There are many forms of traditional “folk” music around the world, and bluegrass is often considered the folk music of the Appalachian mountains. This is true only in a superficial sense. In fact, it is a transnational and trans-cultural form of music.
The Original Roots of Bluegrass Music
The roots of Bluegrass come from the Scottish, English, and Irish colonists who brought their music from Europe and spread out across the North American colonies in the 1600’s. These cultures mixed and merged over the next 300 years, moving from the rural mountain areas into popularity in the city.
There Bill Monroe experimented by adding in additional music styles from white and African American gospel music, blues music, country music, and focused on driving rhythms and distinct vocal harmonies. Those harmonies are an excellent example of just how trans-cultural Bluegrass music is.
They are derived from a singing style known as “Shape Note” singing. Almost 10,000 miles away in the nation of Zimbabwe, they practice a style of singing known as “Shona”. Shona and Shape Note singing are functionally identical, and Bluegrass incorporates it all.
Commonalities between bluegrass and country
How is Bluegrass music different from Country music? Both share similar instruments, such as guitars, fiddles, basses, and banjos that they inherited from the earlier “string bands”. Both can contain drum sets with a emphasis on snare and high hat in their driving rhythms. Country music though, as a typical form of popular music maintains steady meter throughout their songs that are entirely predictable, even by non-musician standards.
Bluegrass, on the other hand, and perhaps even more in Old-Time music (a Bluegrass subset) has its roots deeper into folk-song, which does not require even meter, but instead allows the music to follow the lyrics, wherever they may go.
Because of this, it is not unusual for a Bluegrass song to have a regular partial measure, or measure missing a beat, that turns up repeatedly in verse or refrain structures. If you are not paying attention when you are playing the often simple chord structures, you will miss a beat and get off-rhythm for the next part of the song.
Why would they do that? Popular music, such as rock or country, is written to be danced to, in some form or another. It is the music of dance halls and drinking establishments, birthday, wedding, and anniversary receptions.
Bluegrass as a form of folk music comes from a toe-tapping, hand-clapping tradition you find in church revivals and concert halls, or outdoor spontaneous jam sessions on the weekends. Popular music artists gravitate to the stage and take turns showing off their best stuff.
Bluegrass gatherings often involve two or three times as many performers as necessary, all joining together in the same popular tunes of old. Bluegrass is the music of the community.
Where did bluegrass get its name?
Bill Monroe officially introduced this style in the 1939 and coined the name when he parted ways with his brother Charles and started his own band, the Bluegrass Boys and performed for the Grand Ole Opry. They were named after their home state of Kentucky, the “Bluegrass” state.
Bill would be followed by Earl Scruggs from North Carolina and Lester Flatt, a native of Tennessee. Both had played with Monroe but eventually split off to become their own band, and continued innovating different playing and singing styles.
The guitar/banjo duo of Flatt and Scruggs went on to achieving a fame of their own through their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. They went on to record one of the most famous Bluegrass instrumentals called “The Foggy Mountain Breakdown” which was used in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde”.
Big staples of bluegrass music
Some other famous Bluegrass songs are “Country Boy” by Ricky Skaggs and Blue Moon of Kentucky, by Bill Monroe. “Rocky Top” grew in fame enough to become the University of Tennessee fight son, and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” has been a gospel favorite, particularly in churches in the south.
“Man of Constant Sorrow” gained new popularity through actor George Clooney and his role in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou”. Others might remember “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the theme song of the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies”.
The current state of modern bluegrass musicModern bluegrass sometimes incorporates more drums than that of the early 20th century. Some bands of note are Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and Tony Trischka. All of these have pushed bluegrass into new areas of music, incorporating popular styles from rock and country music in particular.
Bela Fleck is another Bluegrass artist of special note. Rather than looking to popular music styles, he has borrowed from African folk music, contemporary jazz, and classical training to bring the banjo back to the forefront of the Bluegrass scene.
Almost ten years ago Rolling Stone Magazine did an interview with Del McCoury and Sam Bush. The topic of discussion was which modern Bluegrass bands to be keeping an eye on.
They identified modern bluegrass music carried forward by bands like O’Death, a Brooklyn-based quartet, Avett Brothers, and trio from North Carolina, Uncle Earl, a female quartet that adds Irish clogging to their performances and sometimes sings in Mandarin Chinese, Those Darlins, three powerful women from Tennessee, and Old Crow Medicine Show from Nashville.
You can find all of these bands and more on YouTube, Apple and Amazon music, Spotify, or Soundcloud. Bluegrass music has become a legitimate form of music on its own and you can find it nearly anywhere you would find popular country music today.
Upward mobility of bluegrass music in contemporary culture
One final note about the rise in popularity of Bluegrass music, particularly in the last ten years: bluegrass shares a driving rhythm in common with much rock music, and metal music in particular.
At the beginning of the 21st century it was not uncommon to find Bluegrass artists recording and performing renditions of popular heavy metal songs on their more acoustic, folk versions of the electric instruments of rock. Songs from bands such as Metallica have be recorded by bluegrass groups, such as Iron Horse.
Steve ‘n Seagulls also has a really fun version of ACDC’s Thunderstruck that incorporates spoons and farm implements for percussion.
Judging only from the kind of instruments used in each style, it should not work. However, the driving percussion (usually performed a little lighter and quieter in bluegrass) in every bit as driving as you can find in any metal band, and the speed of the mandolin and banjo solos can be a direct comparison to the shredding work of the best heavy metal or speed metal guitarists.
If you want a wonderful, lively, hilarious, and technically impressive display of the power and influence of Bluegrass music, do a YouTube search for Steve ‘n Seagulls and find out how Bluegrass meets Metal and makes its way back to Europe, finding new fertile ground in Finland.