Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bluegrass Music - The Beginning

The roots of bluegrass music began with the Irish, Scots and English who settled in the hills and mountains of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia from the 17th through 19th centuries. They brought with them their basic styles of music and wrote songs about day-to-day life in the new land. Since most of these people lived in remote areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills.  This music was referred to as country music or mountain music.  The invention of the phonograph and the onset of radio in the early 1900s brought this music out of the mountains and into the homes of people all over the United States.

The first country singers to achieve national recognition were Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, from Mississippi, and The Carter Family, the First Family of Country Music, from the Clinch Mountain area of Southwest Virginia, who began recording in 1927. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars and were among the first groups to record commercially produced country music. Their recordings of songs such as "Wabash Cannonball", "Can the Circle Be Unbroken", "Wildwood Flower", "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" made these songs country standards. A.P. collected hundreds of songs from Appalachia saving them for future generations of country, bluegrass and folk singers.

The original Carter Family consisted of A.P. Carter singing harmony and background, his wife Sara on rhythm guitar or autoharp and A.P.’s sister-in-law Maybelle (Sara’s cousin) on lead guitar. Maybelle played in the distinctive Carter Scratch (melody on the low strings, rhythm on the high strings) which influenced generations of guitar pickers. They disbanded in 1944. Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters Anita, June, and Helen as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters". They began using the name "the Carter Family" after the death of A.P. Carter in 1960 for their act during the 1960s and 1970s.

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, from Rosine, Kentucky, is credited with inventing the high energy, fast tempo, hard-edged style of country music known as bluegrass. The genre takes its name from Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys. From the 1940s, Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys defined the sound and style of classic bluegrass--a five-piece acoustic string band consisting of fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass, playing precisely and rapidly, switching solos improvised around the melody and singing in a high-pitched, gospel-tinged voice, often with two to four-part harmonies. Monroe described it as Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's traditional (African-American) blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Bill Monroe grew up playing and singing at home in a musical family. Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie already played the fiddle and guitar, Bill Monroe was resigned to playing the mandolin. His parents died when he was still a boy so he lived with his fiddle playing uncle, Pen Vandiver. In 1939 Bill formed the Bluegrass Boys named after his home state and auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry. In 1945, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys and the sound we know today as Bluegrass came into its own. Monroe was at his peak in the early 1950s and came into his own again with the revival of folk music in the 1960s, establishing the Bean Blossom Indiana Bluegrass Festival, celebrating 54 years in 2020. It was during the 60s that the music became generally known as “Bluegrass Music” after Bill Monroe’s band.

Monroe's significance as an artist cannot be underrated: he created and continued a distinct vocal tradition known as his "high, lonesome sound" that blended Appalachian ballad and church traditions and became standard bluegrass vocal style; he developed innovative techniques on the mandolin, establishing it as a virtuoso string band instrument; and by eschewing electrification he created a space for an acoustic string band tradition to continue to grow and develop within the field of country music. Throughout his career, Monroe composed a diverse repertoire of sacred and secular songs and virtuoso instrumental tunes which have become standard fare amongst bluegrass, country, and pop musicians. He continued to tour and perform through the 1990s until his death after a stroke in 1996.

The Stanley Brothers, Carter (1925–1966) and Ralph (1927–2016) were born in Dickenson County Virginia. Ralph Stanley learned to play the banjo, clawhammer style, from his mother: “I tried to play it like she did. But I think I developed my own style of the banjo”. Ralph on banjo and Carter on guitar performed as The Stanley Brothers with their band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, from 1946 to 1966, drawing heavily on the musical traditions of the area, which included the unique singing style of the Primitive Baptist Universalist church and the sweet down-home family harmonies of the Carter Family. Carter was the lead vocalist while Ralph’s high tenor and mandolin and lead guitar player Darrel “Pee Wee” Lambert’s high baritone provided the harmony. Ralph kept the band name when he continued as a solo act after Carter's death in 1966, until his death in 2016.

Lester Flatt, born in Tennessee, and Earl Scruggs, born in North Carolina, met when they joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945. They left Bill Monroe in 1948 and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, with Lester Flatt singing lead, still viewed as one of the premier bluegrass bands of all time. Flatt's thumb-and-index finger rhythm guitar style and Scruggs three-finger banjo-picking style gave them their distinctive sound. In the early 50’s they dropped the mandolin and added the Dobro guitar, departing significantly from Bill Monroe’s sound.

Flatt and Scruggs had a daily early morning radio show over WSM-Nashville and in 1955 they became members of the Grand Ole Opry. During the late fifties and early sixties, their syndicated television shows were seen by millions of viewers in the American Southeast. The Ballad of Jed Clampett reached Number 1 on the Country Charts. Music and business differences brought the act to an end early in 1969. Following the breakup, Lester Flatt founded the Nashville Grass and Scruggs led the Earl Scruggs Revue. Both continued in the music industry until their deaths. Flatt died in 1979, at the age of 64. Scruggs died in 2012 at the age of 88.

Lost Highway, Episode I, linked below, is a 50-minute documentary that takes you from the beginnings of country music in the Appalachian Mountains to bluegrass music from Bill Monroe to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Material for the blog post has been borrowed, lifted, edited, and compiled from Wikipedia and the following websites:


  1. I love bluegrass instrumentals but I can live without that high nasal whine singing style.

  2. I didn't used to like blue grass when I was young..the older I got the better i liked it..

    1. Me too actually. Maybe because it is traditional which we appreciate when we get older?

  3. LOVE bluegrass music! There's something about it that just resonates in my bones. And it's so much fun to watch the old videos where a bunch of guys just got up and made amazing music without any fanfare, fancy costumes, or special effects. Ahhh... those were the days. :-)

  4. Diane, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the old videos were great to watch and listen to while I was putting this together. And Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Earl Scruggs lived well into their 8-s and 90s, carrying the traditions forward.


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