You may have heard the term “bluegrass” in discussions about country music, and many people think of them as the same. However, bluegrass has original characteristics and influences, dating back to almost one hundred years ago. It takes inspiration from several musical styles, integrating into one genre.
Let’s talk about the definition, history, musicians, and characteristics of bluegrass. Along the way, I’ll list some vivid examples that perfectly represent the genre.
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Definition: What Is Bluegrass Music?
According to the Folkways of the Smithsonian Institute, bluegrass comes from a handful of music types. The genre adopts conventions from jazz. The tempo and instruments stem from Irish and Scottish tradition, and other inspirations come from blues, gospel, and country. Each of these genres contributes to the bluegrass music definition.
The result is an often high-speed genre driven by string instruments like the fiddle and acoustic guitar. Bluegrass encourages improv and switching leads. It often puts the driving percussive focus on the in-between beats. Songs in the genre often contain religious or work themes, stemming from Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness traditions.
Bluegrass Music Characteristics
No bluegrass instrumentation is complete without an acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, or fiddle. Accompaniment instruments include the upright bass, harp, harmonica, and others. Percussion in bluegrass is often repetitive and continuous. Like gospel music, listeners or band members often clap on the off-beats for percussion.
The vocals of bluegrass often use harmonies in up to four parts, with the baritone and tenor sounding the most pronounced. Sometimes, there is a dissonant voice in the vocal “stacks” to achieve a lonesome sound. Female singers usually sing parts an octave or more above the melody.
It is critical to note that pitch is a topic where country music and bluegrass often diverge. Country songs tend to exemplify the lead’s deepest, lowest tones to convey a rugged mood, whereas bluegrass leads sing at higher pitches.
The wistfulness of bluegrass chords is no coincidence. The lyrics often feature narratives about serious topics like lamentations of death and change. They also describe hardships in the Appalachian region, where the genre originated. Many bluegrass songs detail work struggles, particularly involving railways and coal.
The area where bluegrass music originated in the Southeastern United States has prominent religious communities. As a result, many bluegrass songs reference spiritual ideas, hymns, and other topics related to Catholicism, Christianity, and Celtic religion.
However, not all bluegrass music is sad. Conversely, like with blues, the mood of the music can be exciting while the lyrics are lonesome. Bluegrass makes heavy use of breakdowns, which feature each instrument in a solo performance. During those times, the tempo often rises dramatically like a train increasing in speed.
Breakdowns always involve improvisation, which is one of the closest ties bluegrass has to jazz music. Players demonstrate their skills by maintaining a melody at high speeds while the audience excitedly follows.
These characteristics culminate to create a genre that is similar to folk, country, and other American roots music groups.
7 Examples of Bluegrass Music
Now that you know the characteristics of bluegrass, here are seven of the most popular songs in the genre. You will notice common themes of fast tempos, string instruments, and topics about living in the mountains or religion.
“Rocky Top” by Osborne Brothers
Rocky Top is one of many official Tennessee state songs, first recorded in 1967. It is a prime example of bluegrass music topically and instrumentally. The lyrics describe the singer’s yearning to return to her home, which she nicknames “Rocky Top Tennessee.” Although there is no town in the state with that name, the song exemplifies Appalachian culture.
As soon as the song begins, you can hear the lead banjo setting a quick tempo. The percussion sets its focus on the in-between beats, and the chorus vocals expand into several-part stacks. Halfway through the song is a breakdown portion where the banjo and other instruments take turns improvising. All of these features make “Rocky Top” a premier example of bluegrass.
“I Saw The Light” by Bill Monroe
This song began as a country gospel song written by Hank Williams in 1948. After it gained popularity, it became a favorite among bluegrass singers like Bill Monroe. The lyrics describe the singer’s realization of salvation and the ensuing happiness. Like many other bluegrass tracks, this one is inspired by Christian themes.
This song opens immediately with the chorus, featuring vocal stacking. The banjo strums happen on the off-beats in syncopation. You can hear the two measures of instrumental improv before the vocals return. Many bluegrass bands have covered this song, adding their style with breakdowns and tempo changes.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Foggy Mountain Boys
Not all bluegrass music is lyrical. Since breakdowns are such a key defining feature of the genre, many top hits are purely instrumental. However, even without lyrics, songs like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” perfectly convey the joys of rural life among Tennessee peaks. This arrangement was written in 1949 and has been featured in Bonnie and Clyde.
This track opens with a fast pace driven by a bass drum on the beats and a high hat on the off-beats. The banjo leads the song from the beginning but backs off to let the fiddle take center stage. Throughout the song, each acoustic instrument gets a chance to improvise as the main melody is backed by the accompaniment.
“Nine Pound Hammer” by Tony Rice
“Nine Pound Hammer” is one of many bluegrass tracks that Tony Rice recorded. The lyrics describe the difficulties of working with coal up in the mountains using a heavy hammer and uncooperative equipment. Like many other bluegrass songs, the lyrics exemplify the struggles of the working class, particularly in the mining and railroad industries.
Tony Rice is a master of the typical high pitch that bluegrass singers prefer. This song also demonstrates the prowess of the mandolin, an instrument that is common in the genre. Mandolin parts occur frequently in breaks or as an ever-strumming accompaniment in between vocals.
“Meet Me By The Moonlight” by The Stanley Brothers
Bluegrass bands usually have four or more members for complex vocal stacking and prolonged instrumental breaks. However, some duets like The Stanley Brothers rose to fame with a simpler approach. Both members sing and play either the banjo or the fiddle, creating a rustic, wistful sound.
