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Wikipedia, the free on-line dictionary.



Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music which has its own roots in Irish, Scottish and English traditional music.  Bluegrass was inspired by the music of immigrants from the British Isles (particularly the Scots-Irish immigrants of Appalachia), as well as that of rural African-Americans, jazz, and blues.  In bluegrass, as in jazz, each instrument takes a turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others revert to backing; this is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.  Bluegrass is distinctively acoustic, rarely using electric instruments.  In popular culture bluegrass has an image as a form of folk music.  However, it was mostly developed by professional musicians.

Pathfinder Bluegrass



Bluegrass artists use a variety of stringed instruments to create a unique sound.  Unlike mainstream country music, bluegrass relies mostly on acoustic stringed instruments.  The fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and upright bass are sometimes joined by the resonator guitar (popularly known by the Dobro brand name).  This instrumentation originated in rural black dance bands and was being abandoned by those groups (in favor of blues and jazz ensembles) when picked up by white musicians.  Instrumental solos are improvised, and can frequently be technically demanding.


Debate rages among bluegrass musicians, fans, and scholars over what instrumentation constitutes a bluegrass band.  Since the term bluegrass came from Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys, many consider the instruments used in his band the traditional bluegrass instruments.  These were the mandolin (played by Monroe), the fiddle, guitar, banjo and upright bass.  At times the musicians may perform gospel songs, singing four-part harmony and including no or sparse instrumentation (often with banjo players switching to lead guitar).  Bluegrass bands have included instruments as diverse as the resonator guitar (Dobro), accordion, harmonica, Jaw harp, piano, drums, electric guitar, and electric versions of all other common bluegrass instruments, though these are considered to be more progressive and are a departure from the traditional bluegrass style.

Cathy & Tim


Besides instrumentation, a distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often featuring a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice (see modal frame).  This vocal style has been characterized as the "high lonesome sound."  The "High Lonesome" sound can be credited to Shape-Note music where a high-pitched harmony, that can generally be characterized as having a nasal timbre, is sung over the main melody.  There is also an emphasis on traditional songs, often with sentimental or religious themes.

Mike A., Denise, Tim

It is important to note that bluegrass is not and never was folk music under a strict definition; however, the topical and narrative themes of many bluegrass songs are highly reminiscent of "folk music".  In fact many songs that are widely considered to be bluegrass are older works legitimately classified as folk or old-time performed in a bluegrass style.  While bluegrass is not folk music in the strictest sense, the interplay between bluegrass music and other folk forms has been studied.  Folklorist Dr. Neil Rosenberg, for example, shows that most devoted bluegrass fans and musicians are familiar with traditional folk songs and old-time music and that these songs are often played at shows and festivals.

First Generation

First generation bluegrass musicians dominated the genre from its beginnings in the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s.  This group generally consists of those who were playing during the "Golden Age" in the 1950s, including Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Reno and Smiley, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, Buzz Busby, The Lilly Brothers, Jim Eanes and Earl Taylor.

Second Generation

Bluegrass's second generation came to prominence in the mid- to late-1960s, although many of the second generation musicians were playing (often at young ages) in first generation bands prior to this.  Among the most prominent second generation musicians are The Dillards, J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Harley "Red" Allen, Bill Keith, Del McCoury and Tony Rice.  With the second generation came a growth in progressive bluegrass, as exemplified by second generation bands such as the The Country Gentlemen, New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels.  In that vein, first-generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman, Grateful Deadfrontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo) and Peter Rowan as lead vocalist collaborated on the album Old and in the Way; the Garcia connection helped to expose progressive and traditional bluegrass to a rock music audience.

Mike G., Tom, Allen, Mike A.

