Bluegrass music fits under the general American roots music category, and many consider it to be a further sub-genre of country music. The real roots of this music are found in the musical traditions of the Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh settlers who brought it to America from their homeland. Later influences in Bluegrass include the introduction of African traditions through the influence of black people in the south.
The region most heavily associated with Bluegrass music is Appalachia. This area corresponds to the territory defined by the Appalachian mountains which stretch from the southern parts of New York state to the northern parts of Mississippi state. Other states that have parts of them falling into this region include Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, all of West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and most of Pennsylvania.
This area of the country is notorious for rumours of how the inhabitants act and behave. The area has been portrayed for the better part of a century as uneducated, feuding amongst families madhouse that is powered by moonshine. As with all stereotypes, this doesn’t ring entirely true. Although there was a fair amount of moonshine back during prohibition!
You can’t get that bluegrass sound without the right instruments. In fact, if you don’t incorporate some of the traditional ones you’re likely a country band! Look for the following instruments in bluegrass music bands:
- five-string banjo
- upright bass
- resonator guitar
- acoustic guitar
The guitar players will frequently make use of flat picking techniques. Banjo players will use a three-finger picking style. The distinct sound of a bluegrass fiddle is made by playing thirds and fifths. Bass players will typically use a slap-style. This involves pulling the string out and releasing it to produce the note and letting it hit, or slap, against the fingerboard. This is done for a good reason: that slapping style keeps a rhythm going as there is no drummer. Early rock and roll bands did this too, Elvis’ first record had no drummer!
The most noticeable thing about bluegrass is that you will very rarely hear a band with just one singer. Most commonly you will find a group of 2 -4 people singing in harmony. The most common arrangement is three. One will sing baritone, another will take the lead in the middle and sing the melody and a third will be the tenor.
This base can, of course, be played with. Including a female voice in the mix can alter the vocal strategy a considerable amount as well. Usually, the female will sing lead an octave higher than the other person (usually a male) singing lead, giving a double stack on the lead vocal.
When Bluegrass became commercially recorded pop music in the 1940’s – 60’s, a few musicians stood out as the ‘originators’ of the style. This includes Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Red Allen, Bill Clifton, Jim and Jesse and Mac Wiseman.
A second generation of Bluegrass musicians emerged in the mid 1960’s. They include Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels, Doc Watson, Del McCoury and John Hartford all continued the Bluegrass tradition that has been passed on to artists today!