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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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At the beginning of the 19th century, outside interest in the music of the Appalachian mountains began to accumulate. Academic folklorists such as Cecil Sharp and Francis James Child traveled the region cataloging the Scots-Irish ballads that were still being sung in the Appalachians. However, it wasn’t until the commercial world came to the Appalachians that mainstream America would be exposed to its music.

Phonographs and radios made their way into the mountains much like instruments such as the guitar, autoharp, and manufactured banjos made their way to the Appalachians: mail order catalogs. With this new technology, mountain folk became more connected to the rest of the country. However, the rest of the country would have to wait until the 1920s before the region’s music came to them. Okeh Record’s 1923 recording of Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first documented recording of rural American music, brought about enough of a success that it prompted another recording company, the Victor Talking Machine Company, to get into the mix. Victor lured Ralph Peer, an arts and repertoire scout from Okeh, to find rural talent like Carson. Arts and repertoire men, or A&R men, were essentially talent scouts. In 1927, Peer set up a recording session in the town of Bristol, which straddled the state borders of Tennessee and Virginia and was in close enough proximity to other Appalachian states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia. For around two weeks, Peer recorded local and rural talent, trying to boost Victor’s old-time music collections. These recording sessions are popularly known as the birth of country music, as Victor discovered such acts as Jimmie Rodgers, a yodeler who would later be called the “Father of Country Music,” and the Carter Family, who would later be known as the “First Family of Country Music” (Kimball).

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, 1931

This newly found music was labeled as “hillbilly,” although musical styles varied widely between the performers. The Carter Family, hailing from Virginia, sang mostly sentimental songs arranged in tight harmonies and accompanied by guitar and auto harp. The Carter Family’s harmonies harkened back to the shape-note singing prevalent in the Appalachian region. Jimmie Rodgers was a railroad drifter from Mississippi who incorporated blues into his sentimental songs (Rosenberg 19). Contrasts could be found in every region and among every type of ensemble. There were variants among seemingly akin ensembles such as string bands. Rosenberg states that in the early 1930s “hillbilly bands were looser in structure and sound than those that followed in the forties and fifties when bluegrass emerged. Most performers had solo specialties—comedy, instrumental skills, or songs—within the band” (21). Fiddlin’ John Carson, who hailed from Georgia, released hoe-dance tunes like “Dance All Night with a Bottle in Your Hand,” which Carson humorously prefaced on the recording by calling it “You Can’t Get Milk from a Cow Named Ben” (Price 22). Gid Tanner, another fiddler from Georgia, cultivated a boisterous and fast sound with his group the Skillet Lickers. The band was comprised of Tanner, guitarist Riley Puckett, fiddler Clayton McMitchen, and Fate Norris on banjo. Fiddle solos were taken on top of each other in a no-holds barred style. The Skillet Lickers’ repertoire included fiddle tunes, reels inherited from the Scots-Irish Appalachian settlers, novelty songs, sacred songs, sentimental songs, and tunes pulled from the current popular music repertoire. Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers had a less boisterous style. Poole developed a three-finger banjo playing style that picked out discernible melodies while providing accompaniment for the band’s fiddlers (Price 22-23). In comparison to the unfettered playing style of the Skillet Lickers, Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were “crisply articulated and scrupulously metrical, nearly as rigid rhythmically and as free of dynamic changes as a player piano” (Cantwell 53).

The Skillet Lickers
Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, "Dance All Night with a Bottle in Your Hand," YouTube

However, at the advent of the Depression, most string bands lost much of their audience as consumers had to cut back on non-essentials such as entertainment. Recordings companies cut back on their releases of old-time music. The type of old-time group that was still promoted regularly during the Depression was that of the brother duo (Price 23). It was this type of act that would bring Bill Monroe his first fame.

Go To Monroe Brothers

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