Bluegrass Music


Bluegrass music is a sub-genre of country music with roots in traditional Scottish, English and Irish tunes. English and Ulster-Scots immigrants settled in Appalchia in the 18th century and brought their music with them. Scottish ballads influenced the music in the region along with Irish reels accompanied by a fiddle. Afro-American musicians shaped the reels and jigs with jazz elements and introduced the banjo.

The Bluegrass music was considered to be a sub-genre of folk music but later it changed to hillbilly. In 1948, a radio airplay charting refereed to it as country/western. The term “bluegrass” appeared in the late 1950s and the Music Index mentioned it for the first time in 1965.The exact origin of the name is uncertain, but many believe it was inspired from the name of the Blue Grass Boys, a band formed in 1939 by Bill Monroe. Although his style consisted in a mix of gospel, country and blues he is often referred to as the creator of Bluegrass. Monroe was inspired by the nickname Bluegrass State given to Kentucky when he chose the band’s name.

Usually the Bluegrass musicians sing about the everyday lives of the people in the community and the hard times they had in Appalachia and other underdeveloped rural areas. Another topic is the unwanted effects that mountaintop coal mining had on the region. Protest songs like “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Wreck of the Old 97” illustrate the rebellious side of the inhabitants. Love is also a common theme.

The Bluegrass vocals feature a dissonant or modal sound in a high voice composed of two, three or four parts describes as a “lonesome sound”. The layering of vocal harmony is usually called a “stack” with a standard tenor voice at the top, a baritone at the bottom and the lead voice in the middle. This is not a general rule and some artists like Alison Krauss preferred a tenor and baritone with a high sound. The Osborne Brothers used a high lead with the tenor and baritone below.

Traditionally, Bluegrass music is played using acoustic stringed instruments like the fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar and a five-string banjo. Sometimes they are accompanied by a harmonica and a Dobro, a resonator guitar. A band requires a minimum of four musicians with a guitar, bass and a banjo. “Newgrass” genre uses modern instrumentation like the accordion, piano, autoharp, drums and electric guitar.