Skip to main content
Select Source:

Bluegrass

Bluegrass

HISTORY

PERFORMANCE

GENRE FEATURES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bluegrass is a highly stylized genre of American popular country music, ostensibly created in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the mandolinist Bill Monroe (19111996). Indeed, Monroe is the widely accepted Father of Bluegrass. However, the genre has diverse antecedents in the Scots-Irish fiddle tradition, old-time country music, country blues, small-group jazz performance, stereotyped barndance radio entertainment, and vaudeville. Monroe channeled and refined these influences into a tightly arranged, high-energy, radio-performance genre later termed blue-grass, which mediated between the rural and the newly urban on WSM radios widely broadcast Grand Ole Opry, a program that also functioned as a savvy popular representation of supposed country ways during a time of great urban relocation.

Today, due to its acoustic instrumentation, its highly foregrounded adherence to its own aesthetic tenets, and its widespread performance by passionate amateur musicians, bluegrass functions as a marker of musical authenticity in the world of country music more generally. This perceived authenticity is as much a part of bluegrasss identity as any of its sonic features.

Following a dip in popularity due to the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s, bluegrass has experienced periodic revivals, functioning as a badge of country legitimacy at points of overcommercialization or political uncertainty. It has thus become associated, on one hand, with radical populist movements (such as the so-called folk scare of the McCarthy era), as well as with proud nationalism, traditionalism, and social conservatism, on the other.

HISTORY

Bluegrass is inextricably linked to three groups of musicians living and performing in the Appalachian piedmont during the late 1930s. These groups played a common style that became an extremely popular genre in the 1940s and early 1950s. Mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his older brother had played so-called hillbilly music on the guitar and mandolin, touring professionally as the Monroe Brothers during the 1930s. After they parted ways, Bill Monroe founded a new band, the Blue Grass Boys, named after his home state of Kentucky (the Blue Grass State), and the band soon held a regular position on Nashvilles Grand Old Opry, one of country musics most acclaimed radio shows. The classic sound of what came to be known as bluegrass crystallized in 1946 as the bands repertoire and core group of musicians stabilized. This group included Earl Scruggs, who immediately popularized an impressive new technique for the five-string banjo, in which chords are arpeggiated and ornamented extremely rapidly with three picking fingers (rather than strummed or played more melodically). The appearance of this new banjo style on the radio helped generate a wave of popular enthusiasm for the Blue Grass Boys across the Southeast.

Citing fatigue, Scruggs and vocalist/guitarist Lester Flatt (1914-1979) left the band at the height of its popularity, and soon formed their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys, the second of the classic bluegrass triumvirate. Trading on Scruggss vaunted virtuosity and Flatts smooth vocal style and engaging stage presence, Flatt and Scruggs quickly achieved widespread success. The third of these widely acknowledged innovators was the Stanley Brothers, Ralph (b. 1927) and Carter (19251966), who initially imitated the sound of Monroes Blue Grass Boys, whom they had heard on the radio and on records. However, the Stanley Brothers soon began to emphasize older musical traditions, such as balladry, thus cementing history and nostalgia as integral to the blue-grass aesthetic.

Despite its origins as a new sort of sophisticated country music (the Blue Grass Boys all wore unconventionally formal attire), and its dependence on modern mass media for its dissemination and popularity, the core of bluegrasss identity has come to rely on concepts of nostalgic authenticity, linked to ostensibly bygone ideals of purity, straightforwardness, and honesty. These tropes of purity are expressed lyrically, through themes that emphasize labor, family, nostalgia, pathos, regret, and grim prospects, and musically through the use of string instruments that do not require modern electricity (though the sounds of these instruments are commonly electrically amplified). This instrumentation typically includes the five-string banjo, mandolin, fiddle (violin), steel-string acoustic guitar, upright (double) bass, and often the resophonic guitar (Dobro), with the occasional pragmatic addition of light percussion or electric bass.

PERFORMANCE

Professional bluegrass performance is mostly executed on summer tours, supported by an informal network of locally organized festivals. These festivals specialize in bluegrass, though other closely related genres may be represented. Local groups are typically given earlier slots on festival schedules, and participating professional and amateur musicians commonly congregate and play before and after performances. Casual parking-lot picking on festival grounds is an important aspect of these events, as amateur performance is a highly valued aspect of bluegrass music. Amateur performance is also widely sustained through informally organized (but highly regular) jam sessions and pickin parties.

