Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bluegrass? Traditional?

No musical style is more often associated with close harmony than bluegrass. “You can’t get more authentic than bluegrass music” is a refrain I hear often. After all, bluegrass is deeply rooted in the music of Appalachia and the Anglo-Celtic heritage that was its foundation. Bluegrass is played on traditional acoustic instruments. The vocals, that “high lonesome” falsetto and close harmony, are a signature sound of the Appalachians. Even the song lyrics are reminders of home, family, and a simpler life.

Many people feel that bluegrass music is one of the only authentic traditional American musical styles that have remained popular for centuries. The truth is that bluegrass is a fairly recent American musical style and while its roots are based in the string band music of the Appalachians, it owes as much of its heritage to early jazz, the pop music from Tin Pan Alley, the blues, and even western swing, as much as the hills of Appalachia.

Many American musical styles are a bit of a challenge to trace to their points of origin, but bluegrass music has a founder that not only “invented” the style, but gave it its name.

Bill Monroe was born September 13, 1911 on the family farm near Rosine, Kentucky. Monroe’s mother, Malissa Vandiver Monroe and her brother Pendleton "Pen" Vandiver were popular local musicians and music was an important part of daily life for the family. In 1929 three of the Monroe brothers, Birch, Charlie, and Bill moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery. They formed a band and played at local clubs for extra spending money. When Birch left the group Charlie and Bill continued on as the Monroe Brothers, playing mostly traditional string band music and gospel. The recordings of the Monroe Brothers span from 1936-1938 and while you can hear some of the early influences that would lead to bluegrass, the music of the Monroe Brothers was not significantly different than other string bands of the time.

After the Monroe Brothers disbanded, Bill Monroe formed the first version of the Blue Grass Boys, named for his home state of Kentucky (the Blue Grass State). Monroe began to experiment with their sound, adding fast solos, or “breaks” on the mandolin. His virtuosity and fast tempos set the Blue Grass Boys apart from most contemporary string bands. Between 1939 and 1946, Monroe continued to explore the commercial possibilities of his music, even added an accordion player to the Blue Grass Boys for a short while.

While these pre-1945 recordings showed a glimpse of what would come, it wasn’t until Monroe revamped the band that the foundation of bluegrass was set. It was in 1945 that Monroe hired a young banjo player from North Carolina named Earl Scruggs. Scruggs’ unique three finger picking style suited the fast tempo and superb musicianship that Monroe was after. The classic Blue Grass Boys were Monroe on mandolin, Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts (aka Cedric Rainwater) on bass. Bluegrass music was born of this fertile group.

In sort order, nearly every string band in the country was imitating the new style of Bill Monroe. This was the era of the brother bands, Jim & Jesse, The Osbourne Brothers, and the classic bluegrass sounds of Flatt & Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys. But even this young music was becoming stale by the later 1950s. Thanks to the renewed interest in “traditional” music by the folk revivalists of the 1950s and ‘60s, bluegrass was revived. In fact it wasn’t until the folk revival that the term “bluegrass” was used to describe the music. Flatt & Scruggs saw several of their songs climb the pop and country charts. Elvis Presley recorded Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the flip side of his first single.

The popularity of rock’n’roll and the Nashville sound of country music moved the more dated sound of bluegrass back to the fringes once again. It would take a new breed of bluegrass artists to keep the style alive. Bands such as the Country Gentlemen, The Seldom Scene, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse began to perform current pop, folk, and country hits and newly penned contemporary songs in a bluegrass style.

The 1970s would bring the beginnings of “progressive” bluegrass. Talented artist such as Peter Rowan, David Grisman, and Clarence White started to experiment with some more free-form sounds and of jazz phrasing. This “newgrass” scene produced artists that would influence the more commercial country sounds. J.D. Crowe and the New South was a breeding ground for new talent (Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, to name two) that would change bluegrass and country music. More recently, Alison Krauss, bluegrass music’s most consistent contemporary artist, has recorded an album with former Led Zepplin front man Robert Plant, further expanding the influence of bluegrass and the genre's own horizons.

For a fairly new musical style that never really achieved widespread commercial success on its own, bluegrass’ influence on rockabilly, rock’n’roll, contemporary country, southern rock, and even popular music in undeniable.

Bill Monroe - Uncle Pen.mp3

Bill Monroe - I'm on My Way to the Old Home.mp3

Bill Harrell - Red Rockin' Chair.mp3

Muleskiner - Roanoke.mp3

The Dillards - Dooley.mp3

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen - Friend of the Devil.mp3

Seldom Scene - Rider.mp3


Anonymous brendan said...

uncle pen played the fiddle lordy how it ring, you could hear it talk you could hear it sing.

i didn't know about the accordion player, but i learned this w/e that he tried a harmonica w/ the bluegrass boys at one point, though it never made a recording.

March 10, 2008 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



March 10, 2008 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Great post! I wonder how many other musical genres/styles can be traced back to a single "inventor"? Probably not too many. (I once got in trouble at my blog for suggesting that Gram Parsons invented country-rock.)

Cedrick Rainwater went on to play bass for the Drifting Cowboys (Hank Williams' backing band), so he's got a pretty cool resume.

