Brief History of Bluegrass
By Art Menius 1991
Bluegrass music stands apart in the American musical landscape for at least three reasons. The sound of duet, trio, and quartet singing backed by an overdriven acoustic string band featuring mandolin, guitar, fiddle, bass, banjo, and, sometimes, Dobro has continued to develop and evolve long after other post-World War II forms of country music have ossified. Second, bluegrass music, begun as a commercial music on major recording label and the Grand Ole Opry, backed into the upland South taking on a semi-independent life as a folk music. That is to say, a music learned largely through oral tradition and performed for personal satisfaction or in group functions such as dances or jam sessions. Third, bluegrass, an individual sound that became a style, can be traced to the music of one person, Bill Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, for which the music was named.
Monroe, exposed to both white and African-American rural traditional music as a child in western Kentucky, began performing in the Chicago area with older brothers Birch and Charlie. By 1936 Charlie & Bill, the Monroe Brothers, performing in North Carolina on radio, had become ascendant regional stars playing the then-popular brother-duet style. After their acrimonious split in 1939, Bill pursued his own style, looking forward while maintaining the spirit of old-time music. Within a year he had come far enough to earn a spot on the Opry and an RCA recording contract.
Monroe conformed to the tenets of classical conservatism by preserving what he called “the old Southern sound” through conscious innovation. Many of the changes in mandolin and guitar playing, as well as tempo and singing, occurred within the brother duet context, and bluegrass music can be viewed as descending more directly through these duets than from the string band tradition. The addition of the bass occurred commonly among the latter day string bands, while the banjo of Earl Scruggs, achieving its proper home at the end of 1945 beside Monroe’s mandolin and Flatt’s rhythm guitar, marked the most radical discontinuity marking the full fledged bluegrass sound.
The bluegrass fiddle, overall, must be seen as an evolutionary development within the Anglo-American fiddle tradition. Bluegrass fiddlers to this day bear down on ancient classics of the fiddle on live shows and recordings. The fiddle provides a bridge between bluegrass and old-time music that extends beyond to Celtic and African-American fiddling. It also marks the starting point for the grossly too little studied development of a mountain style of bluegrass and the growth of a kind of bluegrass that is actual folk music, almost independent of the mainstream, commercial bluegrass music. This form of bluegrass generally consists of old-time tunes played with fiddle lead backed by three-finger banjo, mandolin, bass, and guitar. Hundreds of thousands of jam sessions, dances, and parties in the southeastern uplands have witnessed that configuration since the late 1940s, but it remains poorly documented on recordings.
By the time Scruggs and Flatt joined the Blue Grass Boys only Roy Acuff surpassed Monroe as a star of the Grand Ole Opry. Touring the south and midwest with a tent show, other acts, and even a baseball team, he had built a massive personal following. Thus his musical innovations fell on many receptive ears. Soon the Stanley Brothers of southwestern Virginia emulated the Monroe sound on their first recordings for the Rich-R-Tone label. Eventually, the Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys would offer their own innovations including mixing clawhammer and Scruggs style banjo playing, using lead guitar breaks, and distinctively mournful mountain-style vocals. During the late 1940s, however, Monroe considered their sound so derivative that he refused to record for the same label.
The big change happened in 1948 when Flatt & Scruggs departed the Blue Grass Boys to form the most commercially successful of all bluegrass bands, the Foggy Mountain Boys, initially including Monroe alumni Howard Watts and Jim Shumate. Emphasizing Flatt’s warm vocals and Scruggs’ already famed banjo playing, they developed a cleaner, more accessible sound that would eventually make them the only bluegrass act fully to enter American pop culture.
The first half of the 1950s witnessed a remarkable profusion of bluegrass music in the southeast and among the Appalachian immigrants of the mid-west. Older recording and performing artists such as the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Whitey & Hogan, and the Hired Hands with Scruggs’ mentor Snuffy Jenkins adopted the vibrant new sound. Jim & Jesse McReynolds adapted the brother duet manner of singing to bluegrass with Jesse contributing cross-picking, the first significant type of bluegrass mandolin playing not based on Monroe. Jim Eanes joined Monroe and Flatt as a formidable bluegrass songwriter while pioneering the notion of a solo bluegrass lead singer. Don Reno, a banjoman who had actually auditioned the Carolina three finger style for Monroe before Scruggs, teamed with Red Smiley to form a duet that would consistently hit the country charts with strong original material for 15 years.
