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Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music which has its own roots in Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. Bluegrass was inspired by the music of immigrants from the British Isles (particularly the Scots-Irish immigrants of Appalachia), as well as that of rural African-Americans, jazz, and blues. In bluegrass, as in jazz, each instrument takes a turn playing the melody and improvising around
it, while the others revert to backing; this is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while
the others provide accompaniment. Bluegrass is distinctively acoustic, rarely using electric instruments. In popular culture
bluegrass has an image as a form of folk music. However, it was mostly developed by professional musicians.
Bluegrass artists use
a variety of stringed instruments to create a unique sound. Unlike mainstream country music, bluegrass relies mostly on acoustic stringed instruments. The fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and upright bass are sometimes joined by the resonator guitar (popularly known by the Dobro brand name). This instrumentation originated in rural black dance bands and was being abandoned
by those groups (in favor of blues and jazz ensembles) when picked up by white musicians. Instrumental solos are improvised,
and can frequently be technically demanding.
rages among bluegrass musicians, fans, and scholars over what instrumentation constitutes a bluegrass band. Since the
term bluegrass came from Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys, many consider the instruments used in his band the traditional bluegrass
instruments. These were the mandolin (played by Monroe), the fiddle, guitar, banjo and upright bass. At times
the musicians may perform gospel songs, singing four-part harmony and including no or sparse instrumentation (often with banjo
players switching to lead guitar). Bluegrass bands have included instruments as diverse as the resonator guitar (Dobro),
accordion, harmonica, Jaw harp, piano, drums, electric guitar, and electric versions of all other common bluegrass instruments, though these are considered to be
more progressive and are a departure from the traditional bluegrass style.
Besides instrumentation, a distinguishing characteristic
of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often featuring a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice (see modal frame). This vocal style has been characterized as the "high lonesome sound." The "High
Lonesome" sound can be credited to Shape-Note music where a high-pitched harmony, that can generally be characterized as having a nasal timbre, is
sung over the main melody. There is also an emphasis on traditional songs, often with sentimental or religious themes.
is important to note that bluegrass is not and never was folk music under a strict definition; however, the topical and narrative themes of many bluegrass songs are highly
reminiscent of "folk music". In fact many songs that are widely considered to be bluegrass are older works
legitimately classified as folk or old-time performed in a bluegrass style. While bluegrass is not folk music in the
strictest sense, the interplay between bluegrass music and other folk forms has been studied. Folklorist Dr. Neil Rosenberg,
for example, shows that most devoted bluegrass fans and musicians are familiar with traditional folk songs and old-time music
and that these songs are often played at shows and festivals.
First generation bluegrass musicians dominated the genre from its beginnings in the mid-1940s through the
mid-1960s. This group generally consists of those who were playing during the "Golden Age" in the 1950s, including
Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Reno and Smiley, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Carl Story and his Rambling
Mountaineers, Buzz Busby, The Lilly Brothers, Jim Eanes and Earl Taylor.
second generation came to prominence in the mid- to late-1960s, although many of the second generation musicians were playing
(often at young ages) in first generation bands prior to this. Among the most prominent second generation musicians
are The Dillards, J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Harley "Red"
Allen, Bill Keith, Del McCoury and Tony Rice. With the second generation came a growth in progressive bluegrass, as exemplified by second generation bands such as the The Country Gentlemen, New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels. In that vein, first-generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman, Grateful Deadfrontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo) and Peter Rowan as lead vocalist collaborated on the album Old and in the Way; the Garcia connection helped to expose progressive and traditional bluegrass to a rock music audience.
|Mike G., Tom, Allen, Mike A.
The third generation in bluegrass reached primacy in the mid-1980s.
Third generation bluegrass saw a number of notable changes from the music played in previous years. In several regards,
this generation saw a redefinition of "mainstream bluegrass." Increased availability of high-quality sound
equipment led to each band member being miked independently, and a "wall of sound" style developed (exemplified
by IIIrd Tyme Out and Lonesome River Band). Following the example set by Tony Rice, lead guitar playing became more common (and more elaborate).
