The History of Bluegrass Music – Part 1

The very formative roots of bluegrass music grew from the immigrants that came over to America in the 1600s and settled in the south. They were mainly from Scotland, Ireland and England, and they brought with them basic types of music and instruments that are generally considered the roots of bluegrass.

As these Jamestown Colonists started to migrate out into Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia they started to sing new songs of life in their adopted home. Some of these settlers lived in remote areas of the country, they were hill farmers and their music were classed as mountain music or country music, defining it as rural and unsophisticated. This music was fairly unknown to the rest of America as being region specific, but with the development of the radio in the early 1900s, the mountain music became popular all over the United States of America.

The 1920s

Mountain Music grew in popularity in the 1920s and 30s and one of the most popular bands were the Monroe Brothers. Charlie played guitar and his brother Bill was on mandolin, they sang in harmony and were the pioneers of bluegrass. Eventually the brothers split up and as Bill lived in Kentucky, the bluegrass state, he decided to call the new band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. This new music sparked a revolutionary new type of traditional country music that is alive and kicking today.

The New Country Music

Bill’s new band played music that nobody had ever heard the like of before, it had a hard driving and powerful sound but still used traditional instruments and utilized harmonies. The band played on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1939 and instantly became one of the most popular touring bands of Nashville.

The music Bill and his band played was liked by all; it had touches of gospel, worker’s songs, country, blues and the vocals were duet, trio and quartet harmony with high lonesome solos. The format Bill used for his band became what bluegrass traditionalists today say is authentic bluegrass: mandolin, banjo, guitar, stand-up bass and fiddle.

The Bluegrass Sound

Many true fans believe that it was Monroe and his band in 1939 that first started playing authentic bluegrass music. But it was not until late 1945 that the genre was really noticed, when a young banjo player called Earl Scruggs joined the band. Scruggs had a distinct style, using only three fingers which picked at the strings rather than strumming them, this style is known as the Scruggs style and brought audiences running in droves to their gigs. The band’s lineup also included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Cedric Rainwater on stand-up bass.

Later on, when Scruggs and Flatt formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, they introduced a new instrument into the band’s format. The Dobro is a resophonic guitar that still exists in many bluegrass bands today.

In part two we carry on discovering the history of this very American form of music. We will see how bluegrass evolved and the format changed over the years.