March 10, 2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Brendan, Bill Monroe was willing to experiment with his sound. His goal was much the same as the CMA or IBMA has today, to make the music appeal to a wider audience and increase record sales.

March 10, 2008 9:09 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Joey, I knew this post would get you to look up from your digital drawing board. Glad you enjoyed it.

March 10, 2008 9:11 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Paul, You've got a reputation of stirring up conversations. I like that.

Monroe's Blue Grass Boys were always a breeding ground for gret musicians. Some alumni of the Bue Grass Boys include: Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Roland White, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, Eddie Adcock, Kenny Baker, Charlie Cline, Jim Eans, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Don Reno, Carter Stanley, Don Stover, Clarence "Tater" Tate, Rual Yarbrough, and Mac Wiseman, just to name a few.

So, what was the concensus, who did your readers pick as the "inventor" of country rock?

March 10, 2008 9:25 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...


I made an off-the-cuff comment about Gram (mistake) which promted one very knowledgeable commenter point out all of the country rock that was recorded before Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The earliest example that he named (or that I could find) was The Beatles, who had several country rock tracks in 1964-1965 (examples are "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" and "I'll Cry Instead").

My "origins of country-rock" post (inspired by the comment) is coming soon.

I can still make a good argument for Parsons based on his work with the International Submarine Band.

Or maybe even Elvis covering Blue Moon of Kentucky....

March 10, 2008 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Yeeehaw!! Great post; love it!

March 11, 2008 2:39 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Paul, I'll be looking forward to that post. I'm pulling for GP.

March 11, 2008 7:10 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Lucy, This post sure woke up our bluegrass fans! I can always count on you and Joey.

March 11, 2008 7:12 PM  
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March 17, 2008 9:23 PM  
Anonymous blackdog said...

Well Ed,
Don't know much about blue grass music though I do know something about close harmonies.
Catching up. You too ? The more I listen to Raising Sand - it gets better and better. Trampled Rose is a good cut and a good example of genre-crossing. Something you point out regularly. Oral tradition and all seems natural to cross polinate musical styles. No binds on music I suppose.
How ya' doin' ? One thing is sure, you're not losing your chops. Good good articles.
Busy times over here, close harmonies, maybe just intonation from another musical galaxie, another diapason.
Keep the OBBus within the speed limits, makes it is easier to tag along.

all thoughts fly... k.

March 18, 2008 4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi-- nice post, and very informative. I hope this isn't just too tedious for words, but I had a couple of comments:
You wrote: "the music of the Monroe Brothers was not significantly different than other string bands of the time."
There was however one big difference-- the mandolin. Monroe, being the youngest, got "stuck" with the instrument nobody else wanted to play, and being extremely competitive, decided he would play it better than anyone else had. Prior to this the mandolin was largely doing rhythm and was kind of sliding into obscurity. Monroe started playing note for note the way fiddle players did it, and worked up an amazing speed. His fiery mandolin work caused people at the time to be as awestruck as they were at Scrugg's banjo playing some years later.

In fact it wasn’t until the folk revival that the term “bluegrass” was used to describe the music....The popularity of rock’n’roll and the Nashville sound of country music moved the more dated sound of bluegrass back to the fringes once again.
Actually, bluegrass as a term happened a little earlier, and rock didn't have as bad an effect on bluegrass as it did on country music. Here's a quote about that from Neil Rosenberg:
"Yet when , in the mid-fifties, country music was suddenly threatened by rock and roll, the demand for bluegrass as a genre appears to have increased. And at this time the word bluegrass was first used in print to describe the music. Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History, University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 95

I hope saying all that wasn't too annoying! But I really appreciate your post and the nice selection of songs. And I agree completely about Plant and Krauss. I'm going to see them in June and can't wait!


March 20, 2008 11:54 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Black Dog,
I'm glad you are still enjoying the ride. This slower cruising speed is much easier to keep up with.

March 24, 2008 2:32 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks for the kind words and feedback. Both of the points you raise are good ones. Bill Monroe’s mandolin playing did set them apart from many of the string bands of the time, but my point was that the early Monroe Brothers were not playing anything different than any other string band. Better? Yes. Significantly different? Well, maybe. Bill Monroe’s competitive drive and virtuosity on the mandolin lead him to experiment with the band’s repertoire to make his music appeal to a larger audience. That blend of popular sounds with string band traditions, along with superb musicianship, are what made the Blue Grass Boys unique.

I often refer to Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, as it is a valuable resource and great reading. From the passage that you quoted, I’d say Mr. Rosenberg and I are in complete agreement: “Yet when , in the mid-fifties...” (Rosenberg) and “it wasn’t until the folk revival...” (Ed) – (the Folk Revival generally considered starting in the early 1950s.)

Enjoy the Plant/Krauss show, and let us know how it was.

March 24, 2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger 田园树 said...

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April 04, 2008 3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has been a month old friend, is the ride over? Or is the bus getting a lengthy overhaul?

April 09, 2008 9:15 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

There's no problem with the bus, my friend. It's the driver that needs an overhaul. And I believe there's one on the horizon.

April 13, 2008 10:02 PM  

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