While Carter Stanley sings as the tenor and plays the fiddle, his brother Ralph sings the high notes and plays the banjo. The lyrics of “Meet Me By The Moonlight” are a lament, expressing the singer’s urge to make up for wronging the one they love. This song is a great example of the somber side of bluegrass, which is slower and focuses mostly on the vocals.
“Uncle Pen” by Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs represents one of the newer generations of bluegrass stars. One of his first hit songs, “Uncle Pen,” was written in 1983. The lyrics detail a fond memory as the singer recalls his uncle’s fiddle playing from when he was younger.
The lyrics, the fast tempo, and the instrumental breaks keep the mood high. This song makes references to square dances and works well as a dancing song.
“Uncle Pen” has a fiddle part throughout that heavily resembles Irish and Celtic traditional songs by using repeated sixteenth-note couplets. This song also draws on country music by twanging the guitar and referencing square dances. It has the vocal stacking of bluegrass mixed with elements of other genres.
“Kentucky” by The Louvin Brothers
The Appalachian region, which is told of in bluegrass music, spans into not only Tennessee but Kentucky and other states. This song is another duo track where both singers adopt a slower, more loving tone as they talk about the splendor of their home state. However, this song still carries the typical lamentations of the genre, as the singers discuss the coming of death.
You can hear the vocal layering with the tenor focus, the mandolin, drumbeats on the off-beats, and the rhythm guitar. After the first chorus, there’s an instrumental interlude. “Kentucky” demonstrates a common style in somber bluegrass tracks where songs end by slowing down and holding a final note. This is one of the style features the genre borrows from gospel music.
5 Top Bluegrass Musicians
Big-name country and Southern musicians like Dolly Parton have contributed to the bluegrass genre. However, these five musicians have left indelible marks on the growth, progress, and history of this musical style. Many of them helped to create the genre, while others continue it in the modern day. Here are five notable bluegrass musicians.
Bill Monroe is considered the creator of the genre, aptly nicknamed the “Father of Bluegrass.” With his brother Charlie, Bill worked up from humble beginnings. His first big breaks were premiering on radio shows across the Midwest and Southeast.
Bill took in and shepherded rising stars in his band that later established their own identities. As a result, he attained influence as the caretaker of the genre and the Grand Ole Opry, where he regularly performed. He invited several young musicians into his band, the Blue Grass Boys, which eventually became the namesake for the genre.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and died in 1996.
Earl Scruggs is one of the two most prominent members of Foggy Mountain Boys along with Lester Flatt. His career began as part of Bill Monroe’s band, but he and his partner eventually formed their own identity.
Scruggs is famous for developing a three-fingered banjo playing style that became a staple of bluegrass. It’s easy to hear in his top track, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which won two Grammy awards on its own. Including “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme of The Beverly Hillbillies, two of Scruggs’s songs popularized alongside TV programs.
Scruggs accrued a total of four Grammys in his lifetime and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died at age 88 in 2012.
Alison Krauss is a newer musician who has amassed a laudable array of awards since her first album in 1987. As a part of her band, Alison Krauss and Union Station, she has released 14 albums, including the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks.
Today, Krauss is the most awarded bluegrass musician of all time, despite having little affiliation with other famous genre musicians. She has won twenty-seven Grammy awards, ranking her fourth in most Grammys overall. Alison Krauss and Union Station are attributed to the bluegrass revival in the United States.
Separate from Bill Monroe’s band, Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter began as part of the bluegrass genre’s first generation. Together, the brothers formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, becoming one of the most well-known musicians representing the state of Virginia. Ralph Stanley further influenced banjo-playing techniques and developed the genre.
Like Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley auditioned to perform for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He was accepted and won a Grammy award for his performance in 2002. In 1992, Stanley was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. He died in 1989.
Alison Brown is one of many bluegrass prodigies alongside Béla Fleck, whose distinctive trait is bringing banjo to other realms of music. She began at the age of ten, working her way up to a one-night performance at the Grand Ole Opry. She has worked with Béla Fleck and Alison Krauss, among other big names in bluegrass.
She has won Grammy awards and nominations for her work both solo and in collaboration with other artists. She is still devoted to music today and continues to be an advocate for bluegrass music in the modern day.
The History of Bluegrass Music
The beginning of bluegrass starts with Irish and Scottish immigrants to the United States. A large population settled in the Appalachian region, close to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and Kentucky. The immigrants brought with them fiddles and their traditional music styles, which helped to develop bluegrass.
The banjo came from black musicians who moved to the Appalachians following the end of the Jazz Age. They brought the style of blues and jazz with them, which mixed with the narrative styles and fiddles that were already there. The result was a rustic American roots genre that told stories and lamented the difficulties of life.
Several artists such as the Stanley Brothers, Foggy Mountain Boys, and Bill Monroe rose in popularity thanks to the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry is an iconic venue that hosts rising and established talents in the world of Southern music. Playing this new breed of music, they garnered attention and fame as enigmas.
Eventually, the musical genre was called “bluegrass” because of the influence of Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys. The genre’s biggest surge occurred after World War II, but it slowly fell in the 70s and 80s. However, modern artists like Alison Krauss are reviving bluegrass for the next generation.
Today, there are several subgenres of bluegrass, both traditional and progressive. Scruggs and other musicians have coined the term “newgrass” to express how the genre has changed.
Artists like Alison Brown continue to experiment with combining bluegrass with jazz, rock, and other groupings. Many of these artists fit in similar categories like indie and folk music, such as Mumford & Sons. The bluegrass tradition is still alive in its region of origin.
What Is Bluegrass Music? Final Thoughts
Now you know the definition of bluegrass music and its origins. Like all music genres, bluegrass is a culmination of culture and distinct styles. While many people compare it to country, this genre has unique characteristics, instrumentation, and stars. As more people learn about bluegrass, it will continue to spawn revivals throughout the world.