Bluegrass Music 101
Bluegrass music is an American roots/country genre with blues, Scottish, Irish, and English influences. Bill Monroe is hailed as the innovator of the music genre, and its name is that derivative of his band's name from 1939. The band was known as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. The name of the band was a play on the state of Kentucky, which is known as the "bluegrass" state. As you've likely deduced, Kentucky was Monroe's home state.
Creation and History
It's important to start by saying that no one person can be said to have created bluegrass music. Bill Monroe is thought of as the innovator. However, that's because the genre's beginnings can easily be traced back to his band. Even he at the time did not coin the term.
Still, no one can deny that Monroe's musical style was a unique one. The harmonies and vocalizations used and the blue riff-laced mandolin playing were unmistakable. When Earl Scruggs, a banjo player, joined the band's ranks in 1945, he used an incredibly quick three-finger picking style, which people now affectionately call the "Scruggs style." Monroe's band concocted the standard as far as instrumental setup and sound were concerned as a unit. Even today, musicians who practice the bluegrass style use Monroe's model.
Beyond Monroe's band, the first true adaptation of the genre came from The Stanley Brothers in 1947. This milestone came with the debut of "Molly and Tenbrooks," a traditional racehorse song. The presence of the Blue Grass Boys' style was unmistakable. The fact that an independent entity was using it marked its beginning as its own genre. By the time the early 1950s came around, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, etc., we're all filling the mold as bluegrass bands.
The bluegrass genre relies heavily on acoustic stringed instruments. These include the banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and mandolin. In some cases, the resonator guitar also makes an appearance. Modern bands even expand on this formula and include electric versions of these instruments, as well as the drums, mouth harp, accordion, harmonica, piano, etc.
Some persons may not agree with this configuration, as there has always been a raging debate about which instruments are considered acceptable. That's because the "purists" prefer to look back at Monroe's band, and they only accept its configuration as the traditional and accepted one. Only the precise instruments used by the Blue Grass Boys, such as the upright bass, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, are recognized in their eyes.
The style works a lot like the way jazz does. Each melody instrument switches off, and improvised solos are played in turn, while those not leading take on a backing role.
Monroe and his band didn't spend all their time Playing instruments, and bluegrass musicians don't either. The instruments are a big part of the unmistakable sound, but the vocals are also an essential part of the equation. Harmonies are used, and they tend to feature anywhere between two to four parts. Much of the songs used have a traditional vibe, and gospel numbers are also performed.
Note that the bands tend to leave their louder instruments out of the mix during most gospel performances. The "high lonesome sound" is an incredibly accurate term that has been used to describe the vocal style. This term's emergence is credited to Shape-Note music, thanks to its nasal timbre-like high pitched harmony, which is sung over the main melody.
The bluegrass style has what is known as its mainstream genre. It has seen unmistakable changes since its inception, but it is still mostly the same thing. However, it's known for two different subgenres, which also have existed almost as long as the genre itself.
This version of the bluegrass genre, as you can imagine, is on the more traditional side of the spectrum. The purists prefer this type as it uses only the acoustic instruments they accept. There was a time when certain other instruments, such as mouth harps, harmonicas, and washboards, were accepted here, but that time has long passed, and the practice is no longer the case.
The songs played are of the traditional folk type, and they have simple chord progressions. The ways that the instrument players use their instruments is a bit on the unique side. For example, banjo playing is done in the claw-hammer style, or the band may use several guitars or fiddles. Apart from the gospel songs, the guitar is never typically the lead instrument of the pack. In other cases, it's no more than a rhythm element. The I-IV-V chord pattern is commonplace, and the lyrics and melodies are never too complex.
This subgenre started to gain attention in the 1960s to the 1970s, thanks to modifications made to the style as it was at the time. Rock and roll song imports were frequently imported, and electric instruments started to take center stage. Though people only took notice of it at that time, progressive bluegrass technically started many years earlier.
In the early days of the Foggy Mountain Boys and in listening to the bass and banjo duets performed by Earl Scruggs, listeners got a taste of what was to come. Earl performed some wild chord progressions that were not unlike those that today's progressive bluegrass subgenre is known for.
You can typically identify progressive bluegrass by the instrument choice (including the piano, drums, and electric instruments), imported songs from other genres, Jam-band style improv, and the wild chord progression.
Relationship Between Bluegrass and Country Music
Many people find it difficult to single out bluegrass, which often leads to their labeling it as traditional country music. Bluegrass' sound is unique because of the quick tempo and the high-energy sound that it has. The lead vocals tend to have a high-pitched tenor voice, with very tight harmonies. Mainstream country music is known for instruments, such as the fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar. However, the way the instruments in bluegrass are combined makes all the difference.
Nevertheless, bluegrass is technically a derivative of the country genre.