An electric bass became a generally, but not universally, accepted alternative to the traditional acoustic bass, though electrification
of other instruments continued to meet resistance outside progressive circles. Nontraditional chord progressions also
became more widely accepted. On the other hand, this generation saw a renaissance of more traditional songs, played
in the newer style. The Johnson Mountain Boys were one of the decade's most popular touring groups, and played strictly traditional bluegrass.
It could be argued that a fourth generation of bluegrass musicians
is beginning to appear, marked by a high level of technical skills. Although it is too soon to see definite trends,
one of the most notable fourth generation musician to emerge so far is probably Chris Thile, who has recorded five solo albums since he was 13.
Bluegrass as a style developed during the mid
1940s. Because of war rationing, recording was limited during this time, and the best that can be said
is that bluegrass was played some time after World War II, but no earlier. As with any musical genre, no one person can claim to have "invented"
it. Rather, bluegrass is an amalgam of old-time music, blues, ragtime and jazz. Nevertheless, bluegrass's beginnings can be traced to one band. Today Bill Monroe is referred to as the "founding father" of bluegrass music; the bluegrass style was named
for his band, the Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1939. The 1945 addition of banjo player Earl Scruggs, who played with a three-finger roll originally developed by Snuffy Jenkins but now almost universally
known as "Scruggs style", is pointed to as the key moment in the development of this genre. Monroe's 1945-48
band, which featured banjo player Earl Scruggs, singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts, aka "Cedric Rainwater," created the definitive
sound and instrumental configuration that remains a model to this day.
By some arguments, as long as the Blue
Grass Boys were the only band playing this music, it was just their unique style; it
could not be considered a musical genre until other bands began performing the same style. In 1947 the
Stanley Brothers recorded the traditional song "Molly
and Tenbrooks" in the Blue Grass Boys' style, and this could also be pointed
to as the beginning of bluegrass as a genre.
From its earliest days to today, bluegrass has been recorded
and performed by professional musicians. Although amateur bluegrass musicians and trends such as "parking lot picking"
are too important to be ignored, it is professional musicians who have set the direction of the genre.
the late 1990s, several mainstream country
musicians have recorded bluegrass albums. Ricky
Skaggs, who began as a bluegrass musician and crossed over to mainstream country
in the 1980s, returned to bluegrass in 1996, and since then has recorded several bluegrass albums and tours with his
bluegrass band Kentucky
Thunder. Around the same time, country music superstars Dolly
Parton and Patty
Lovelesshave both released several bluegrass albums. Along with the Coen Brothers'
Brother, Where Art Thou? and the subsequent "Down From the Mountain" music tour, this has brought bluegrass
music to a much wider audience. Meanwhile, bands such as the Yonder
Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá
Tráva in the Czech Republic have attracted large audiences while pushing at the
edges of progressive
Though she is often
considered a crossover or mainstream country artist, no discussion of recent developments in bluegrass music would be complete
without mention of Alison
Krauss. A vocalist/fiddler whose first album was released when she was just
16, Krauss and her band, Union Station, were major contributors to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? As a
solo artist, collaborator, producer and with Union Station, Krauss has won, as of 2006, 20 Grammy Awards, the most of any
female artist in history. She is now tied for 7th place on the all-time winners list.
notable recent bluegrass bands include the Earl
Brothers, who write innovative music that remains evocative of bluegrass and old-time
tradition, New York's James
Reams & The Barnstormers, a traditional-sounding band with original material, and Cherryholmes, a family act that combines flashy picking and singing with a style that
remains reminiscent of traditional bluegrass. The
Grascals, a bluegrass band that has recently begun is beginning to get wide recognition.
Davisis a solo artist that has grown playing with historical Bluegrass kings such
as Earl Scruggs and Sam Bush. Davis is currently touring year round and has grabbed a Grammy award for his hard work
as a flatpicker.
