A Brief History of Bluegrass Music

William Smith "Bill" Monroe, with photo credit to Tennessee Arts Commission

William Smith “Bill” Monroe

The origin of bluegrass music can be traced to the people who came to America in the 1600s from Ireland, Scotland, and England and brought with them basic styles of music that are generally considered to be the roots of modern bluegrass music.  As the settlers began to move out into North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, they wrote songs about daily life in the new land.  Since most of these people lived in remote areas, many of the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills.  This music was often referred to as country, hillbilly, or mountain music.  Its development included the blending of elements from gospel music and the blues music that was prominent among people of African origin who lived in the Mississippi Delta region.  The invention of the phonograph and the onset of radio in the early-to-mid 1900s brought this music out of the hills and into the homes of people all over the United States.

Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen Vandiver

Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen Vandiver

Bill Monroe, a native of Rosine, Kentucky born on Sept. 13, 1911, is generally considered the “father of bluegrass music.”  Bill grew up working and playing music with his siblings on the family farm (known as Jerusalem Ridge) in the early 1900s.  His musical foundation was shaped by the singing and fiddle playing of his mother Malissa (Vandiver) Monroe, the fiddling of his uncle Pen Vandiver, and the fiddling and guitar playing of his friend Arnold Shultz, a popular black musician who played extensively around Rosine.  Schultz was the son of a former slave who developed a thumb-style method of guitar playing that evolved into the style for which Doc Watson and Merle Travis were known and who was fondly credited as an influence by Monroe. 

Arnold Shultz, early musical influence on Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie left the family farm after they became adults and moved to Chicago to work and eventually they formed a band known as the Monroe Brothers.  The band became one of the most popular acts of the 1930s.  Charlie played guitar, Bill played mandolin, and they sang in harmony.  When the brothers split in 1938, both went on to form their own bands.  Bill eventually adopted the name “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys” for his band.  This band started a new form of “traditional” country music.

Bill and his band first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1939 and soon became one of the most popular touring acts to emerge from Nashville’s WSM studios.  Bill’s band was different from other traditional country bands because of its hard-driving and powerful sound that used acoustic instruments and featured distinctively high vocal harmonies.  Bill’s music incorporated songs and rhythms from string band, gospel (black and white), black laborer work song, country, and blues music repertoires.  Vocal selections included duet, trio, and quartet harmony singing in addition to Bill’s powerful “high lonesome” lead singing.  After experimenting with various instrumental combinations, Bill settled on mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bass for the core of his band.

While some bluegrass fans date the genre to 1939 when Monroe first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, most believe that the classic bluegrass sound came together in December 1945 when Earl Scruggs joined the band.  Scruggs, a 21-year-old from North Carolina, played an innovative three-finger picking style on the banjo (which came to be known as “Scruggs style”) with such drive and clarity that it energized and excited audiences.  Equally influential in the classic 1945 line-up of the Blue Grass Boys were Lester Flatt (of Sparta, Tennessee) on guitar and lead vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle; and Howard Watts, also known by his comedian name “Cedric Rainwater,” on the upright bass.

Birth of Bluegrass sign by the Tennessee Historical Commission at the Ryman Auditorium

Birth of Bluegrass sign by the Tennessee Historical Commission at the Ryman Auditorium

When Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt formed their own group, The Foggy Mountain Boys, they decided to include sound of the resophonic guitar, or “Dobro,” into their band.  The Dobro is often included in bluegrass band formats today as a result.  Burkett H. “Uncle Josh” Graves, from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, heard Scruggs’ three-finger style of banjo picking in 1949 and adapted it to the then almost obscure slide bar instrument. As a member of the Foggy Mountain Boys from 1955-1969, Graves introduced his widely emulated, driving, bluesy style on the Dobro. The Dobro was invented in the United States by the Dopyera Brothers, immigrant musicians/inventors originally from the Slovak Republic.  The brand name, “Dobro,” comes from a combination of the first few letters of the words “Dopyera Brothers.”

From 1948-1969, the Flatt & Scruggs band was a major force in introducing bluegrass music to America through national television, radio, and appearances at schoolhouses, coliseums, and major universities around the country.  Scruggs wrote and recorded one of bluegrass music’s most famous instrumentals, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used in the soundtrack for the film Bonnie & Clyde.  In 1969 he established an innovative solo career with his sons as “The Earl Scruggs Revue.” Scruggs recorded and performed in groups that usually included his sons Randy (on guitar) and Gary (on bass) until his death in 2012.  After parting with Scruggs in 1969, Lester Flatt continued successfully with his own group, “The Nashville Grass,” performing until shortly before his death in 1979.  By the 1950s, Monroe began referring to his style of music as “bluegrass music”, based on his Kentucky roots, and others followed along.  Bluegrass bands began forming all over the country and Bill Monroe became the acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass Music.”

A Brief History of Bluegrass Music

Bill Monroe’s restored childhood home on Jerusalem Ridge in Rosine, Kentucky

In the 1960s, the concept of the “bluegrass festival” was first introduced, featuring bands on the same bill that had previously seemed to be in competition with each other for a relatively limited audience. Carlton Haney, from Reidsville, North Carolina is credited with envisioning and producing the first weekend-long bluegrass music festival, which was held in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965.

The availability of traditional music broadcasting and recording, nationwide bluegrass festivals, and movie, television, and commercial soundtracks featuring bluegrass music have helped to bring the music out of obscurity.  Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys achieved national prominence with tour sponsorship by Martha White Flour and for playing the soundtrack for the previously mentioned film Bonnie and Clyde as well as through the Beverly Hillbillies television show. 

The soundtrack to the movie Deliverance also featured bluegrass music, specifically Dueling Banjos, performed by Eric Weissberg on banjo and Steve Mandell on guitar. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken triple LP set, released in 1972, introduced artists like Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and others to pop music fans and brought the authentic sounds of bluegrass and traditional country music to new audiences.  In 2001, the triple-platinum soundtrack for the Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, helped to attract even wider audiences to bluegrass music.

Bill Monroe passed away on September 9, 1996, four days before his 85th birthday. In May 1997, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of the profound influence of his style on popular music.  He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.  A picture of Bill’s childhood home in Rosine, which has been restored and is open for touring, appears above.  Bill’s uncle Pen, for whom he named a well-known bluegrass song, appears with a fiddle in the picture above.

Bluegrass music is now performed and enjoyed around the world.  The International Bluegrass Music Association claims members in all 50 states and 30 countries.  In addition to the classic style born in 1945 that is still performed widely, bluegrass bands today reflect influences from a variety of sources including the blues, traditional and fusion jazz, contemporary country music, Celtic music, rock & roll (“newgrass” or progressive bluegrass), old-time music, and Southern gospel music.

Portions of this history are courtesy of International Bluegrass Music Association, the International Bluegrass Music Museum, and Alan W. Tompkins.  More information about the history of bluegrass music can be obtained at Wikipedia.com and from a number of excellent books, including:

Rosenberg, Neil V.  Bluegrass: A History, 20th Anniversary Ed., Univ. of Illinois Press, Ann. ed., 2005.

Smith, Richard.  Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, Da Capo Press, 2001. 

Harris, Craig.  Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music, Pelican Publishing, 2018.

Ewing, Tom.  Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2018.

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