Small wonder those times seem like a golden age forty years later. Major label recording contracts, songs on the hillbilly, soon to be called country & western, charts, and new stars, many of them former Blue Grass Boys, regularly emerging like the Sauceman Brothers, the Bailey Brothers, the Lilly Brothers with Don Stover and Tex Logan, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Bill Clifton, Carl Story, and Mac Wiseman, whose May 1956 British release Songs From The Hills proved the first bluegrass long playing album. Yet, these folks lived a hard life. The bedrock was live radio, generally early morning and noon time shows when the farmers could listen. They used the broadcast to gain bookings within the radius your station covered. Thus the musicians ended up on a treadmill of a radio show at 6:45 AM, sleep, often at the station, until Noon, do another broadcast, eat lunch, sleep a couple more hours, then hit the road for a show that might be 150 miles distant or more, play the gig, and then drive like furies to get to the station in time for the morning show. All this earned an income of $25 to $100 a week.
In 1955 this way of life collapsed under the pressures of television and Elvis Presley, who, by the way, waxed a cover of Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for his first record. Local bluegrass outfits lost their radio shows, and Monroe was soon reduced to hiring pick-up bands for specific tours or shows. Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, and Reno & Smiley survived by securing TV programs. Even a couple of new stars emerged in these dark days. Jimmy Martin began assembling various versions of the Sunny Mountain Boys, pickers who could propel his rhythmic and melodically rich brand of honky-tonk bluegrass. His former partners, the Osborne Brothers, completely rewrote the book of bluegrass vocals and thereby paved the way for the modern sound of bluegrass. Their late 1960s recording of “Rocky Top” would become the only bluegrass song to enter mass public consciousness without the aid of a TV show or movie. Yet many wonderful artists such as the Saucemans, the Baileys, and Eanes would never regain their career momentum.
Yet the forces were emerging that would propel the revival of bluegrass music. Mike Seeger assembled two albums, American Banjo: Scruggs Style and Mountain Music: Bluegrass Style, for the Folkways label that introduced bluegrass to the folk music revival. Before long Earl Taylor & the Stoney Mountain Boys would take bluegrass to Carnegie Hall while the Osborne Brothers gave the first campus bluegrass concert at Antioch College. Folklorist Alan Lomax proclaimed bluegrass “folk music with overdrive” in the October 1959 Esquire, and within the next four years Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe, and California’s Kentucky Colonels would perform at the trend-setting Newport Folk Festival. In the Washington, DC area urban kids began picking up on the bluegrass sound through radio shows hosted by Don Owens and others. On July 4, 1957 the first progressive bluegrass band, the Country Gentlemen, came together quite by accident. With Charlie Waller’s clear singing and John Duffey’s taste in material, the Gents were perfectly suited for the time and place. By 1963 Flatt & Scruggs and Missouri’s the Dillards had secured semi-regular roles on CBS network programs The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show respectively. Theme song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” carried Flatt & Scruggs to the top of the pops, a level of success that lead to artistic impotence and the demise of the group in 1969.
Nonetheless the average bluegrass act found itself playing fewer gigs at less attractive venues for often decreasing pay. The real recovery began in the mid-1960s as the infrastructure for a bluegrass music industry independent of both folk and country started to fall into place. Dick Freeland started Rebel Records, the first modern bluegrass independent recording company, in the DC area. By 1980 the ranks would be joined by Rounder, Flying Fish, Sugar Hill, CMH, and many more ephemeral concerns. Dave Freeman established County Sales, a direct mail marketing firm for bluegrass and old-time recordings that bypassed the often hostile retail outlets and inspired companies including Roundup Records and Elderly Instruments. Third, a group of Washington area fans created Bluegrass Unlimited, the first bluegrass publication to survive its infancy. By the time it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1991 the magazine had grown into a colorful glossy monthly with more than 60,000 readers each month. Fourth, bluegrass music specialty radio shows began to emerge just as the music disappeared from mainstream media. By the late 1980s nearly one radio station in ten in the US featured bluegrass at least occasionally.Carlton Haney, a Barnum-like showman who had managed Monroe and Reno & Smiley, provided the biggest piece of the puzzle with the bluegrass festival. Although Bill Clifton had produced one day bluegrass festivals, Haney’s three day model with camping and jam sessions along with all star talent provided the model after he unveiled it at Fincastle, Virginia on Labor Day weekend of 1965. Soon Monroe and Oklahoman Bill Grant were operating festivals of their own. After Woodstock made music festivals a youth phenomenon and “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance gave bluegrass a new pop hit, young people flooded to an explosion of bluegrass festivals.
The success of the festivals lead to a new generation of bluegrass musicians and acts. The Seldom Scene, an aggregation of former members of the Country Gentlemen and the New Shades of Grass, moved quickly to the forefront by using bluegrass as a method to interpret almost any kind of musical material. The New Grass Revival ostentatiously fused bluegrass and rock into a sound all their own. They eventually developed a rabid cult following and made inroads on the country charts before disbanding at the end of the 1980s. J.D. Crowe & the New South created an equally controversial and exciting country/bluegrass fusion using the talents of ace guitarist Tony Rice, future country superstars Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, and young Dobro giant Jerry Douglas. Rice would soon venture out on his own experimenting with acoustic jazz before developing his own blend of bluegrass and singer/songwriter music. Del McCoury emerged as the hero of hard-hitting, Monroe-style bluegrass.