Third Generation

The third generation in bluegrass reached primacy in the mid-1980s.  Third generation bluegrass saw a number of notable changes from the music played in previous years.  In several regards, this generation saw a redefinition of "mainstream bluegrass."  Increased availability of high-quality sound equipment led to each band member being miked independently, and a "wall of sound" style developed (exemplified by IIIrd Tyme Out and Lonesome River Band).  Following the example set by Tony Rice, lead guitar playing became more common (and more elaborate). An electric bass became a generally, but not universally, accepted alternative to the traditional acoustic bass, though electrification of other instruments continued to meet resistance outside progressive circles.  Nontraditional chord progressions also became more widely accepted.  On the other hand, this generation saw a renaissance of more traditional songs, played in the newer style.  The Johnson Mountain Boys were one of the decade's most popular touring groups, and played strictly traditional bluegrass.

Fourth Generation

It could be argued that a fourth generation of bluegrass musicians is beginning to appear, marked by a high level of technical skills.  Although it is too soon to see definite trends, one of the most notable fourth generation musician to emerge so far is probably Chris Thile, who has recorded five solo albums since he was 13.



Mike G.


Bluegrass as a style developed during the mid 1940s.  Because of war rationing, recording was limited during this time, and the best that can be said is that bluegrass was played some time after World War II, but no earlier.  As with any musical genre, no one person can claim to have "invented" it.  Rather, bluegrass is an amalgam of old-time music, blues, ragtime and jazz.  Nevertheless, bluegrass's beginnings can be traced to one band.  Today Bill Monroe is referred to as the "founding father" of bluegrass music; the bluegrass style was named for his band, the Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1939.  The 1945 addition of banjo player Earl Scruggs, who played with a three-finger roll originally developed by Snuffy Jenkins but now almost universally known as "Scruggs style", is pointed to as the key moment in the development of this genre.  Monroe's 1945-48 band, which featured banjo player Earl Scruggs, singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts, aka "Cedric Rainwater," created the definitive sound and instrumental configuration that remains a model to this day.


By some arguments, as long as the Blue Grass Boys were the only band playing this music, it was just their unique style; it could not be considered a musical genre until other bands began performing the same style.  In 1947 the Stanley Brothers recorded the traditional song "Molly and Tenbrooks" in the Blue Grass Boys' style, and this could also be pointed to as the beginning of bluegrass as a genre.

From its earliest days to today, bluegrass has been recorded and performed by professional musicians.  Although amateur bluegrass musicians and trends such as "parking lot picking" are too important to be ignored, it is professional musicians who have set the direction of the genre. 

Mike A.



Since the late 1990s, several mainstream country musicians have recorded bluegrass albums.  Ricky Skaggs, who began as a bluegrass musician and crossed over to mainstream country in the 1980s, returned to bluegrass in 1996, and since then has recorded several bluegrass albums and tours with his bluegrass band Kentucky Thunder.  Around the same time, country music superstars Dolly Parton and Patty Lovelesshave both released several bluegrass albums. Along with the Coen Brothers' movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the subsequent "Down From the Mountain" music tour, this has brought bluegrass music to a much wider audience.  Meanwhile, bands such as the Yonder Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá Tráva in the Czech Republic have attracted large audiences while pushing at the edges of progressive bluegrass.

Though she is often considered a crossover or mainstream country artist, no discussion of recent developments in bluegrass music would be complete without mention of Alison Krauss.  A vocalist/fiddler whose first album was released when she was just 16, Krauss and her band, Union Station, were major contributors to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?  As a solo artist, collaborator, producer and with Union Station, Krauss has won, as of 2006, 20 Grammy Awards, the most of any female artist in history.  She is now tied for 7th place on the all-time winners list.

Other notable recent bluegrass bands include the Earl Brothers, who write innovative music that remains evocative of bluegrass and old-time tradition, New York's James Reams & The Barnstormers, a traditional-sounding band with original material, and Cherryholmes, a family act that combines flashy picking and singing with a style that remains reminiscent of traditional bluegrass.  The Grascals, a bluegrass band that has recently begun is beginning to get wide recognition.  Brad Davisis a solo artist that has grown playing with historical Bluegrass kings such as Earl Scruggs and Sam Bush.  Davis is currently touring year round and has grabbed a Grammy award for his hard work as a flatpicker.



