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.