Bluegrass then and now
When asked how old Bluegrass music is, the average person often assumes that it is much older than it is. In 1939, Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” named his band “The Bluegrass Boys” after his home state of Kentucky. The 1945 lineup of the Bluegrass Boys codified what we now know as the sound of bluegrass music: banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass.
Soon other bands were playing in a similar style to Monroe’s band, and it wasn’t long before the music as a whole was called “Bluegrass.” To put it in perspective, bluegrass music makes its first appearance when big band swing music still dominates the radio, and just 10 years before Elvis ushers in a new era or rock ‘n roll.
Perhaps one of the reasons bluegrass music might seem older than that, is that it was born from a rich history. Immigrants to the United States brought their music with them, and songs that were played in England, Scotland, and Ireland were now played in the Appalachian Mountains and throughout the Tennessee River Valley.
Gospel Hymns, murder ballads, and barn-dance fiddle tunes combine with the influences of Black blues and jazz musicians. These ingredients make for a style of music that is both ancient and modern.
Types of Songs Bluegrass Musician’s Play
There is not just one type of Bluegrass song. A capable group of musicians playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, and bass, and singing in good three-part harmony can handle a wide variety of material. Here are examples of the different kinds of songs that bluegrass musicians play:
Bluegrass Vocal Songs
Much of the standard bluegrass repertoire comes from the first and second generation bluegrass artists such as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Don Reno and Red Smiley, The Osborne Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen.
My Little Georgia Rose, Rocky Top, Little Cabin Home on the Hill.
Old-Time Country Vocal Songs
Bluegrass is considered part of the tradition of country music, and the bluegrass repertoire includes songs by the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, and otherearly country singers.
Wildwood Flower, In the Pines, Wabash Cannonball
Country Vocal Songs
Classic country songs are easily adapted to bluegrass. They have heartfelt lyrics and simple chord progressions, and are really fun to play.
Hey Good Lookin’, Folsom Prison Blues, I’m Crying My Heart Out Over You
The gospel music tradition is a common thread going back to the early days of bluegrass.
I’ll Fly Away, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Drifting Too Far From the Shore
The folk music boom of the 1960’s had college kids laying down their electric guitars and getting in touch with their acoustic side.
Worried Man Blues, John Henry, Rabbit in the Log
Fiddle tunes are am important link to the past--a time when friends and neighbors would gather for a Friday night barn dance.
Saint Anne’s Reel, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Sally Goodin’
Tennessee Waltz, Oopik Waltz, Ashokan Farewell
Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Theme Time, Ground Speed
Daybreak in Dixie, Southern Flavor, Rebecca
Beaumont Rag, Dill Pickle Rag, Cotton Patch Rag
There is no bluegrass without blues. The lonesome sound of the blues is essential to the music of Bill Monroe and the musicians who followed in his footsteps.
Rocky Road Blues, Sitting on Top of the World, Muleskinner Blues
Bluegrass bands will often play a song or two from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Panhandle Rag, Maiden’s Prayer, My Window Faces the South
Sweet Georgia Brown, Summertime, Lady Be Good
Gypsy Jazz Tunes
Walking through a campground at a bluegrass festival late on a Saturday night, don’t be surprised if you hear a few Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli tunes.
Minor Swing, Swing 42, Dark Eyes
The term “Dawg Music” refers to the music of David Grisman, who is nicknamed “Dawg.” The David Grisman Quintet of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s helped to redefine what is possible with acoustic string instruments, thanks in no small part to guitarist Tony Rice (where have I heard that name before....)
EMD, Opus 57, and Blue Midnite
New Acoustic Music
New Acoustic musicians in the 1990’s created original improvisational music with bluegrass instruments. They include players such as Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Conner, Russ Barenberg, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, Tony Rice, David Grier, etc.
Whitewater, Slopes, Mar West
Jam Band Songs
Bluegrass artists such as the Seldom Scene, Newgrass Revival, and Old and in the Way introduced extended jamming to bluegrass. Whereas the early bluegrass pioneers would take a solo between verses, these bands would feature soloists who might improvise on a solo for several minutes.
Midnight Moonlight, I Know You Rider, Lonesome Fiddle Blues
Modern Folk Songs
Songs from artists such as Gillian Welch, The Avett Brothers, etc.
Rock and Pop Songs played in the Bluegrass Style
I’ve heard songs ranging from heavy metal icon Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” to Brittany Spear’s “Toxic” played a s a bluegrass song, and everything in-between. While some might have been questionable choices, oftentimes, a great bluegrass cover of a familiar song breathes new life into an old favorite, and makes bluegrass accessible to a wider audience.
“Let ‘er go boys:” The New Generation of Bluegrass Guitarists
Looking for inspiration? Bluegrass music has a wider audience than ever before, and while we’ll always have our “bluegrass heroes,” as a whole, the young players coming up are better than ever, and continue to perform inspiring and creative music we can all enjoy. Here are some of the young musicians who are blazing new trails in bluegrass guitar.
While some of these top players can play at tempos faster than most of us can dream, it is important to remember that bluegrass is not just about playing fast. There are great songs in the bluegrass style at every tempo, and you don’t have to be the fastest player to have the most fun. With that statement out of the way, be sure to check out some of these amazing top flatpickers.
Grammy winner Billy Strings might be remembered as the first bluegrass star of the YouTube era. One of the biggest bands on the jam band scene, Billy’s shows are improvisational and energetic. Besides being one of the top flatpicking guitarists on the scene, he is a terrific songwriter and vocalist.
Though he is a modern musician who is creating his own sound, those familiar with the history of bluegrass music can hear the influences of the past. His albums sound like Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, and Tony Rice mixed together with the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Listen to Billy’s breakout song, “Dust in a Baggie.”
Molly Tuttle is considered to be one of the finest acoustic guitarists of her generation. Her music ranges from bluegrass to indie. Her sweet vocals bely the fact that she is a ferocious flatpicker. Just listen to Molly tear through “White Freightliner.”
A strong country singer and a lightning fast picker, Trey Hensley is among a group of young guitar bluegrass guitar players whose rapid-fire flatpicking technique is turning heads. Performing for the last several years with resophonic guitarist Rob Ickes, Hensley’s guitar acrobatics are grounded by a solid foundation in classic country, bluegrass, and rock ‘n roll. Check out this live performance of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” by Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.
Sierra Hull, a former childhood prodigy who had her first record deal as a young teenager, has evolved into one of the most exciting and adventurous mandolin players on the planet. Her level of technical proficiency is matched only by players such as Chris Thile and Hamilton de Holanda. When she puts down the mandolin long enough to play guitar, it becomes clear that she is in an elite class of musicians. “Old Ebaneezer Scrooge”
Jake Workman currently holds the lead guitar spot in “Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.” Jake’s technique is refined and athletic, and he is able to handle tempos that other flatpickers wouldn’t even open up their case to try. Here is Kentucky Thunder on national television burning through “Black Eyed Susie.” Do not adjust your computer: they are actually playing at this tempo.
Bluegrass music is as varied as the people who play it. To me, the common connection is playing acoustic music with friends--singing a song, passing around solos, and really, just having a good time playing music.