If we look at the roots of Bluegrass music, it most certainly begins in large part with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants to the area known as Appalachia as early as the late 1600s, but in greater numbers from about 1720 throughout the 1800s. Appalachia is part of the Appalachian Mountains which geographically extend from Newfoundland to Alabama for over 2000 miles. It seems the name Appalachia and Appalachian have become somewhat interchangeable. You can see the area on the map inset below.
However, the cultural and musical region related to Bluegrass is pretty much confined to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to the Smokey Mountains on the Tennessee and North Carolina border. So I will refer to this region by it’s name of Appalachia, sorry I’m no geographer, bottom line this is where Bluegrass originated!
The instruments transported by these early immigrants were almost exclusively string based. For the most part this was the fiddle (violin) and the European Mandolin which were easily carried. A number of homemade string and percussion instruments like the washboard also supplemented these originals that made the journey.
So for the music of the wider Appalachian region, the guitar, it’s popular cousin the Dobro, mouth harps, more mandolins, banjos and the upright bass would be added; all contributing to the musical style(s) in the region. Once part of the somewhat antiquated Hillbilly Music classification, Bluegrass now seems to settle into the Country/Folk genre with some strong Methodist Christian influence, giving it Gospel genre ties as well. Bluegrass is characterized by having an up-tempo beat, with a unique “high lonesome” sound traditionally played on acoustic instruments with harmonizing vocals. For as much as it can be upbeat, there are also many a Bluegrass ballad expressing a forlorn and melancholy story.
Why is it called “Bluegrass”?
I recall seeing a plaque outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville proclaiming the birth of Bluegrass to be in December of 1945 with the appearance of Bill Monroe. He and his band appeared on what was then The Grand Ole Opry stage, hence it seems most Bluegrass musicians and fans alike believe this is where the narrative starts. However, a little digging revealed that this is not entirely accurate. As I have discovered through some research, the music was already there; it just didn’t have a name yet. The name was indeed derived from the genre pioneer, Bill Monroe, who was native to the state of Kentucky. He named his band Blue Grass Boys after the ubiquitous plant of the region. But the Bluegrass name would still not catch on immediately. Since that time, Monroe has been dubbed the “Father of Bluegrass”. This is not a claim he made himself, nor is it because he invented the genre as some think. Munroe, as one with remarkable talent “felt it in his bones” to steal a phrase and he saw it’s value. He was able to not only popularize the music but make money performing it. In fact, there are many names from Appalachia area music which include trailblazers in Country and Folk /Old Time styles that precede the word “Bluegrass”. Munroe himself started playing professionally in the early 1930’s so at best it may be fair to say that Bluegrass got its name when he arrived in Nashville in December of 1945 but it most certainly did not start there.
In my reading I find all sorts of claims, fairy tales, wishes and revisionist history stating this artist or that song is the first in
Folk/Rock/Blues/Country…name your genre but rarely is this the case.
I’ve learned that virtually no major music genre or subgenre developed spontaneously, all were named retroactively, and Bluegrass is no different. And while I’m not as well-versed in this genre compared to others, there are many names that have come out of the Appalachia region that you and I may recognize.
In 2018, I talked about two of the recording pioneers from this region: the first was 53 years old before his first recordings in 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson (who wrote “I’m Nine Hundred Miles from Home” and mentioned in my “Elvis Part 2” blog). I blogged about Dock Boggs, who, while younger than Carson, was first recorded around the same time thanks to Alan Lomax and others supported by the Library of Congress recordings. From this time and onward, we hear parts of the distinctive sounds of Bluegrass. There are more names that I will list below with YouTube links to their music. There were many string players and singer songwriters that were not recorded and therefore not properly recognized for their contributions to Bluegrass development.
One such little discussed artist dubbed the “Godfather of Bluegrass” is Kentucky born Arnold Shultz (February 1886-April 14, 1931) and sadly his music was never recorded. Nevertheless, he’s due much credit as his influence was vast. Like many Black itinerant musicians, he was a labourer and played where and when he could. While primarily a fiddler, he was a pioneer with his thumb style guitar playing. Later to be know as Travis Picking after it was refined by Merle Travis. Kennedy Jones and Mose Rager (also from Kentucky) were influencers like Shultz and between these three and others,they passed on some of the many different thumb/finger picking methods that have shaped generations of guitar, banjo and mandolin players. Chet Atkins is perhaps the most well known for his derivative fingerstyle guitar he learned from Travis and the guitar wizard Doc Watson would adopt this and the flat picking style with its roots in the adjacent Piedmont region. Bill Monroe incorporated some of this technique in his mandolin playing and actually got his first paying gig with the help of Shultz. He is quoted as saying, “There’s things in my music, you know, that comes from Arnold Shultz – runs that I use in a lot of my music”. Here is a clip with his story.