Inevitably success brings new problems. As an industry and community bluegrass has yet to deal effectively with the many different types of people who have joined the bluegrass family. People who approach bluegrass as a folk music have a vastly differing social, political, and musical viewpoint than those who come to bluegrass from the country music side. Add in those who grew up listening to bluegrass, those who just like the people who love bluegrass, and folks who simply like festivals, factoring in that they come from both urban and rural backgrounds, and you have a potpourri that will drive any promoter insane, out of business, or both who tries to serve all the audiences.
The festivals have created an amazing framework for amateur musicians to meet and play bluegrass together. Here the folk side of bluegrass has kept going strong into the 1990s as a powerful participatory music. Yet for all the people that facet has attracted to bluegrass, the inevitable question, “What do you pick?,” has scared off many a bluegrass neophyte.
A large body of non-musicians, recreational vehicle devotees, on the other hand, began joining the bluegrass family in the late 1970s, but their net effect has proven ambiguous to say the least. Clearly the drug, violence, and crowd control problems that affected bluegrass events by the mid-1970s required a powerful remedy. The cure came in the form of “family-style bluegrass festivals” that created an atmosphere of personal safety with genuine discretion in drug and alcohol consumption. These necessary steps unfortunately turned nearly into a vendetta against young people attending bluegrass festivals. The new crop of RV borne fans sought more safe, all-white, all-middle aged attendee events than bluegrass music per se. Besides discouraging attendance by young folk, who came to feel out of place at the festivals, this audience demanded more pop-like entertainment value, rather than artistic challenge, in performance. Artists at the most traditional and most progressive ends of the spectrum suffered, while the middle-of-the-road thrived.
Running counter to these trends, however, came a third generation of talented bluegrass artists that began emerging at the end of the 1970s. Maryland’s Johnson Mountain Boys became the champions of neo-traditionalist bluegrass music, playing 1950s derived music with such fire and spirit that it seemed brand new. From the Rocky Mountains came Hot Rize playing traditional bluegrass with a contemporary twist and spawning wacky alter-ego honky-tonkers Red Knuckles & the Trail Blazers. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver created countless imitators for their contemporary sound based on awe-inspiring trio and quartet harmonies. The Nashville Bluegrass Band delved deeply into the African-American gospel music tradition for inspiration, style, and material.
Festivals also emerged during the 1980s that brought young folks back to bluegrass events with eclectic line-ups mixing first generation performers, contemporary acts, and musicians from outside bluegrass. Despite some controversy this new wave of festivals, which include New York’s Winterhawk, Colorado’s Telluride, the Merle Watson Memorial in North Carolina, and California’s Strawberry and Grass Valley, prove that large, youthful crowds of bluegrass fans can be assembled without substance abuse or crowd control problems.
This trend suggests that bluegrass festivals have grown up, while the emergence of IBMA, the International Bluegrass Music Association, indicates that the bluegrass music industry is nearing maturity. More than 1000 industry professionals attend IBMA’s annual conference and awards show in Owensboro, Kentucky. The trade organization provides a variety of support services for almost every facet of the field and is building a state-of-the-art bluegrass museum in Owensboro.
Certainly IBMA has every right to claim the name “International,” for since the early 1970s strong bluegrass communities have developed in Canada, Japan, Australia, and Europe. European and Japanese tours became fairly commonplace for American artists by the 1980s, while the US Information Agency has sent bluegrass to the four corners of the globe. The Nashville Bluegrass Band toured mainland China in 1986, while 1991 saw not one, but two Russian bluegrass outfits playing in the USA.
The greatest trend of the late 1980s and early 1990s comes from the feminization of bluegrass music. Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens pioneered women in a leading role in bluegrass as early as the mid-1960s. Betty Fisher, Delia Bell, Murphy Henry, Lynn Morris, Louisa Branscomb, and Cathy Fink took up the cause during the 1970s, but the revolution finally gained momentum in the San Francisco area with the emergence of the Good Ol’ Persons and Laurie Lewis & Grant Street as powerful creative forces on the leading edge of contemporary bluegrass. And then came Alison Krauss. Negotiating her own contract with Rounder Records while only in her mid-teens, the fiddler and vocalist demanded her own terms while discovering a new generation of bluegrass composers. Her 1990 CD I’Ve Got That Old Feeling sold more than 100,000 copies, won the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Recording,” and spun off a number one video on Country Music Television.
At the end of 1991, therefore, the bluegrass community enjoyed every reason for optimism with bright new stars, a strong business league, a genuine international basis, and many solid festivals.