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Bluegrass is a sub-genre of country music that incorporates aspects of Scotch-Irish folk music, blues music, and gospel music into exciting and haunting arrangements that romanticize Appalachian life.

History of Bluegrass

O Brother Where Art Thou was a breakthrough film that introduced a lot of people to the phenomenon of bluegrass music. Usually thrown in as a sub-genre of country, bluegrass has a unique tone, style, and feel that distinguishes it from the twang of country and has deep roots to Europe and Africa. In this lesson, we will get a deeper look into the history, artists, bands, and songs that define bluegrass music!

Bluegrass Instruments
Bluegrass Instruments Photograph

Bluegrass incorporates traditional instruments of country music (guitar and bass), folk music (washboard), the mandolin (Scotch-Irish) and aspects of blues and African American music (the banjo, 2/4 beat) and combines them into a unique style, which can create complex, soulful harmonies, and fun, simple melodies. These elements and styles arose during the late 19th century and early 20th century as the United States underwent the significant social movement from an agrarian society to a fast-paced urban one.While early country romanticized the cowboy lifestyle (and still does today) as a bygone of the Wild West, bluegrass uses Appalachian society as its symbol of traditional and simpler times. It is likely that this shift accounts for the urban popularity of bluegrass, which romanticizes a time and place that is so different from the urban and fast-paced metropolitan environment.

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Artists, Bands, and Songs of Bluegrass

Bill Monroe and His Brother
Bill Monroe and His Brother

Bill Monroe (1911-1996) is widely promoted as the father of bluegrass music. Monroe was born into a tradition of Scottish music with its fast-paced playing and quickly mastered the violin. His life in Depression-era Kentucky also exposed him and trained him in country music and blues.In 1945, Monroe teamed up with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt to form the Blue Grass Boys, named after his home state of Kentucky. His greatest hit was The Kentucky Waltz, which shows the deep early connections of the country-style twang combined with the newer instrumental arrangements of bluegrass. The music of this group was a hit in the country music circuits but didn’t break through until the 1960s to popular culture during a folk revival.

Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs Photo

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) was born to a farmer in North Carolina and joined Bill Monroe to start the bluegrass movement. He is credited for inventing the three-finger banjo roll, which gives the bluegrass banjo its fast paced rhythm and feel.Scruggs broke away with Lester Flatts in 1948 and started the Foggy Mountain Band, which focused more on the instrumental side of bluegrass.

The band wrote the song The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and the famous Dueling Banjos that highlights the interplay and musicality of bluegrass music.

Allison Krauss
Allison Krauss Photo

Recently, bluegrass has seen renewed interest and cross-cultural appeal in the works of Allison Krauss (1971-Present), who formed the band Union Station. Her songs have been in films like O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain and on TV and popular radio. Her most popular and Grammy winning rendition of Stay brings the haunting harmonies of bluegrass to a new generation of people, who are connected to technology and computers but still open to the simple tales of love, loss, and heartbreak that are so simply and tenderly rendered by her soprano voice against traditional bluegrass instrumentation.

Lesson Summary

Bluegrass is a sub-genre of country that spoke to people who had seen a radical shift in American society from agrarian to urban.

It is a fusion style of music that incorporates instruments and styles from Europe and Africa.Famous bluegrass artists include Bill Monroe, who is known as the father of bluegrass, and Earl Scruggs, who left a mark on bluegrass by defining its use of the three-fingered banjo roll. It has seen rising appeal and popularity in the works of contemporary bluegrass star Allison Krauss.

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