Bill Monroe had some fantastic band members in the Blue Grass Boys such as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise who would go on to form The Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948. Other names to follow were Ralph and Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, the Osborne Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, and Béla Fleck. For one who came ‘late’ to singing she has one of the most outstanding voices of any genre. Her first talent has made her a world-class fiddle player. Alison Krauss who performs as a solo artist, with Union Station, and in duets/collaborations has won an astonishing 27 Grammys. As noted in Wikipedia, she has also won 14 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, 9 Country Music Association Awards, 2 Gospel Music Association Awards, 2 CMT Music Awards, 2 Academy of Country Music Awards, and one Canadian Country Music Award. Country Music Television ranked Krauss 12th on their “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list in 2002. So, if you think Bluegrass is not popular or important, you may want to reconsider!
I mentioned at the beginning it’s acoustic roots as the genre predates electrified instruments, so do of course Blues, Jazz and Country. The five string banjo would become the instrument of choice in Bluegrass and is still played acoustically, however, blended with the traditional many electric instruments have been, and still are often used in today’s Bluegrass recordings and performances. There are electronic versions of the primary instruments; the guitar, mandolin and sometimes even a hybrid banjo as well, along with the above mentioned Dobro (which has become a generic name for any resonator guitar). And the good old stand-up bass has been sometimes replaced by the hard bodied electric bass guitar. Also used are the lap guitar, steel guitar, the mouth harp, accordion, drums, the triangle and other percussion instruments often make appearances as well. And while associated with many Old Time genre the harmonica is rarely used in Bluegrass. The banjo, fiddle and mandolin are very strongly associated with the genre but I have to point out there is much related music with these instruments that is not Bluegrass.
Here is a good opportunity to talk about this, especially given the banjo is so closely tied to Bluegrass, the Appalachian region and much of the Southern US. I believe it is important to know about the introduction of the instrument. Briefly, according to my research it’s origins have been traced by historians, musicologists and others from West Africa to the Caribbean to Black American Slaves. Before the abolishment of Slavery in 1865 the banjo rarely traveled far in the hands of Black people, although the instrument was used very sparsely in the Northern US. As the instrument construction itself evolved it was being taught by Slaves to the White Plantation owners, workers and musicians. So it became the domain of the White musician and part of blackface performances which existed prior to, but were most popular from the 1830’s through to as late as the very early 1900’s. American craftsmanship and knowhow would look after the availability and further refinement of the banjo. Through the travels of these White players, bands and Minstrel shows the banjo was introduced throughout the US, though most frequently in the South, including Appalachia. In small numbers after 1865 there were ‘all Black’ troupes as well as the many lone itinerant Black musicians. But buy this time for Blacks the banjo had lost its appeal due in great part it seems to this appropriation and blackface performances of white people. Most then took to the guitar as the instrument of choice. Nevertheless in these early days there were both Black and White musicians who spread their banjo, fiddle and guitar playing in various genre throughout the US, Canada and Europe.
Both Black and White artists would create, develop and share the many diverse playing styles with three finger picking (known as Scruggs Style) being most associated with Bluegrass. There were many noted banjo players from Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolina’s using the frailing or claw hammer method typically associated with Old Time/Folk/Country genres and not so much with Bluegrass. This diverse instrument was introduced into Irish Folk music as a five string tenor banjo with a picking style that originated in Appalachia. There is also a Dixieland Style and we fortunately see the banjo appear frequently in other genre as well.
Here is a bit of a musical timeline of Bluegrass and I have included some cover songs at the end to show just how diverse it can be.
We begin with influencers in the region regardless of genre from the first days of mass recorded music in the 1920’s through to today. While it’s heyday lasted only from the mid 1940’s to early 1950’s it’s never gone out of style in many circles and there is some evidence its been making a comeback. From a personal standpoint I think this genre and it’s many talented artists is vastly underrated. Many of these early artists were self taught, while they may have picked up a playing/singing style or a few pointers here and there what you hear is pure raw talent.
Taylor’s Kentucky Boys were multiracial in their membership which appears to have been more common in Appalachia at that time but still quite rare. Their fiddle player was named Jim Booker, who I’ve read did not appear in the only known photograph of the band. Grey Eagle (1927)
Mack Woolbright was a blind three finger style banjo player that a six year old Earl Scruggs heard play in 1930. Here is Woolbright playing with Charlie Parker (not the Saxophone great). Will, The Weaver (1927)
Andrew & Jim Baxter were a father and son fiddle and guitar team. Though they hailed from Georgia they recorded in North Carolina and became well known in Appalachia. K.C. Railroad Blues (1927)
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a true renaissance man of Appalachia. He was a lawyer by trade but also a singer, songwriter, a fine fiddle and banjo player. He dedicated much of his time as a folklorist, archivist and collector of Old Time Mountain Music. Here is his story. Mole in the Ground (1928)
The Carter Family who hailed from Virginia are considered Country Music Royalty and their contribution to Bluegrass is quite significant. Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow (1935) Maybelle Carter was married to A.P. Carter’s brother but it was he and his wife Sara Carter that rounded out the original trio. Maybelle had three daughters, one of which was June Carter. They really were the first stars of Country Music and recorded with other family members joining in from 1927 to 1956.
