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By Calum Bradbury-Sparvell
Stephanie Ho gives us the facts on this distinctive genre…
Bill Monroe – arguably one of the most important figures within the history of bluegrass – once described this genre as “Scottish bagpipes and old time fiddling. It’s Methodist, Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music and it tells a good story. I want it to go from my heart to your heart and I want us both to hear it.”
The characteristic “high and lonesome sound” unique to bluegrass is built upon the instrumental layering of fiddles, banjos, acoustic guitars, mandolins, Dobros, and upright bass. Lyrics often concretize expressions of identity in relating feelings of nostalgia and purity. Thematically the lyrics revolve around “labor, family, nostalgia, pathos, regret, and grim prospects”.
Bluegrass performance is particularly subspecific to the genre and becomes almost a measure of authenticity: often featuring invested amateur musicians who follow a code of sorts that dictates rules to musical performance and etiquette. In learning to play correctly in all senses one gains an additional sense of “authentic” bluegrass music. For a time, bluegrass was even lauded as a sophisticated type of country music. However, its distinct musical characteristics as well as aesthetic and performance ideals give bluegrass definitively its own style and place among the geographic mapping of American folk music.
Like many other musical genres that are amalgamations of other styles, bluegrass is no less different in its origins.
Bluegrass has roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk music, Appalachian music, old-time, country blues, jazz, ‘barn-dance’ radio entertainment and vaudeville.
The aforementioned Bill Monroe is often touted as the Father of Bluegrass. Monroe’s efforts to convert the mix of the many musical styles into one genre appeared on the radio show Grand Ole Opry and more importantly emphasized a negotiation of urban and rural identities in a “time of great urban relocation” (King 2007).
The Blue Grass Boys (Monroe’s band), the Foggy Mountain Boys and the Stanley Brothers are important groups that are especially distinguished in their efforts in promoting bluegrass music. For example, Earl Scruggs popularized a new picking technique for the banjo that in turn created more public interest among radio listeners of bluegrass music in the Southeastern United States.
Flatt & Scruggs, the Blue Grass Boys, the Monroe Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Stanley Brothers.
What came next?
Subgenres of bluegrass include traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, bluegrass gospel, neo-traditional bluegrass, and ‘new’ grass. The latter style is a combination of punk and bluegrass music. In the history of bluegrass music, the style’s tendency to experience revivals seems to be occurring even now, within the broader scene of folk music performance.