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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 as Genre


It took several years after Flatt and Scruggs’ departure before bluegrass was officially considered its own genre. “Blue Grass” was considered more of Bill Monroe’s trademark: not only was his group called the “Blue Grass Boys” but Monroe had recorded four songs with “Blue Grass” in the title, christened his tour bus the Blue Grass Special, named the professional baseball team that traveled with his show the Blue Grass Club, and released a 1950 songbook titled “Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Country Songs” (Rosenberg 98). However, it was not until 1956 when Monroe actually referred to his music as bluegrass. While visiting Rising Sun, Maryland’s New River Ranch, Monroe told the operator that the country music park was “a wonderful booster of the bluegrass type of music” (98). The naming of the genre most likely occurred as a marketing tool by radio deejays and record companies. While audiences were demanding groups that played with the “bluegrass sound”—fast-paced, rhythmic old-time music with virtuosic solos and tight vocal harmonies—deejays and record companies were the first to pick up on the demand for the fledgling genre. Bluegrass was still considered a part of country music, which was coming under fire in the 1950s with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. That new genre, which was a concoction of rhythm and blues, country, and gospel music, was claiming country musicians by the handful. Hank Williams and Roy Acuff had already been accused of changing their styles in order to get radio airplay. As country musicians began dropping traditional country instruments such as the fiddle, audiences who liked the sound were drawn to the genre of bluegrass. This genre-bending by mainstream country artists further solidified bluegrass’ status as a genre unto itself.

Stanley Brothers
The Stanley Brothers performing "It Takes a Worried Man" on "The Pete Seeger Show," YouTube

However, some artists were considered to have a bluegrass sound even though the artists themselves never considered themselves as such. When the Stanley Brothers—comprised of guitarist and singer Carter and banjo player and tenor singer Ralph—first came on the scene, Monroe resented that the band was categorized as bluegrass, as he thought the Stanley Brothers were merely copying his signature sound. Much later, Ralph Stanley confided that he never identified his sound as bluegrass, saying that he has always preferred the term old-time mountain music (Rogovoy). Mandolin player Everett Lilly, who played with Flatt and Scruggs for two years in the 1950s, calls bluegrass a “’feud word’ and prefers to describe his music as ‘American folk and country music’” (Rosenberg 102).

Whatever Stanley and Lilly’s feelings on the genre, it has become an accepted form of music, whether it be a subset of country, folk, or old-time music. At this time, bluegrass has established itself as a viable genre that has grown in popularity and international renown. Bluegrass festivals can be found throughout the US and abroad, evidenced by the European World of Bluegrass Festival. Rosenberg tells of Akira Otsuka, a mandolin player who moved to the US from Japan with his band the Bluegrass 45 in the early 1940s. He continued his career in the US, playing with different bands.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
A featurette about Bleck Fleck & the Flecktones that includes alive performance at the 17th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado, 1991, YouTube

Bluegrass has not remained static. Several musicians in the 1960s and 1970s mixed bluegrass with other genres. Bluegrass has even spawned his own sub-genre, newgrass, which includes the use of drums and electric instruments. The most famous practitioner of this is multi-instrumentalist Bela Fleck who fused together jazz and bluegrass. However, many bluegrass purists do not approve of the liberties some musicians have taken with the genre. Rosenberg describes these fans as “cut from a somewhat different cloth. Their loyalty is not to the musicians but to a musical concept, an ideal against which they measure every bluegrass performance” (362). He also states that fans have become unforgiving with the stylistic wanderings of musicians who have fused together genres (340).

In the 20th anniversary edition of his “Bluegrass: A History,” Rosenberg discusses the changes in the world of bluegrass since his book was first published in 1985. The most important contribution, he adds, is from fiddler and singer Alison Krauss, who helped break through the gender barrier of a genre that saw mostly men as its practitioners. Krauss was also involved in the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers film “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” whose soundtrack was touted as bluegrass. Rosenberg dismissed the bulk of the soundtrack as bluegrass, stating that “Man of Constant Sorrow” is the only true bluegrass tune in the film. (As a side note, “Man of Constant Sorrow” was made popular by the Stanley Brothers; it has already been noted that Ralph Stanley never believed his music to be bluegrass.) Whatever the appellation, the soundtrack did bring more awareness to the genre and made an unlikely pop star of Ralph Stanley, who sang an a cappella version of “O, Death” on the soundtrack.

Alison Krauss
A performance of the Beatles' "I Will" by Alison Krauss and Union Station, YouTube

Whether one agrees with the bluegrass purists or not, it is natural for genre to take on mutations and adaptations as it grows. This means that the bluegrass repertoire is growing as well; on various albums, Krauss has covered a wide variety of songs in the bluegrass, from the Beatles “I Will” to the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup.” While these seem unusual choices for a bluegrass performance, it must be remembered that string bands in the pre-bluegrass days performed popular songs and novelty songs that were not part of the Appalachian mountain repertoire. Just as bluegrass was formed, through the accumulation of bits and pieces of traditions from various American ethnic and social groups, it can be built upon in the same way.

© 2011, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. "Bill Monroe." New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia. 3 Sept. 2008. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  2. Boyer, Horace. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Washington, D.C.: Elliott and Clark, 1995. Print.

  3. Campbell, Gavin James. “Shape-Note Singing/Singing Schools.” Encyclopedia of Appalachia. University of Tennessee Press. 01 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  4. Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Print.

  5. Farmelo, Allen. “Another History of Bluegrass: The Segregation of Popular Music in the United States, 1820-1900.” Popular Music and Society 25:1/2 (2001): 179-203. ProQuest. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  6. Kimball, Gregg D. “The 1927 Bristol Sessions.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Ed. Brendan Wolfe. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  7. McClatchy, Debby. “Appalachian Traditional Music: A Short History.” Musical Traditions. Musical Traditions Web Services. 27 Jun. 2000. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  8. Price, Steven D. Old as the Hills: The Story of Bluegrass Music. New York: The Viking Press, 1975. Print.

  9. Rogovoy, Seth. “Ralph Stanley Comes Down from the Mountain.” The Rogovoy Report. DLM Web. [nd]. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

  10. Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.

  11. Small, Christopher. Music of the common tongue: survival and celebration in African American music. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. Print.