Bluegrass Music: Everything You Need To Know
What Is Bluegrass Music?
Bluegrass is a genre of music native to the Appalachian region of America. Emerging largely in the 1940s, the genre developed from the folk ballads of the British Isles, blues, jazz, and the various interstitial genres in the middle.
If that sounded too broad or too specific, in the rest of the article, we’re going to drill deep into what makes bluegrass the genre that it is by going into some more details, looking into its rich history and some of its major figures, learning about the origins of the name, and taking a closer look at the instruments used.
So What Exactly Is Bluegrass Music?
A distinctly American music genre, bluegrass is one of the country’s many gifts to the world in that field. Bluegrass music is often associated with the Appalachian Mountains and the states that they run through but can stretch all the way to the Wasatch Range in our very own Utah, the Pacific Ocean, and past international borders.
The principal instruments in bluegrass bands are a key part of the creation of the unique sound of the genre. Stringed instruments dominate, and outside of fusion genres, these will be acoustic.
The bottom end of the sonic range is filled by the upright bass, with the sound rounded off by guitars, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles. Bluegrass bands can mix and match, or as with Cold Creek, include all of the above.
The stylistic roots of bluegrass music give it a distinct aesthetic that goes beyond the instruments used, and we can hear this in many of its legendary artists. This is not to say, though, that the bluegrass sound cannot be applied to other compositions. Even Christmas songs can be given a bluegrass air, as Cold Creek proved when they teamed up with Richard Elliot.
What Is the History of Bluegrass Music?
Bluegrass stretches as far back as the 17th century, when settlers from the British Isles took the folk music traditions of their home regions to what is now the Eastern United States in search for a new life. These genres formed the foundation of what would become American folk music traditions in combination with African American genres like blues and gospel.
The first half of the 20th century saw some distinct developments which would end with the creation of the modern bluegrass genre. The Grand Ole Opry hosted a performance by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1939, which a lot of people view as the start of bluegrass music.
For others, 1945 is taken as the seminal year for bluegrass music as this was when Earl Scruggs, who is famous among banjo players for the technique named for him, started playing with the band. It goes without saying that by the end of the 1940s, bluegrass was a shining new genre of music.
Why Is the Genre Called Bluegrass?
Bluegrass developed as a name some years after the creation of the genre. Because of the undeniable legacy of the band, Blue Grass Boys is almost certainly the source of the name.
The band itself is named after the Poa pratensis grass – commonly called blue grass – that grows in Kentucky, the home state of the founder of the band.
Who Are Some Popular Bluegrass Musicians?
Bill Monroe is credited by many as being the inventor of the genre, indeed earning him the title “The Father of Bluegrass.” His bandmate, Earl Scruggs, is another early founder and legend within the bluegrass world.
The popularity of the genre has continued into the 21st century. The fictional band, The Soggy Bottom Boys, released “Man of Constant Sorrow” with the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000. Dan Tyminski, who sang the lead vocals on that song, is a popular bluegrass musician in his own right and with Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band.
What Instruments Are Used in Bluegrass Music?
We had a rundown earlier of the five main instruments used in bluegrass, which we identified as the upright bass, the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, and the fiddle. Let’s find out a bit more about their roles.
Unlike the roughly guitar-shaped, smaller basses used in a lot of modern bands, bluegrass will often use a much larger, upright bass to hit those low notes.
A mainstay in many styles of music both within and outside of folk traditions, the steel-string guitar is equally prominent in many bluegrass bands. While electric guitars may make an appearance in some fusion genres, the six-string acoustic is the standard.
An instrument as quintessentially American as the bluegrass genre itself, the banjo – specifically the five-string variant with the shorter drone string added – is an important ingredient in the genre’s sound. And when you’ve got Utah State banjo champion Blaine Nelson playing with the band, you know it’s being used right.
Mandolins are at the same time niche and broadly used, and it is this unique flavor that makes them an essential part of a bluegrass band. These small lutes are recognized by their clear, bright sound.
Fiddles are just at home in a bluegrass band as in an orchestra playing classical music. The techniques can be very different, but it is precisely this that gives the fiddle in a bluegrass band its unique sound.
Bluegrass music, like so many genres, can be hard to describe when you first think about it, even if you would recognize it when you heard it.
What we have learned today is a fair bit more about its defining features, its history and some of the musicians who are famous for their music in it, and the roles of the five main instruments that feature heavily in the sound, giving you a deeper understanding of what bluegrass music is.