GENRE FEATURES

Bluegrass has proven to be a remarkably robust genre, maintaining a generic coherence over many decades. It is notable for its foregrounded adherence to its own genre rules, commonly stated among practitioners thus: If it dont have X, it aint bluegrass. However, it exists both as a generic template that can be applied to other kinds of music (a successful series known as Pickin On markets bluegrass-style versions of the music of nonbluegrass artists, such as Pickin on Dylan, Pickin on R.E.M.), as well as a flexible paradigm that can absorb other musical parameters without losing its identity (for example, Pete Wernicks 2002 recording Live Five interpolates clarinet and vibraphone).

Emerging from vernacular musical traditions, the bulk of the bluegrass repertoire has typically been written in keys that allow for playing in open or first positions, utilizing open strings for accompanying drones and full, ringing chords or double (or triple) stops. However, fast tempi and tight arrangements have bred a sense of virtuosic pride into bluegrass performers, and many pieces written in formerly awkward keys are now commonplace.

Instrumentals are commonly written as tunes to be repeated with different musicians playing the melody in sequence. Typical repeatable forms are AABB or AABA. Vocal pieces are commonly in verse/chorus A(A)BABA form, though strophic ballads, true to bluegrasss nostalgic bent, are also common (AA A). As noted above, however, the pride of bluegrass musicians in their technical abilities has allowed for many idiosyncratic song forms.

SEE ALSO Music; Music, Psychology of

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goldsmith, Thomas, ed. 2004. The Bluegrass Reader. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Rosenberg, Neil. 2005. Bluegrass: A History. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Jonathan T. King

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bluegrass." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bluegrass." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/bluegrass

"Bluegrass." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

bluegrass

bluegrass, any species of the large and widely distributed genus Poa, chiefly range and pasture grasses of economic importance in temperate and cool regions. In general, bluegrasses are perennial with fine-leaved foliage that is bluish green in some species. One of the best known and most important is the sod-forming Kentucky bluegrass, or June grass (P. pratensis), believed to have been introduced from the Old World and now widely naturalized in the United States; Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State because this species is so prevalent there. Others are rough bluegrass (P. trivialis), used for shady lawns; Sandberg bluegrass (P. secunda), the most common native species; and big bluegrass (P. ampla), an important range grass. Bluegrass is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Gramineae.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"bluegrass." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"bluegrass." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

"bluegrass." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

bluegrass

blue·grass / ˈbloōˌgras/ • n. 1. (also Kentucky bluegrass) a bluish-green grass that was introduced into North America from northern Europe. It is widely grown for fodder, esp. in Kentucky and Virginia. 2. a kind of country music influenced by jazz and blues and characterized by virtuosic playing of banjos and guitars and high-pitched vocals.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"bluegrass." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"bluegrass." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bluegrass-0

"bluegrass." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bluegrass-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

bluegrass

bluegrass Type of grass that grows in temperate and Arctic regions and is used extensively for food by grazing animals. Family Poaceae/Gramineae; genus Poa.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"bluegrass." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"bluegrass." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

"bluegrass." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

bluegrass

bluegrassarse, baas, brass, carse, class, coup de grâce, farce, glass, grass, Grasse, impasse, Kars, kick-ass, kvass, Laplace, Maas, Madras, outclass, pass, sparse, stained glass, surpass, upper class, volte-face •badass • lardass • sandglass •eyeglass, spyglass •wine glass • tooth glass • subclass •hourglass •fibreglass (US fiberglass) • underclass •masterclass • weather glass • bypass •underpass • wheatgrass • ryegrass •knotgrass • sawgrass • bluegrass •goosegrass • smart-arse

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"bluegrass." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"bluegrass." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bluegrass

"bluegrass." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Bluegrass

Bluegrass

Since its development in the mid-1940s, bluegrass music has become one of the most distinctive American musical forms, attracting an intense audience of supporters who collectively form one of popular music's most vibrant subcultures. A close cousin of country music, bluegrass music is an acoustic musical style that features at its core banjo, mandolin, guitar, double bass, and fiddle along with close vocal harmonies, especially high-tenor harmony singing called the "high lonesome sound." Because of its largely acoustic nature, bluegrass is a term often used to describe all kinds of acoustic, noncommercial, "old-timey" music popular among rural people in the United States in the decades prior to World War II. That characterization, however, is incorrect. Bluegrass was developed, and has continued ever since, as a commercial musical form by professional recording and touring musicians. Often seen as being a throwback to this pre-World War II era, bluegrass is instead a constantly evolving musical style that maintains its connections to the past while reaching out to incorporate influences from other musical styles such as jazz and rock music. As such, it remains a vibrant musical form in touch with the past and constantly looking toward the future.

