluegrass and its acoustic string-band sound. In the 1960s, bluegrass enjoyed a spurt of popularity with urban youth audiences as folk revivalists were attracted to the genre’s acoustic sound and its perceived traditional origination (bluegrass was described by folklorist and collector Alan Lomax as “folk music in overdrive”).

The country music that originally influenced bluegrass had gained most of its popularity through live radio broad- casts, but the popularity of live radio was on the decline when bluegrass emerged and its performers had to find other ways to attract an audience. Bluegrass performers reached audiences via records, syndicated television shows (during the 1950s and 1960s), and stage shows (of which the bluegrass festival proved to be the most rewarding). In 1961, at Luray, Virginia, bluegrass musician and promoter Bill Clifton organized a one-day event that featured several major bluegrass acts on the same stage. The first multi-day bluegrass festival was held September 3–5, 1965, at Fincastle, Virginia, near Roanoke. Reminiscent of medicine shows, fiddlers’ conventions, and folk festivals, the typical bluegrass festival is a two- to four-day weekend event, often featuring a dozen or more musical groups that perform in open-air venues for successive thirty- to sixty-minute segments from late morning until approximately midnight. Bands booked by professional promoters included both full-time professionals and amateurs who pursue music as a hobby. Performers set up tables from which they sell their latest recordings and other products, including T-shirts and photographs. Even while featured acts are performing onstage, spontaneous jam sessions—involving both professional and amateur musicians—continue in adjacent parking lots and camping areas. By 2000, some five hundred bluegrass festivals were being held annually in the United States, with smaller numbers staged in Canada, Japan, and a half-dozen European countries.

In the beginning, professional bluegrass musicians were mostly men. In addition to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Appalachia-based acts—such as the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, and the Stanley Brothers—dominated the field. Women gradually infiltrated the ranks. Rose Maddox, a native of Boaz, Alabama, was the first woman to record a bluegrass album (in 1962); it featured Bill Monroe, Don Reno, and Red Smiley, among others. Starting in the mid-1960s, Hazel Dickens (of Mercer County, West Virginia) performed bluegrass in an influential duo with revivalist folk musician Alice Gerrard. The legacy of these pioneering women of bluegrass continues in the music of many contemporary bluegrass performers, including such women from Appalachia as Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley, and Murphy Henry.

Bluegrass musicians—individuals and groups—with Appalachian connections who have made significant contributions to the genre include Red Allen, Kenny Baker, Norman Blake, Blue Highway, the Bluegrass Cardinals, Ginger Boatwright, Ray Deaton, Raymond Fairchild, Betty Fisher, Lester Flatt, Melvin and Ray Goins, Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves, Bill Harrell, the Lonesome River Band, Doyle Lawson, the Lilly Brothers, Lonesome Standard Time, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Tim O’Brien, Bobby and Sonny Osborne, Don Reno, Butch Robins, Carl and J. P. Sauceman, Ricky Skaggs, Red Smiley, Carter and Ralph Stanley, the Stoneman Family, Carl Story, Don Stover, Frank Wakefield, Doc Watson, and Mac Wiseman.

Despite the fact that the early evolution of the genre occurred beyond the region’s boundaries, the music initially found its warmest and most enthusiastic reception among residents of Appalachia. Bluegrass soon spread far beyond its Appalachian stronghold, however. During the urban folk revival of the mid-1950s through the 1970s, many urban centers, including Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, developed major bluegrass music venues; there, musicians with an equal affinity for rock and bluegrass brought bluegrass to new audiences. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), the group Old and In the Way’s self-titled debut album (1974), and J. D. Crowe and the New South’s eponymous 1975 album (featuring Appalachian Kentucky’s Ricky Skaggs) were some of the major projects that hastened this crossover. After the late- 1970s rise in popularity of slick, dance-oriented styles in mainstream music, bluegrass was sustained by such independent recording labels as Rounder, Flying Fish, Sugar Hill, and County Records. The International Bluegrass Music Association, a professional trade organization dedicated to promoting the music, was established in 1985, with its head- quarters situated in Owensboro in western Kentucky.

The last decade of the twentieth century was particularly successful for bluegrass music as well as for its Appalachian practitioners. Such Appalachian-born country stars as Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless returned to an acoustic sound that celebrated the connections between blue- grass and Appalachia. The new millennium provided the cap- stone to this trend with the unprecedented commercial success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which featured Ralph Stanley and other Appalachian and non- Appalachian performers seamlessly fusing earlier traditional Appalachian music with bluegrass-influenced styles.

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MLA Style

"Bluegrass," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 28 Jun 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=40>

APA Style

"Bluegrass." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved June 28, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=40

J.D. Crowe and the New South