Bluegrass traces its roots to the music of the 1600s, though most bluegrass buffs attribute the birth of the genre to legendary musician Bill Monroe.
While it is true that he is known as the Father of Bluegrass Music—and he defined, named and popularized the genre—the origins of bluegrass were first brought to America by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, as well as African-American slaves through the banjo, an instrument of African design.
These immigrants settled in Appalachia, where they began to turn their lives into song. These songs spun tales of rural living and incorporated the traditional instruments and style of their homelands—the country or folk music of yesteryear.
The invention of the phonograph in the late 1800s and the proliferation of radio in the early 1900s spread this music to regions outside of the rural confines of Appalachia to new audiences who grew to appreciate the genre. Bluegrass proliferated in the 1920s and 1930s, during which time Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and, of course, Bill Monroe helped to popularize this music style.
The Early Days
Largely considered the first “true” bluegrass musician, Monroe was born in Kentucky as part of a typical large family that lived and worked on their farm. His family was of the musical sort; his father danced, his mother sang and played instruments and his siblings played instruments as well.
As the youngest, Bill was forced to take up the mandolin as his siblings had already chosen the fiddle and guitar, both of which he would have preferred. While working in an oil refinery in his adult years, Bill joined with his two brothers Birch and Charlie, along with friend Larry Moore, to form the Monroe Brothers. The quartet was discovered in 1932 during a square dance by Tom Owen, who worked with radio station WLS’ “National Barn Dance” show. With the help of WLS, the group began to tour.
In 1934, the Monroe Brothers was whittled down to a duet and the pair—Bill and Charlie—began appearing on radio shows around the area. The duo’s popularity grew and, in 1936, they were contacted by the RCA Victor label and recorded a handful of songs over the next two years.
The Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938; after a dispute, each brother went his own separate way. Bill formed the first version of the Blue Grass Boys, named after his home state, in 1939. That year, Monroe successfully auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville with a rendition of Jimmie Rodger’s “Mule Skinner Blues,” played in a style all his own. The band soon became very popular—the fast tempo, high energy, vocal harmonies and Bill’s “high, lonesome” solos were unlike anything the Grand Ole Opry audience had ever heard.
Although the Blue Grass Boys formed in 1939, some people maintain that it was only later that the true bluegrass sound came into its own—namely, when Earl Scruggs joined the band in 1945. He became a part of the band that included Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts. Scruggs brought to the Blue Grass Boys his three-fingered picking style that became a signature element of the band and later bluegrass as a whole.
Scruggs and Flatt left the Blue Grass Boys three years later in 1948 and soon formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, taking with them the style they had developed as part of the Blue Grass Boys. One of the most famous songs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” was recorded in 1949 and was later used as background music in the 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde.
In those early years of the 1950s, bluegrass boomed. More and more musicians started playing bluegrass, leading to an increasing number of new bands: The Stanley Brothers, who recorded a bluegrass-style song in 1948 while the genre was still in its infancy; Doc Watson; Reno and Smiley; and The Lilly Brothers, among many others.
The 1960s brought about outdoor, multiday bluegrass festivals, like the Huck Finn Jubilee, which have become an integral part of bluegrass and the primary method of sharing and listening to bluegrass with fellow fans. Bill Monroe even founded his own bluegrass festival, the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, in 1967.
Recent years have brought about modern versions of traditional bluegrass, of course evolving into separate subgenres. Progressive bluegrass, also called newgrass, is one such style that evokes the feeling of traditional bluegrass with the addition of electric instruments and the influence of other genres.
Traditional bluegrass, however, has held firm—with the help of its fans. Bluegrass enthusiasts have helped keep this genre alive by continuing to attend the festivals, where they share the music that began in America so many years ago.