Although bluegrass has connections to old-timey rural music from the American south, as a complete and distinct musical form, bluegrass is largely the creation of one man—Bill Monroe. Born near Rosine, Kentucky on September 13, 1911, Monroe grew up in a musical family. His mother was a talented amateur musician who imparted a strong love of music in all of her eight children, several of whom became musicians. As a child, Bill Monroe learned to play guitar with a local black musician, Arnold Schultz (often accompanying Schultz at local dances), and received additional training from his uncle, Pendelton Vandiver, a fiddle player who bequeathed to Monroe a vast storehouse of old tunes in addition to lessons about such important musical concepts as timing. Although his early training was on the guitar, Monroe switched to the mandolin in the late 1920s in order to play along with his older brothers Birch and Charlie, who already played fiddle and guitar, respectively. In 1934, Charlie and Bill formed a professional duet team, the Monroe Brothers, and set out on a career in music. They became very popular, particularly in the Carolinas, and recorded a number of records, including My Long Journey Home and What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul. Their partnership was a brief one, however, as their personal differences, often expressed in physical and verbal fighting, sent them in separate directions in 1938.

On his own, and out from under his older brother's shadow, Bill Monroe began to develop his own style of playing that would evolve into bluegrass. He organized a short-lived band called the Kentuckians in 1938. Moving to Atlanta that same year, he formed a new band which he named the Blue Grass Boys in honor of his native Kentucky. The group, consisting of Monroe on mandolin, Cleo Davis on guitar, and Art Wooten on fiddle, proved popular with audiences, and in October 1939 Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys earned a spot on Nashville radio station WSM's popular Grand Ole Opry program. The group's appearances on the Opry brought Monroe national recognition.Throughout the war years, Monroe began to put together the major musical elements of bluegrass, including his trademark high-tenor singing, the distinctive rhythm provided by his "chopping" mandolin chords, and a repertoire of old-timey and original tunes.

But it was not until Monroe formed a new version of the Blue Grass Boys at the end of World War II that the classic bluegrass sound finally emerged. In 1945, he added guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise, bass player Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts), and banjoist Earl Scruggs. Of these, the most important was Scruggs, who at the age of 20 had already developed one of the most distinctive banjo styles ever created, the Scruggs "three-finger" style. This playing style, accomplished by using the thumb, forefinger, and index fingers to pick the strings, allowed Scruggs to play in a "rolling" style that permitted a torrent of notes to fly out of his banjo at amazingly fast speeds. This style has since become the standard banjo playing style, and despite many imitators, Scruggs's playing has never quite been equaled. Scruggs, more than anyone else, was responsible for making the banjo the signature instrument in blue-grass, and it is the Scruggs banjo sound that most people think of when bluegrass is mentioned. According to country music historian Bill Malone, with this new band Monroe's bluegrass style fully matured and became "an ensemble style of music, much like jazz in the improvised solo work of the individual instruments." Like jazz, the bluegrass songs created by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys began with an instrumental introduction, then a statement of the song's melody and lyric lines, followed by successive instrumental breaks, with the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle all taking solos. Behind them, the guitar and bass kept a steady rhythm, and the mandolin and banjo would add to that rhythm when not soloing. To many bluegrass admirers, this version of the Blue Grass Boys, which lasted from 1945 to 1948, represents the pinnacle of bluegrass music. During their short existence, just over three years, this version of the Blue Grass Boys recorded a number of songs that have since become bluegrass classics, including "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Will You Be Loving Another Man?," "Wicked Path of Sin," "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky," "Bluegrass Breakdown," "Little Cabin Home on the Hill," and "Molly and Tenbrooks." Throughout this period as well, Monroe and his group toured relentlessly. They were so popular that many towns did not have an auditorium large enough to accommodate all those wishing to hear the band. To accommodate them, Monroe traveled with a large circus tent and chairs. Arriving in a town, they would also frequently challenge local townspeople to a baseball game. This provided not only much-needed stress relief from the grueling travel schedule, but also helped advertise their shows.

