Bluegrass fans agree that the music genre is more than just banjos and fiddles. They also agree about its storied history, its prominence in American culture and its general importance. What many disagree about is its path into the future.
Bluegrass music owes a lot to the people from the United Kingdom, whose emigrants carried songs with them when they settled in the New World. Their songs, played over time, became unique to their new country, surviving for centuries, but always evolving. Bluegrass grew out of “old-time” mountain music, as did country music.
However, bluegrass only officially came to be in December 1945, its birth memorialized on a sign erected by the Tennessee Historical Commission. Featured on the IBMA website, the sign states that “Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe and his mandolin brought to the Ryman Auditorium stage a band that created a new American musical form. With the banjo style of Earl Scruggs and the guitar of Lester Flatt, the new musical genre became known as ‘Blue-grass.’”
The Traditional Bluegrass Sound
Bluegrass music’s distinctive “high, lonesome” sound grew out of Monroe’s music.” Monroe, a mandolin player with a high singing voice, had a huge influence on this music (in fact, his band, The Blue Grass Boys, lent its name to the genre). Other traditional bluegrass luminaries include:
- Vassar Clements, a fiddler, known as the Jimi Hendrix of bluegrass fiddle
- Del McCoury, guitarist and vocalist
- Earl Scruggs, Monroe’s band-mate and developer of syncopated, three-fingered banjo playing style
- The Osborne Brothers, whose harmonies expanded the “high lonesome” sound into the “high lead” style
- Roscoe Holcomb, singer and banjo player
The Newgrass Movement
Newgrass, often called “progressive bluegrass,” takes tradition and gives it some new twists, often by incorporating electric instruments and other instruments less common in bluegrass music (piano or drums), according to BeanBlossom.com, a bluegrass blog site. The musical structure of the songs is generally more complex, with more intricate chord progressions, and the songs often originate from non-bluegrass composers.
Some of the bigger names in newgrass or progressive bluegrass include:
- New Grass Revival
- The String Cheese Incident
- Yonder Mountain String Band
- Nickel Creek
- Punch Brothers
- Alison Krauss and Union Station
Several individuals are credited with (or implicated in, depending upon the perspective) the creation of newgrass. John Hartford, a fiddler, singer, and banjo player, “channeled the hippie spirit of the 1970s into a new interpretation of bluegrass,” according to Flavorwire.
Sam Bush and his band, New Grass Revival, adapted rock and roll songs to the bluegrass style of music, solidifying the use of the term “newgrass.” In an interview on CMT.com, Bush described his music style as “contemporary music,” explaining that, “…it’s not old. It’s stuff we pretty much write ourselves on traditional bluegrass instruments. That’s kind of the definition of newgrass. We can touch upon everything from reggae to rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, instrumental, vocals.”
Traditional vs. Progressive Rumblings
Music, by its very nature, is innovative. In an interview with JamBase, Del McCoury, one of the “celebrated keepers of traditional bluegrass” described not only his opinion of newgrass, but also what he thought Bill Monroe would think of it:
“I figure that any musician or band has to do what is in their heart… I think Bill would be happy about it. He was never that prejudiced about other people playing bluegrass instruments in a different way. I believe that it made him feel honored, because he knows they are taking certain elements from his music and taking it in a different direction.”
Newgrass at Huck Finn
Famed singer and songwriter Emmylou Harris once said, “Bluegrass has a very, very strict musical form. Once you start to dilute it, it disappears.” The good news is that for purists, Huck Finn Jubilee features plenty of traditional acts.
No bright line separates bluegrass from traditional Irish fiddling, or progressive bluegrass from a modern day ceilidh. The only sure thing is that music defies rigid classifications. Bach’s organ masterpieces sound at home in a church now just as they did in the eighteenth century. Any song written centuries ago may be played with the same notes, yet interpreted far differently. Listen to a new style and let it carry you back to the music back in the day. And if you listen closely, you will see that it contains plenty of what was loved so much in the “old” style.
Take heed of what Mark Twain’s Huck Finn said. He learned a lot about different types of people and beliefs on his travels, and made no distinctions when he said, “Music is a good thing…”