A genre of country music
, featuring polyphonic vocal
music played on acoustic
instruments, based on Appalachian
music (originally brought from the British Isles
) and refined by additions of African-American
and urban music
. Bluegrass is a 20th century
invention, a "re-authentication" of traditional
music, combining old-time hillbilly
music (influenced by blues
, and gospel
), Appalachian ballad
s, and Southern
A bluegrass band typically consists of a five-string banjo and guitar, together with a fiddle. Other common instruments: mandolin, string bass, and dobro. Guitar and string bass have mainly rhythmic roles, while the others play melody and provide backup for the vocalists. Instrumental songs feature alternating solos between the lead instruments with the rhythm section setting the tempo. Contrary to what you might hear around bluegrass gatherings, the music has always depended on the microphone and electric amplification (see Bill Monroe, below).
Harmony is an important dimension of bluegrass singing. There's a high-pitched style of singing for the lead, plus a chorus to sing harmony. The preferred vocal tone, often described as piercing, during the sixties came to be called the "high lonesome sound." In a duet, the second tenor part is sung above the melody; trios usually add a baritone part below the melody. In trios, the tenor and baritone parts may be rearranged so that the melody is the lowest or highest part. Many bluegrass bands specialize in a capella harmony singing on gospel tunes.
The music is named after Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, a hillbilly string band, who
played what Monroe called the old southern sound. Monroe took the old-time music, raised the
standard keys, sped up the tempo, added a swing rhythm to it. Fans argue over the date bluegrass music began, whether it was 1938, when Monroe signed to Victor records; October 1939, when Monroe was hired at the Grand Ole Opry; 1940, when Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys cut their first record; or 1946, when the driving three-fingered banjo playing of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt's guitar and vocals created Monroe's signature sound we now call bluegrass.
Bluegrass music has very specific themes, including sentimental songs of the 19th century; songs of lost love and broken hearts; murder ballads; breakdown tunes; songs of home, mother, and dad; songs portraying hard times; songs of rascals, rounders and wild women; and gospel (songs of Christian faith). You can play most any song in the bluegrass style (as noted by available CD collections featuring bluegrass covers the songs of Tom Petty, AC/DC, the Beatles, and Radiohead), but as Garrison Keillor has demonstrated on A Prairie Home Companion to great comic effect, Broadway show tunes, Motown covers, and pop hits of the 80's just sound wrong.
A 1997 survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau for the NEA, identified bluegrass as the tenth most popular music form in the United States, less than four percentage points behind Classical music, despite the absolute minimum exposure the music gets on radio or television. A similar 1992 report estimated that 53.9 million people or 29.5% of Americans over 18 years old enjoyed listening to bluegrass music. In 2008, the NEA survey determined that 15.2% of the U.S. adult population liked bluegrass, about 46 million people.
Don DePoy's 1997 dissertation, Cultural Context of Bluegrass Music.
National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2009.