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Breaking Down Bluegrass:
The Invention of a Genre from Mountain Ballads to Bill Monroe

(Released September 2011)

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  by Lorna Dries  


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Bluegrass is possibly unlike any other traditional American musical genre. Like most other American traditional music, its origins come from a mix of music brought over from various immigrant groups. Unlike most other American traditional music, its creation can be traced back to one man: Bill Monroe. What started as Monroe’s sped-up and tightly structured brand of old-time or hillbilly music became a musical genre that would sprout its own permutations and variations.

In its purest form, bluegrass incorporates the following musical elements: the use of acoustic instruments; fast, virtuosic playing; tight vocal harmony in either two-, three-, or four-part harmony; and planned instrumental solos for individual musicians (Rosenberg 5). A typical bluegrass band is generally comprised of a banjo player, fiddler, stand-up bass player, guitarist, and mandolin player. Some bluegrass bands include a dobro guitar; however, this is not an instrument Monroe included when he first was credited with the bluegrass sound.

A bluegrass band
Live Bluegrass music at Shreves Store in Smoke Hole Canyon, WV, September 5, 2009.

Although bluegrass can be traced to Appalachian mountain music and various aspects of the African-American music traditions, it is by and large a commercial music, devised and performed with the microphone and for the stage (Rosenberg 5). Although Bill Monroe learned to play and sing music along with the rest of his siblings, he started performing publicly and for profit with his brother, Charlie, touring and playing on radio shows such as "The Grand Ole Opry."

Bluegrass’s story is one offshoot path of the American musical journey. Considered by many as a part of country music, it shares ancestors with several American folk music genres. This Discovery Guide is not so much concerned with the history of the genre of bluegrass but rather the musical heritage that informed the creation of the genre.

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