Commonly thought to be one of the most “American” of musical styles, bluegrass – like most other things created and perfected in our great country – actually has international roots. Back in the 1600s, when Irish, Scottish and English immigrants settled in what is now the United States, they brought with them the roots of bluegrass – but, of course, much has changed since then.
Long before it became what it is today, bluegrass was the music written and sung by early Jamestown settlers as they moved out to places like Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the Carolinas. These songs reflected life on the farm or in the Appalachians, and were aptly referred to as “mountain music” or country music.” And while the first of these songs most likely sounded similar to English and Scottish ballads or dance music, they evolved over time to incorporate elements of African-American jazz and other regional influences.
While bluegrass music varies, you will see some permeating themes. For one, the genre relies heavily on the fiddle. Also, typically, each instrument or group of instruments takes a turn at some point during the song to improvise around the melody while the other instruments play accompaniment. This is especially prevalent in tunes called “breakdowns,” characterized by rapid tempos and complex chord changes, and the practice is only one thing that the genre adopted from jazz. It is also something that first set bluegrass apart from old-time music, in which all of the instruments play the melody together from start to finish or one instrument carries the lead throughout.
The practice of taking turns to improvise in a song instills in bluegrass a sense of playfulness and informality – and to this day, bluegrass is the unofficial music of backyard cookouts, block parties and summertime celebrations in large parts of the country.
While it can easily all sound the same to the uninitiated, bluegrass actually contains three major subgenres: There is traditional bluegrass, which features a lot of folk songs, simple chord progressions and only acoustic instruments; progressive bluegrass, which may incorporate electric instruments and elements of other genres, especially rock and roll; and bluegrass gospel, which uses a lot of Christian lyrics and soulful, multi-part harmonies. More recently, the subgenre of neo-traditional bluegrass has also been on the rise; one main differentiator here is that neo-traditional bands tend to have more than one lead singer.
But how to distinguish bluegrass as a whole from country music? To be sure, there are similarities. However, unlike mainstream country, bluegrass is traditional played only on acoustic instruments – including the fiddle, the five-string banjo, the guitar, the mandolin, the upright bass, and the dobro. Each of these instruments is also played in a distinct way; for example, the guitar is played in the style of flatpicking, and fiddlers frequently play in thirds and fifths. Additionally, bluegrass bassists almost always play pizzicato and sometimes “slap-style” to accentuate the beat. While some progressive bluegrass bands incorporate instruments like the accordion or the drums, traditionalists believe that the “correct” bluegrass instrumentation is that used by Bill Monroe’s band: manolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass. That’s it.
Another way to tell that a song is, in fact, bluegrass instead of another style of country music is to examine the vocal harmony. It will likely feature two, three or four parts, and probably dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice. This creates the “high, lonesome sound” that Bill Monroe once described as a characteristic of his beloved genre.
Common themes in bluegrass revolve around everyday life, with narratives oftentimes sounding like the Appalachian answer to the blues. Songs describe the hard work of mountaintop coal mining and railroading, the perils and pitfalls of living with little cash, and inter-personal relationships. And the name? Well, that comes from the blue-hued poa grass famously found in and around Kentucky – or The Bluegrass State.
If you’re interested to learn more about bluegrass and its subgenres, visit the website for the International Bluegrass Music Association – and, of course, keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we continue to bring you news and updates from the American music scene.