In addition to what might be considered "mainstream" bluegrass, which has gradually changed over the last 60 years, three major subgenres have existed almost since the music's beginning.


As the name implies, traditional bluegrass emphasizes the traditional elements. Traditional bluegrass musicians are likely to play folk songs, songs with simple traditional chord progressions, and use only acoustic instruments.  They generally follow the pattern set by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the late 1940's.  In the early years, traditional bluegrass sometimes included instruments such as washboards, mouth harps, and harmonicas; but these are rare in modern bluegrass. Traditional bands may use bluegrass instruments in slightly different ways (claw-hammer style of banjo playing, or multiple guitars or fiddles within a band).  In this sub-genre, the guitar rarely takes the lead (the notable exception being gospel songs), remaining a rhythm instrument.  Melodies and lyrics tend to be simple, and a I-IV-V chord pattern is very common.

Nationally popular traditional bluegrass bands include Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, James King Band and arguably, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers and The Del McCoury Band.



Pathfinders Jam

Progressive Bluegrass

Another major subgenre is progressive bluegrass, roughly synonymous with "newgrass" (the latter term is attributed to New Grass Revivalmember Ebo Walker). Progressive bluegrass came to widespread attention in the late 1960s and 1970s, as some groups began using electric instruments and importing songs from other genres (particularly rock & roll).  However, progressive bluegrass can be traced back to one of the earliest bluegrass bands.  A brief listen to the banjo and bass duets Earl Scruggs played even in the earliest days of the Foggy Mountain Boys give a hint of wild chord progressions to come.  The four key distinguishing elements (not always all present) of progressive bluegrass are instrumentation (frequently including electric instruments, drums, piano, and more), songs imported (or styles imitated) from other genres, chord progressions, and lengthy "jam band"-style improvisation. String Cheese Incident is a good example of a band that occasionally coordinates a bluegrass tune mixed with a jam band feeling (especially original tunes like "Can't Stop Now", and "Dudley's Kitchen").  A twist on this genre is the combining of elements that preceded bluegrass, such as old-time string band music, with bluegrass music.  Imagine that, for instance, you add a clawhammer banjo (an archaic style that preceded the bluegrass banjo style of Earl Scruggs) to bluegrass arrangements as played by Mark Johnson("Clawgrass" music) and Dick Kimmel.


Eclectic Bluegrass

Béla Fleck (born July 10, 1958 in New York City, New York) is an American virtuoso banjo player. He is most well known for his work with the band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which he has described as "a mixture of acoustic and electronic music with a lot of roots in folk and bluegrass as well as funk and jazz."  Fleck has shared Grammy wins with Asleep at the Wheel, Alison Brown, and Edgar Meyer.  He has been nominated in more categories than any other musician, namely country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition, and arranging.

Fleck names Chick Corea (Jazz), Charlie Parker (Jazz/Blues) and the aforementioned Earl Scruggs (Bluegrass) as primary influences.  He regards Scruggs as "certainly the best" banjo player of the three-finger style.  He has performed with many artists from many different genres, including, Phish,  Dave Matthews, Ricky Skaggs, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, and the Grateful Dead (Rock).


Bluegrass Gospel

Although nearly all bluegrass artists regularly incorporate gospel music into their repertoire, "Bluegrass Gospel" has emerged as a third subgenre.  Distinctive elements of this style of bluegrass music include lyrics focused on Christian faith and theology, soulful three or four part harmony singing, and occasionally subdued instrumentalsA capella choruses are popular with bluegrass gospel artists, though the harmony structure differs somewhat from standard "barber-shop" or choir singing.  Although some "mainstream" bluegrass artists such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Third Tyme Out have produced extraordinary bluegrass gospel music, others, such as Mount Zion and The Churchmen have chosen to focus on it exclusively.



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