Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

What is Bluegrass music?

Can we talk?

An interesting discussion happened last Tuesday night at our weekly jam session. It started with this statement, “long before there was a Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs’ 3 finger pickin patterns, Ralph Stanley or any other well known musician … there was this music played by people”. It got called Bluegrass first in the late 40’s or early fifties.

The folks in the hills (Appalachian mountains) played what they knew from old songs brought to the area by the Irish, Scottish and English; ballads and reels … they just played and sang and innovated when needed.

Because the music industry needed a marketing catch phrase, Bill Monroe (and his band from the bluegrass state of Kentucky) got the “honor” of labeling this music … and the world “discovered” what was never really lost.

Is Bluegrass not bluegrass if the banjo doesn’t play in Scruggs style?
If the guitar players uses a classical fingering instead of flat-pickin … is it still Bluegrass?
Does a Mandolin player absolutely have to cross-pick or could he/she just slow strum?

What do you say?

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Bluegrass crosses all styles. The claw hammer is older and actually a great compliment to Scruggs style. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon players do both methods on their songs.

Maybe I am oversimplifying it, but I’d have to stick with what Bill Monroe (and the namesake Bluegrass Boys) got started and the music that followed in their footsteps. In other words, for me, bluegrass had a distinct start with Monroe. Was there similar music before that? I suspect there was, but that is when it got named and that was the birth of a new genre. I have a harder time classifying what today is still bluegrass.

So is the “real” bluegrass sound … the music, the instruments, the songs, the feel, all of the above or something else/more?

My family is from Huff, Kentucky a few miles away from where Bill Monroe called home. The songs they played and sang predate the label “bluegrass” but my recall is that the songs were for the most part old. I remember my great-grandma Bailes playing the fiddle bracing it near her hip. My great-uncle Johnny Basham played a guitar and my grandma played a dulcimer. We all joined in on the singing and the laughter.

I enjoy the sound and feel of what is called Bluegrass. I don’t think it matters one hoot if it is a style or a genre or whatever. It is interesting to hear musicians talk about getting back to the roots of Bluegrass … that effort should be qualified to the Bill Monroe style.

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Sam McGee once described Bluegrass as Old Time speeded up. That always seemed pretty close to me, but not completely accurate. Toss in more blue notes and harmony vocals and you’re a little closer. I never thought a banjo was a requirement, and the first edition of the Bluegrass Boys obviously didn’t have one.

Actually, after further research, Mike pretty much hit it on the head.

The Monroe Brothers were one of the most popular acts of the 1920s and 1930s. Charlie Monroe played the guitar, Bill played the mandolin, and they sang in harmony. When the brothers split in 1938, both went on to form their own bands. Bill was a native of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, so he decided to call his band “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,” and this band started a new form of “traditional” country music. from history of bluegrass.

Prior to that it was called mountain music or country.

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Yes on the speeded up part for sure but there are many bluegrass songs that are slow that would not sound right fast. Old time country music best describes the whole deal to me . A lot of those songs came about from work or maybe someone getting hurt or killed , or just plain dying. I Imagine some of the songs were put to some music that would be classed a reel or a jig and modified to fit the song,. and not to forget the heart break of an old country boy who just lost his darling or found his darling was untrue . For me to sum it up Bluegrass is about life and death.