Jimmie Strothers, a banjo player from Virginia lost his sight in a mining accident. He was an important early area musician. Cripple Creek (1936)
Hobart Smith, although he played in the claw hammer banjo style was another early artist, along with his perhaps more successful vocalist sister Texas Gladden who had been singing in the now familiar “high lonesome” style since the 1920’s. Though very hard to find, she did some recording in the 1930’s, here she is at age 46 with Poor Ellen Smith (1941). Give it a listen and if see if you are like me…this sounds a lot like the Bluegrass ‘reportedly’ started in 1945.
Ralph Stanley, who’s recordings were heard on the O’brother Where Art Thou movie soundtrack for which he won a Grammy award is another true Bluegrass artist. He and his brother Carter were also members of the Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys they were the first to cover A Man of Constant Sorrow (1951), first published in 1913 by Dick Burnett.
I mentioned them above but Lester Flatt was a fine singer, guitar and mandolin player and the legendary Earl Scruggs played three finger (five string) banjo and guitar as well. You may know them for this 1962 song The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies TV show.
Doc Watson (as mentioned above) sometimes played guitar in the thumb picking style of Bluegrass and was pretty convincing when he did. I have some of his work and I can say he’s one of the finest and most versatile guitarist I’ve ever heard. He comes from a family steeped in the traditions of Americana music. Here is his cover of Dock Boggs Country Blues (1964)
The Osborne Brothers, I mentioned their Felice and Boudleaux Bryant penned song “Rocky Top” (1967) in my recent post I Write the Songs Part 2.
Del McCoury and later with his band is most definitely a fine Bluegrass artist. Fire on the Mountain (1968), Never Grow Up Boy (2005)
Ricky Skaggs plays many instruments and is a living Country Music legend. At age 6 he appeared on stage with Bill Monroe, displaying his singing and mandolin prowess. Skaggs, with another who got his start in Bluegrass, Marty Stuart along with Bill Monroe are very likely the three best to ever play Bluegrass mandolin Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart.
Béla Fleck, who came out of the great band New Grass Revival and later with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is someone I’ve come to appreciate over the years due to his world class banjo playing. He plays in many styles including Old Time, Classical and Jazz but his roots are in Bluegrass. Texas Barbecue (1979)
Jerry Douglas is considered by many to be the best Dobro (resonator guitar) player ever and you’ll get no argument from me. Some years back I picked up one of his albums and I must get back and give it a listen. Although he plays in many styles his contribution to Country Music and Bluegrass in particular is pretty much unmatched. In addition to his 14 Grammys and dozens upon dozens of other awards he has played on over 1600 recordings, he writes, produces and a member of a number of bands and since 1998 also a member of Union Station. A Little Medley.
Alison Krauss is also a member of the uber talented Union Station. As I mentioned above she is an accomplished artist who crosses genres with ease but her roots are in Bluegrass. When I first heard her sing the cover of Bad Company’s Oh Atlanta sometime after it’s released in 1995 I was hooked. Sawing on the Strings (2007)
Old Crow Medicine Show, like the man that discovered them, Doc Watson, they dabble quite successfully in the Bluegrass style. Hard to Love (2004)
Abigail Washburn is another world class banjo player who has been associated with many acts and happens to be married to Béla Fleck. Nobody’s Fault But Mine (2005). Her music along with her husband Béla, and the next artist falls into many styles including the growing sub genre known as Progressive Bluegrass.
Steve Martin is one versatile and amazing person. He is also one of the finest banjo players in today’s music. He plays in both the clawhammer and as seen and heard in this clip the three finger Bluegrass style. The song he is playing is The Crow from his Grammy winning album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and the first of his five #1 hit Bluegrass Albums. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby
Rhiannon Giddens plays the fiddle and banjo and happens to dip her bow in a bit of Bluegrass, Celtic, Blues, Jazz, Gospel and many Old Time related genre. With The Carolina Chocolate Drops, solo or in collaboration as I first heard her in 2014 with T-Bone Burnett on The New Basement Tapes she is nothing short of a true singing and playing marvel.
Here is Giddens with Ruby a song written and recorded by the early Kentucky area banjo star Cousin Emmy, who along with playing 14 other instruments had a very popular radio show heard across North America in the early 1940’s. At some point I will dedicate more to the barefoot playing Grammy winning Giddens, but for now enjoy this entertaining educational piece from TED (2016).
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with a cover of Stuck in the Middle with You. Here is a link to a Youtube Pickin’ On Series with a number of great covers from different genre. A sampling of them Rocket Man, All About the Bass, Jolene.
If you still don’t get Bluegrass just listen to this, Bill Monroe
Images: Bill Monroe, Bascom-Lamar-Lunsford, Map, Arnold Shultz, Rhiannon Giddens
Dedicated to Joaquin and his friend Al!
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