In addition to what might be considered "mainstream" bluegrass,
which has gradually changed over the last 60 years, three major subgenres have existed almost since the music's beginning.
As the name implies, traditional bluegrass emphasizes
the traditional elements. Traditional bluegrass musicians are likely to play folk songs, songs with simple traditional chord
progressions, and use only acoustic instruments. They generally follow the pattern set by Bill
Monroe and the Bluegrass
Boys in the late 1940's. In the early years, traditional bluegrass sometimes
included instruments such as washboards, mouth harps, and harmonicas; but these are rare in modern bluegrass. Traditional bands may use bluegrass
instruments in slightly different ways (claw-hammer style of banjo playing, or multiple guitars or fiddles within a band).
In this sub-genre, the guitar rarely takes the lead (the notable exception being gospel
songs), remaining a rhythm instrument. Melodies and lyrics tend to be simple,
and a I-IV-V chord pattern is very common.
popular traditional bluegrass bands include Ricky
Skaggs and Kentucky
Paisley and the
Southern Grass, Ralph
Stanley and the Clinch
Mountain Boys, James
King Band and arguably, Larry
Sparks and the Lonesome
Ramblers and The Del
major subgenre is progressive
bluegrass, roughly synonymous with "newgrass" (the latter term is attributed
Grass Revivalmember Ebo Walker). Progressive bluegrass came to widespread attention in
the late 1960s and 1970s, as some groups began using electric instruments and importing songs from other genres (particularly
rock & roll). However, progressive bluegrass can be traced back to one of the earliest bluegrass bands. A
brief listen to the banjo and bass duets Earl
Scruggs played even in the earliest days of the Foggy
Mountain Boys give a hint of wild chord progressions to come. The four key distinguishing
elements (not always all present) of progressive bluegrass are instrumentation (frequently including electric instruments,
drums, piano, and more), songs imported (or styles imitated) from other genres, chord progressions, and lengthy "jam
band"-style improvisation. String
Cheese Incident is a good example of a band that occasionally coordinates a bluegrass tune
mixed with a jam band feeling (especially original tunes like "Can't Stop Now", and "Dudley's Kitchen").
A twist on this genre is the combining of elements that preceded bluegrass, such as old-time string band music, with bluegrass
music. Imagine that, for instance, you add a clawhammer
banjo (an archaic style that preceded the bluegrass banjo style of Earl Scruggs)
to bluegrass arrangements as played by Mark
Johnson("Clawgrass" music) and Dick
Béla Fleck (born July
10, 1958 in New
York City, New
York) is an American virtuoso banjo player. He is most well known for his work with the band Béla
Fleck and the Flecktones, which he has described as "a mixture of acoustic and electronic music
with a lot of roots in folk and bluegrass as well as funk and jazz." Fleck has shared Grammy
wins with Asleep
at the Wheel, Alison
Brown, and Edgar
Meyer. He has been nominated in more categories than any other
musician, namely country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken
word, composition, and arranging.
Fleck names Chick
Corea (Jazz), Charlie
Parker (Jazz/Blues) and the aforementioned Earl
Scruggs (Bluegrass) as primary influences. He regards Scruggs
as "certainly the best" banjo player of the three-finger style. He has performed with many artists
from many different genres, including, Phish, Dave Matthews, Ricky Skaggs, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, and the
Grateful Dead (Rock).
Although nearly all bluegrass artists regularly incorporate gospel music into their repertoire, "Bluegrass Gospel" has emerged as a third subgenre. Distinctive
elements of this style of bluegrass music include lyrics focused on Christian faith and theology, soulful three or four part harmony singing, and occasionally subdued instrumentals. A capella choruses are popular with bluegrass gospel artists, though the harmony structure differs somewhat from
standard "barber-shop" or choir singing. Although some "mainstream" bluegrass artists such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Third Tyme Out have produced extraordinary bluegrass gospel music, others,
such as Mount Zion and The Churchmen have chosen to focus on it exclusively.