The success of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys was so great by the later 1940s that the music began to spawn imitators and followers in other musicians, broadening bluegrass' appeal. It should be noted that the name "bluegrass" was not Monroe's invention, and the term did not come about until at least the mid-1950s, when people began referring to bands following in Monroe's footsteps as playing in the "blue grass" style, after the name of the Blue Grass Boys. The first "new" band in the bluegrass style was that formed by two of Monroe's greatest sidemen, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who left Monroe in 1948 to form their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs deemphasized the role of the mandolin in their new band, preferring to put the banjo talents of Scruggs front and center. They toured constantly in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, building a strong and loyal following among listeners hungry for the bluegrass sound. Their popularity also resulted in a recording contract with Mercury Records. There, they laid down their own body of classic bluegrass material, much of it penned by Flatt. There were blisteringly fast instrumental numbers such as "Pike County Breakdown" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," and vocal numbers such as "My Little Girl in Tennessee," "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "My Cabin in Caroline," and "Old Salty Dog Blues," all of which have become standards in the bluegrass repertoire. These songs, much like Monroe's as well, often invoked themes of longing, loneliness, and loss, and were almost always rooted in rural images of mother, home, and country life. During their 20-year collaboration, Flatt and Scruggs became not only important innovators in bluegrass, extending its stylistic capacities, but they helped broaden the appeal of bluegrass, both with their relentless touring and also by producing bluegrass music such as the theme to the early 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies ("The Ballad of Jed Clampett"), and the aforementioned "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," used as the title song to the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.

As successful as Flatt and Scruggs were, they were not the only followers of the Monroe style. As historian Bill Malone noted, "the bluegrass 'sound' did not become a 'style' until other musical organizations began copying the instrumental and vocal traits first featured in Bill Monroe's performances." In fact, many later blue-grass greats got their starts as Blue Grass Boys, including, in addition to Flatt and Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Carter Stanley, Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Sonny Osborne, Del McCoury, and many others. Under Monroe's tutelage, they learned the essential elements of bluegrass which they later took to their own groups. Among the other important early followers of Monroe was the brother duo of Ralph and Carter Stanley, the Stanley Brothers. They followed very closely on Monroe's heels, imitating his style almost note-for-note. But they were more than simply imitators; they continued and extended the bluegrass tradition with their playing and singing and through Carter Stanley's often bittersweet songs such as "I Long to See the Old Folks" and "Our Last Goodbye."

Along with the Stanley Brothers, other Monroe-inspired blue-grass bands came to prominence in the 1950s, including Mac Wiseman, Don Reno and Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds. Each brought their own distinctive styles to the emerging bluegrass genre. Don Reno, in addition to his stellar banjo playing, brought the guitar to greater prominence in bluegrass, using it to play lead lines in addition to its usual role as a rhythm instrument. Reno and Smiley also brought bluegrass closer to country music, playing songs in the honky-tonk style that dominated country music in the early 1950s. Guitarist and singer Mac Wiseman was also instrumental in maintaining the strong connections between bluegrass and country, always willing to incorporate country songs and styles into his bluegrass repertoire. In addition, he often revived older songs from the pre-World War II era and brought them into the bluegrass tradition. Also rising to popularity during the 1950s were the Osborne Brothers, Bobby and Sonny. Their country-tinged bluegrass style, which they developed with singer Red Allen, made them one of the most successful bluegrass acts of the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.

Despite the innovations and success of Monroe, Flatt, and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, and others, the market for bluegrass suffered heavily in the late 1950s as both electrified country and rock 'n' roll took listeners' attention away from bluegrass. While there was still a niche market for bluegrass, its growth and overall popularity fell as a result of this competition. The folk revival of the early 1960s, however, centered in northern cities and on college campuses, brought renewed interest in bluegrass. The folk revival was largely a generational phenomenon as younger musicians and listeners began rediscovering the older folk and oldtimey music styles. To many of these young people, these earlier styles were refreshing in their authenticity, their close connection to the folk a welcome relief from commercial America. And, while old blues musicians from the 1920s and 1930s were brought back to stages of the many folk festivals alongside such newcomers as Bob Dylan, the acoustic sounds of bluegrass were also featured. Although it had never dipped that much, Bill Monroe in particular saw his career revive, and he was particularly pleased that the music he created was reaching a new, younger audience.

