Trying to define bluegrass music is a bit like saying what color yellow is; it is very much a subjective question that has not one defining answer. I suppose, if you asked three different bluegrass musicians, they would all give you slightly different answers, and there is our problem. Even the IBMA, the International Bluegrass Music Association, have not gone down the route of trying to define what constitutes bluegrass music. In this blog we will try to unravel the mystery that surrounds this popular form of music and where its values lie.
The early pioneers of bluegrass music in the 1940s and 50s were Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, and they produced their music with a band. The set up was upright bass, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo, and featured three-part harmonies. This brand of blue grass is now practiced by people such as Danny Paisley and James King who very much keep to the old traditions and format. Many traditional bluegrass fans have the opinion that anything else than this format of bluegrass is not blue grass at all, it is an adaptation and may as well be called newgrass.
There are factions, thinking that this kind of stance from small tent minded fans is restricting the growth and larger acceptance of their favorite music. They point out that even the famous Bill Monroe did not follow tradition, his style was new and innovative and even included an accordion!
The Middle Ground
Fans who hold the second opinion believe that there is middle ground in this conundrum, their tent is bigger than the traditionalists’ but just barely so. Some of the newer bands that fit into this category are JD Crow, Doyle Lawson, Quicksilver, Lonesome River Band, Newgrass Revival, Blue Highway, Alison Krause and Country Gentlemen and many others.
The final group of bluegrass fans are the more radical thinkers whose tent is set very broadly. Suffice to say they include all the aforementioned but accept artists that use some of the traditional instruments but push the boundaries in their music. Examples of these artists would be New Hip, Missy Rains and the Infamous Stringdusters. They all have strong links with traditional bluegrass music but have strayed far from the old path.
In this category also are artists that adore traditional bluegrass and respect it but have moved on to a remote form of the genre, yet still occasionally play it. These are artists such as Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, Leftover Salmon, Trampled by Turtles, Old Crow Medicine Show, Railroad Earth and the Punch Brothers. All these artists have pushed the envelope way out and include electric instruments, drums and other instruments frowned upon by the traditionalists.
These bands claim they are bringing much wider appreciation of their audience from a far bigger global pool. In one way this is true, recently Grammy award winner Adele performed a Steeldrivers’ song, Hadn’t Been for Love.
In part two of our blog trying to define what bluegrass music actually is, we once again unpack our fiddle, banjo and mandolin and go in search of the truth.