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Defining Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass music is a team sport and one of its golden rules is that it should always be fun to play and to listen and participate in. It is sort of American roots music that is often described wrongly as American Folk music.

Elements of bluegrass can be found in the traditional music of English, Scottish and Irish immigrants that came to settle in America. When people play bluegrass, each musician takes turns in taking center stage by playing the lead melody as all the other instruments play around it. This differs to the music that came before, where either all the instruments played the tune, or one soloist played the melody alone. The main thing to notice is that bluegrass is played on acoustic instruments, and although likened to folk music, it is generally played by professional musicians.

The Instruments

Unlike its cousin, country music, bluegrass is mostly played by stringed instruments. The classic lineup is, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, upright bass and mandolin. These traditional bluegrass instruments can be augmented by the resonator guitar. These instruments mainly came from rural black dance bands, but the music was radically different, with improvised solos and technically very difficult playing.

The official band lineup, in terms of instruments, started with Bill Monroe, and it was his band The Blue Grass Boys that first coined the phrase bluegrass music. It was his band that defined the original lineup of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and upright bass. Other instruments commonly played in bluegrass bands are harmonica, accordion, piano, Jaw harp, drums and electric guitar.

Vocals

Bluegrass is made up of distinctive vocal harmonies which can be two, three or four parts. The upper voice often carries a modal sound which is often called the high lonesome. This sound has often got nasal overtones to it and is sung on top of the main melody. Bluegrass has never been folk music, although the topics of the songs are often very similar. The two forms of music are frequently associated with each other, and at festivals they are commonly played on the same bill.

History

Bluegrass grew up in the 1940s, it was a combination of other popular music of the time, namely blues, old-time music, jazz and ragtime. The true beginnings can be traced back to that one particular band, the Blue Grass Boys, started by the legendary Bill Monroe.

The additions of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt to the scene saw bluegrass flourish and become a serious music genre. Popular artists at the time were Chubby Wise, Howard Watts and Snuffy Jenkins who all defined the music which we call bluegrass today. It was not until the other artists came to join Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys could the music declare itself as a genre in its own right.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, (Left to right) Jack Thompson, Chubby Wise, Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, Rudy Lyle, 1949, Courtesy Smithsonian Institution and Country Music Foundation Library Media Center, Nashville, Tennessee

To this very day, bluegrass has always been played by professional musicians and although amateur bands have and can play it, they are not common. Bluegrass has always been a very particular form of music since its inception around eighty years ago, there have been off shoots and developments but traditional bluegrass music is still very much alive and prospering in many countries around the world.