While bluegrass was reaching new audiences through the folk revival festivals, bluegrass made new inroads and attracted both old and new listeners through the many bluegrass festivals that began in the 1960s. Musician Bill Clifton organized an early one-day festival in 1961 in Luray, Virginia. In 1965, promoter Carlton Haney began the annual Roanoke Bluegrass Festival, a three-day affair that focused solely on bluegrass, where the faithful could see such greats as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Don Reno, and others. The success of the Roanoke festival sparked others across the South and Midwest. In 1967, Bill Monroe himself began the Bean Blossom Festival on his property in Brown County, Indiana. More than simply performance spaces, these festivals have become meeting grounds for bluegrass enthusiasts to share their passion for the music in addition to seeing some of the greats of the genre. Many guests camp nearby or often on the festival grounds themselves, and the campsites become the sites of endless after-hours jam sessions where amateur musicians can trade songs and instrumental licks. The festivals are also very informal affairs, and bluegrass fans can often meet and talk with the performers in ways that rarely occur at jazz or rock concerts. These festivals were instrumental in the 1960s and beyond in both expanding the reach of the music while simultaneously providing a form of community for bluegrass fans and musicians.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, bluegrass began to move in new directions as younger practitioners of the style brought new rock and jazz elements into the music, including the use of electric basses. This trend, which continued through the 1990s, was not always welcomed by the bluegrass faithful. Many accepted and welcomed it, but others looked at bluegrass as a last bastion of acoustic music, and any fooling around with the classic bluegrass style seemed heresy indeed. Many of those who resisted change were older and often more politically conservative, disliking the long hair and liberal politics of many of the younger bluegrass musicians as much as the new sounds these musicians were introducing. This conflict even prompted the breakup of Flatt and Scruggs's musical partnership as Earl Scruggs formed a new band, the Earl Scruggs Revue, with his sons playing electric instruments and incorporating rock elements into their sound. Lester Flatt preferred the old style and continued to play it with his band the Nashville Grass until his death in 1979.

Among the practitioners of the new "newgrass" or "progressive" bluegrass style, as it was called, were such younger artists and groups as The Country Gentlemen, the Dillards, the New Grass Revival, the Seldom Scene, David Grisman, and J.D. Crowe and the New South. The Country Gentlemen had mixed rock songs and electric instruments into their sound as early as the mid-1960s, and they were a formative influence on later progressive bluegrass artists. A California band, the Dillards, combined traditional bluegrass styles with Ozark humor and songs from the folk revival. They also enjoyed popularity for their appearances on The Andy Griffith Show in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, the progressive bluegrass sound reached a creative peak with the New Grass Revival, formed in 1972 by mandolinist-fiddler Sam Bush. The New Grass Revival brought new jazz elements into bluegrass, including extended improvisations, and also experimented with a wide variety of musical styles. Mandolinist David Grisman began by studying the great masters of his instrument, but he eventually developed a unique hybrid of bluegrass and jazz styles that he later labeled "Dawg" music, performing with other progressive bluegrass artists such as guitarist Tony Rice and fiddler Mark O'Connor, and such jazz greats as Stephane Grappelli. Banjoist Bela Fleck, himself an early member of the New Grass Revival, extended his instrument's reach from bluegrass into jazz and world music styles with his group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

As important as progressive bluegrass was in moving the genre in new directions, the break it represented from the traditional style did not signal an end to the classic sound pioneered by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. Instead, both styles continued to have ardent practitioners that kept both forms of bluegrass alive. Northern musicians such as Larry Sparks and Del McCoury continued to play traditional bluegrass, bringing it new audiences. And the grand master himself, Bill Monroe, continued to play his original brand of blue-grass with an ever-changing arrangement of younger Blue Grass Boys until his death in 1996 at the age of 85. Other musicians crossed the boundaries between the two bluegrass styles. Most notably among these was mandolinist-fiddler Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs had apprenticed with traditionalists such as Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, but was just as much at home with newer bands such as J.D. Crowe and the New South and with country artists such as Emmylou Harris.

