'If you're a fan of the Blues or Cajun music, you're sure to love our Bluegrass Jam'
> The above is how the Liverpool pub where I play describe our jam session. As statements go it is not the most mendaciously misleading of all time, but somehow it seems to me to highlight a problem that the music I love has in the popular mind: namely a considerable degree of confusion about what on earth it is. Take the delightful request yelled at pretty much every other jam we play at over here: 'Play something fucking Irish!' Incidentally, before I go any further I must warn you that I am neither an approved nor certified expert on this subject. In the few short years that I have had any idea at all about what Bluegrass music may be, I have cheerfully absorbed the opinions and prejudices of others better versed in the subject than myself. Factual errors herein are all my own. And all bias, particularly on the subject of the extremely talented Alison Krauss, is entirely my own too. Please feel free to correct any such errors and distortions, to nitpick over minor inaccuracies.
The genesis of this piece is that I wrote to a friend - who had sent me Norm's post on Mr Bill Monroe - pointing out that Monroe may be the Father of Bluegrass Music, but Jimmy Martin is the King. Definitions of musical genre (or genre in fiction or film, and I suppose any other artistic form) can never be entirely rigid: but they are useful especially for the newcomer who has heard something they like and who wishes to hear some more. They also allow for the never-ending diversion of arguing about what does or does not constitute the beloved thing, and indeed for bloody feuds and bitter rivalries. My own first exposure to the music was a British 'Bluegrass' compilation of Monroe, Doc Watson (hmm), Merle Travis (?) and Hank Snow(?!?!). All great music, sure, but some of it somewhat stretching even the most broadly defined limits of the genre.
> In 1945 a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs, who picked in a revolutionary 3-finger style, joined one of the Grand Ole Opry's most popular traditional country music bands: Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Although the term Bluegrass wasn't applied until more than ten years later, for many fans this was the birth of that unique musical form.
Bill Monroe played the traditional songs from the repertoire of southern Appalachian musicians, and he also played new songs that sounded like they were songs from that tradition, songs with what Pete Rowan remembered Monroe calling 'ancient tones'. He was a traditionalist and an innovator in equal measures, a unique talent; and perhaps this is why Bluegrass is known as the only American musical genre to have a sole and undisputed progenitor. There were plenty of other bands that played similar music - sometimes called old time string bands, and sometimes called hillbilly bands, a term Monroe found offensive. Many such bands would perform in tattered overalls wearing cross-eyed make-up and battered hats. Monroe had his band dress like Kentucky gentlemen, wearing jodhpurs and stetsons. The name of his band reflects this image, and honours Monroe's home state of Kentucky, 'The Bluegrass State'. Here we get another source of confusion from the music's name: the Bluegrass region is a region of rich grasslands, where Kentucky racehorses are bred; whereas the musical tradition that Monroe's music comes from really belongs to the mountainous part of the state and neighbouring Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. 'Blueridge' music maybe would have been a more appropriate term, but Bluegrass better reflects Monroe's idiosyncrasies. Whether or not there was any intention to do so, the term also unfailingly suggests the Blues, which Monroe was certainly influenced by. He was conscious of filling his mandolin playing with 'blue notes' and was always proud to recognize one of his earliest musical mentors, the black musician Arnold Schultz.
Bill Monroe insisted on performing only with acoustic instruments and without percussion. The main difference between him and, say, Hank Williams was that Hank used a pedal steel guitarist. Otherwise Hank too eschewed drums and based his music, just as Bill did, primarily on country fiddle playing. Monroe's line-up would be mandolin, double bass, fiddle, banjo and rhythm guitar (sometimes playing lead). These became the standard Bluegrass instruments. After Flatt and Scruggs abandoned Bill to start their own highly successful band, they also added the Dobro, an acoustic slide guitar to compete with the pedal steel in country music; but I don't believe Monroe (an extremely proud man) ever had a dobroist in his band (please correct me here, anyone, if you know better). Let me emphasize one extremely un-hillbillyish factor in Monroe's instrumentation: that the instruments themselves were of orchestral quality and they needed to be to get the requisite sound. Monroe paid $500 for his mandolin way back in the 1930s; it was a special mandolin built by Gibson at the beginning of the century, and was specifically aimed at a (vanishing) orchestral market. Similarly, Scruggs's Gibson Mastertone banjo was a model built on innovations designed to allow the banjo to be heard over a full jazz orchestra. But the substitution of the banjo by the electric guitar in jazz meant that there were a lot of these monsters floating around. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s Bluegrass banjoists would buy up old Gibson tenor banjos, rip the old (four string) necks off and replace them with a 5-string neck. Why not ask a trad jazz banjoist of your acquaintance what they think of this practice?
