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Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music, and is a sub-genre of country music. It has roots in Irish, West African, Scottish, Welsh and English traditional music. Bluegrass was inspired by the music of immigrants from the United Kingdommarker and Irelandmarker (particularly the Scots-Irish immigrants in Appalachia), and African-Americans, particularly through genres such as jazz and blues. In bluegrass, as in some forms of jazz, one or more instruments each takes its turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment; this is especially typified in tunes called breakdowns. 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 a small set of acoustic stringed instruments including mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, resonator guitar and upright bass, with or without vocals.

Bluegrass music has attracted a diverse and extremely loyal following world-wide. Many enthusiasts often describe their introduction to the genre as akin to having "caught the bug." Though summaries as the one above are a place to begin exploring this rich tradition, many "hardcore" musicians and listeners of bluegrass balk at such sterile portraits. In the words of the accepted "father of bluegrass," Bill Monroe, bluegrass is "Scotch bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a good story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters."



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. Instrumental solos are improvised, and are frequently 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. These departures are sometimes referred to as "Newgrass".


Besides special instrumentation, a distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often with a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice (see modal frame). The high-pitch vocal style has been characterized as the "high lonesome sound". Commonly, the ordering and layering of this harmony is called the 'stack'. A standard stack has a baritone voice at the bottom, the lead in the middle (singing the main melody) and a tenor at the top; although stacks can be altered, especially where a female voice is included. Alison Krauss and Union Station provide a good example of a different harmony stack with a baritone and tenor with a high lead, an octave above the standard melody line, sung by the female vocalist.



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 and others but now almost universally known as "Scruggs style", is considered the key moment in the development of this genre. (Jenkins, in interviews, 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, a dancing style known as buckdancing, flatfooting, or clogging, but eventually spread to more urban areas and became more popular. Bluegrass is typically performed on acoustic instruments, since the genre originated before widespread availability of household electricity. 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 wellspring 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 music 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-1930s through the mid-1960s. This group generally consists of those who were playing during the "Golden Age" in the 1950s, including Wade Mainer and his Mountaineers, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Ervin T. Rouse, who wrote the standard "Orange Blossom Special," Reno and Smiley, the Sauceman Brothers, 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, Ralph Stanley

Second generation

A second generation of Bluegrass musicians began performing, composing and recording came in the mid- to late-1960s, although many had played in first generation bands from a young age. Some Bluegrass musicians in this group are J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Harley "Red" Allen, Bill Keith, Del McCoury and Tony Rice. As they refined their craft, the New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels, and The Dillards developed progressive bluegrass. In one collaboration, first-generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, progressive mandolin player David Grisman, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo), and Peter Rowan on lead vocals, played in the band called Old and in the Way. Garcia, Chris Hillman, The Stanley Brothers and others in the 1960s and 1970s helped introduce rock music listeners to progressive and traditional bluegrass. Bush, Grisman, and Clements developed strong jazz elements in most of their playing -- Clements liked to refer to his music and "hillbilly jazz" - but each owes much to traditional bluegrass.

Third generation

Third generation Bluegrass developed in the mid-1980s. Bluegrass grew, matured and broadened from the music played in previous years. This generation redefined "mainstream bluegrass." High-quality sound equipment allowed each band member to be miked independently, exemplified by Tony Rice Unit and The Bluegrass Album Band. Tony Rice showcased elaborate lead guitar solos, and other bands followed. The electric bass became a general, but not universal, 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.
Sweet By and By, all-female bluegrass band - July 04, 2007.

Recent developments

In recent decades Bluegrass music has reached a broader audience. Major mainstream country music performers have recorded bluegrass albums, including Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless, who each 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' released the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? in (2000), with an oldtime and bluegrass soundtrack, and the Down from the Mountain music tour and documentary resulting.

Meanwhile, festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky-Grass in Lyons, Colorado and the Nederland, Colorado based Yonder Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá Tráva in the Czech Republic attract large audiences while expanding the range of progressive bluegrass in the college-jam band atmospheres, often called "jamgrass." Bluegrass fused with jazz in the music of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Doc Watson, and others.


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

Traditional bluegrass

Traditional bluegrass emphasizes the traditional elements; musicians play folk songs, songs with simple traditional chord progressions, and use only acoustic instruments. Generally, they play compositions on instrument like Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys played 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; for example playing the banjo by the claw-hammer style, or using multiple guitars or fiddles in a band. In this sub-genre, the guitar rarely leads but acts as a rhythm instrument, one notable exception being gospel songs. Melodies and lyrics tend to be simple, and a I-IV-V chord pattern is common.

Traditional bluegrass bands Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Del McCoury, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers,Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass enjoy nationwide popularity. California mountain bluegrass, a variation on traditional, has enjoyed regional popularity with such bands as Rita Hosking and Cousin Jack.

Progressive bluegrass

Another major sub-genre is progressive bluegrass, roughly synonymous with "newgrass" - the latter term is attributed to New Grass Revival member Ebo Walker. Some groups began using electric instruments and importing songs from other genres, particularly rock & roll. Progressive bluegrass became popular in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, progressive bluegrass has roots going back to one of the earliest bluegrass bands. The banjo and bass duets Earl Scruggs played even in the earliest days of the Foggy Mountain Boys hint at 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 one band that sometimes mixes a bluegrass tune with a jam band feeling, especially in original tunes like "Dudley's Kitchen". A twist on this genre is combining elements that preceded bluegrass, such as old-time string band music, with bluegrass music.

Bluegrass Gospel

"Bluegrass Gospel" has emerged as a third sub-genre. Nearly all bluegrass artists incorporate gospel music into their repertoire. Distinctive elements of this style include Christian lyrics, soulful three- or four-part harmony singing, and sometimes playing instrumentals subdue. A cappella choruses are popular with bluegrass gospel artists, though the harmony structure differs somewhat from standard barbershop or choir singing. Mainstream bluegrass artists Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and IIIrd Tyme Out have produced bluegrass gospel music. While The Issacs, Mount Zionmarker and The Churchmen play Bluegrass Gospel 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. Bands playing this sub-genre include The Grascals, Mountain Heart, The Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers and Cherryholmes.

Social and musical impact

In movies


Opera and theater

  • The Original Bluegrass Opera of Detroit
  • RedHead Express Bluegrass Show at Circle B Theatre, Branson, Missouri



  • 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

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