By the 1990s, bluegrass was not as popular as it had been in the early 1960s, but it continued to draw a devoted following among a small segment of the listening audience. Few bluegrass artists had major-label recording contracts, but many prospered on small labels that served this niche market, selling records via mail order or at concerts. Bluegrass festivals continued to serve the faithful, drawing spirited crowds, many eager to hear both traditional and progressive bluegrass. The 1990s also saw the emergence of a new bluegrass star—fiddler, singer, and bandleader Alison Krauss—one of the few major female stars the genre has ever seen. Her popularity, based on her unique cross of bluegrass, pop, and country elements, retained enough of the classic bluegrass sound to please purists while feeling fresh and contemporary enough to draw new listeners. Her success, and the continuing, if limited, popularity of bluegrass in the 1990s was a strong indication that the genre was alive and well, a healthy mix of tradition and innovation that made it one of the United States' most unique musical traditions.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

The Country Music Foundation, editors. Country: The Music and the Musicians. New York, Abbeville Press, 1994.

Flatt, Lester, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The Complete Mercury Sessions. Mercury Records, 1992.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty Year History. Austin, American Folklore Society, University of Texas Press, 1968.

Monroe, Bill. The Music of Bill Monroe—from 1936-1994. MCARecords, 1994.

Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Smith, Richard D. Bluegrass: An Informal Guide. A Cappella Books, 1995.

The Stanley Brothers. The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers. Sony Music, 1996.

Various Artists. The Best of Bluegrass, Vol. I. Mercury Records, 1991.

Willis, Barry R., et al., editors. America's Music—Bluegrass: A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers. Pine Valley Music, 1997.

Wright, John. Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bluegrass." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bluegrass." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

"Bluegrass." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Bluegrass

Bluegrass



Since its development in the mid-1940s, bluegrass music has become one of the most distinctive American musical forms, attracting an intense audience of supporters. A close cousin of country music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3), bluegrass music is an acoustic musical style that features banjo, mandolin, guitar, double bass, fiddle, and harmony singing. Bluegrass is largely the creation of mandolin player, singer, and songwriter Bill Monroe (1911–1996). Monroe formed a band called the Blue Grass Boys in 1938. The band hired an impressive banjo player named Earl Scruggs (1924–) in 1945. Scruggs' up-tempo banjo-playing combined well with Monroe's distinctive mandolin playing and singing. Together, they created an entirely new sound in American music. Songs such as "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" put them on the American musical map. Other musicians who imitated their style later gave that sound the name "bluegrass" in honor of Monroe's band.

The success of Monroe's band attracted other musicians to play bluegrass, including such greats as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Osborne Brothers. Bluegrass was most popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but its popularity began to fade slightly by the late 1950s as rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) became more popular with young people. However, the folk music (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4) revival of the early 1960s revived interest in the music. Bluegrass was later featured in the theme song for the popular 1960s television (see entry under 1940s— TV and Radio in volume 3) show The Beverly Hillbillies (see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) and in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde (see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2). Since the 1970s, bluegrass has continued to develop and attract new audiences. Newer artists such as the New Grass Revival and David Grisman (1945–) took bluegrass in new directions in the 1970s and beyond. This new sound, called "progressive" bluegrass, or "newgrass," incorporated jazz (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1) music and sometimes electric instruments into its sound, both of which appealed to younger audiences. In the 1990s, artists such as Alison Krauss (1971–) and Union Station, Ricky Skaggs (1954–), and countless local bluegrass bands continued to bring this music to new listeners.

Although bluegrass music has never been as popular as rock and roll, pop music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3), or country music, it has remained popular with thousands of people across the United States and around the world. Bluegrass groups do not fill huge stadiums like many popular rock groups, but bluegrass festivals remain popular. People camp out, enjoy the outdoors, and visit with friends, all while enjoying bluegrass music. Many amateur musicians bring their instruments to these gatherings, and the campsites are always filled with music. The popularity of bluegrass in the 1990s and beyond was a strong indication that the style was alive and well. Its healthy mix of tradition and innovation has made it one of the United States' most unique and enduring musical traditions.

—Timothy Berg


For More Information

The Country Music Foundation, eds. Country: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty Year History. Austin: American Folklore Society, University of Texas Press, 1968.

Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Smith, Richard D. Bluegrass: An Informal Guide. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1995.

Various Artists. The Best of Bluegrass, Vol. I. Mercury Records, 1991. Compact Disc.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bluegrass." Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bluegrass." Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/bluegrass

"Bluegrass." Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/bluegrass

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.