The irrefutable existence of Bluegrass as a musical form commences when other bands begin imitating Monroe's music. Every player has a style, but when someone else starts doing it your way then it becomes a Style. The first to follow directly in Monroe's footsteps were the Stanley Brothers. Hats off here, ladies and gentlemen, to Dr Ralph Stanley (now of O Brother, Where Art Thou fame) who has been playing and touring continuously ever since. An example to all these young whipper-snappers who bellyache about doing a three-month tour. At first Monroe was deeply offended that his music had been, as he saw it, ripped off, but he reached reconciliation with the Stanley Brothers before too long - although it really wasn't until the 60s that he was able to see the competitors as fellow-travellers in a musical tradition he had founded. The bitter blow for Monroe came in 1948 when his guitarist and lead singer Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs both left the band and then (by sheer coincidence as they insisted ever after) started their own Bluegrass band whose commercial success eclipsed Monroe's for many years. It is here, according to the researches of folk historian Neil Rosenberg, that we find the origin of the term Bluegrass to refer to Monroe's music. Fans at Lester and Earl's shows would request some of those 'good old Blue Grass songs', to refer to their time with Monroe without mentioning the rival by name. This brings us neatly on to the particular relevance of its fandom to Bluegrass music - a subject which, having arrived at, I will entirely omit!
Monroe was a hard taskmaster, and then some. His band had to tour constantly, driving maybe hundreds of miles each day, along backcountry roads all over the South, playing at venues as modest as school halls and then returning to Nashville for the weekly Grand Ole Opry show. What some musicians found particularly difficult to accept was that when there were no gigs, Monroe would set his band to work on his farm - ploughing, sowing and in all probability breaking rocks. One musician, whose name escapes me, outlined his particular objection to this usage: 'My family were farmers - if I wanted to farm I would have stayed at home.' Unsurprisingly and in spite of the great prestige of being in the band of an Opry star, the turnover in Monroe's band was pretty high, with few players lasting more than a couple of years. I take the hard-assed bastard of a band leader to be one of the most crucial though underplayed elements in the shaping of Bluegrass music - a subject that I would be very happy to return to at great length. Bluegrass is a musical style full of 'drive', and so yes, the band leaders drove their players. A result of the high turnover, though, was that bands like Monroe's and later, even more demandingly, that of Jimmy Martin (formerly a Bluegrass Boy himself) acted like musical colleges, turning out a steady stream of (sometimes rather embittered) alumni who went on to form, or provide backbone to, yet more bands. Again, this is somewhere I think today's lily-livered young bands could pick up a trick or two. I also think it defies the Rock n' Roll tradition of the 'original line-up', which is usually more about personality than musicality.
It was 1963 before the first non-southerner joined Monroe's band - Bill Keith of Massachusetts, whose innovative 'melodic' style of banjo playing was the first major innovation in Bluegrass banjo since Earl first picked with Bill 20 years earlier. It seems that the fact that young Northerners and city kids were learning his music, and from his traditions, helped Monroe come to accept his role as the Father of Bluegrass. It resulted in some truly memorable music, particularly one of Monroe's own favourites, the 'Walls of Time', written with the young Pete Rowan, an East Coast city kid whose voice had all the power of the 'high and lonesome' mountain singers. And of course Newgrass started around this time, played by hippies and West Coast crazies, and making good use of the hitherto neglected 'grass' side of the music. Well, there may be more to it than that. We find that when Lester Flatt split with Earl Scruggs, unhappy over the musical direction in which Earl and his sons were taking their band (Dylan covers, drums and electric basses), he suspected Earl and the boys of smoking the green stuff. Curiously, though, he named his new band 'The Nashville Grass'. His material was merrily conservative, entirely unrelated to Newgrass, and included such classic hippy-bashing tunes as 'I Can't Tell The Girls From The Boys'.
A brief dictionary-friendly definition to finish. Bluegrass music is music in the tradition of Bill Monroe, music primarily of the southern Appalachian region - music that has elements of the traditional fiddle tunes and murder ballads of the British Isles and Ireland, very strongly influenced by the music and rhythms of black American musicians. It is a style traditionally played on acoustic stringed instruments, which grew from music played for dancing, but which in the early years of radio was cranked up to astound and entertain. It has been called Hillbilly Jazz - referring to the emphasis on improvisation in the 'breaks' taken by lead musicians on fiddle, banjo and mandolin.
Listen to: Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, JD Crowe and the New South, the Country Gentlemen.
See: Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Karl Shifflet and the Big Country Show, Rhonda Vincent.
'That ain't Bluegrass': Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Eminem.