Bluegrass Music - the Evolution from Bluegrass to Newgrass
When people migrated to the United States as early as the 1600's they brought along their native music and instruments. These migrants were mostly from Ireland, Scotland, England and Africa although there were others were these seem to form the roots of what we refer to today as Bluegrass. They introduced folk and dance styles of songs played on fiddle, mandolin or bouzouki and banjo which were brought from Africa. As these immigrants began to spread out over the Eastern United States new songs were composed and reflected the farming, rural lifestyles they lived. This styling of music started to be known as "country music". Fiddle dance music was known as the "Devil's music" because people could not help but dance when played, seemingly possessed.
In the early 1900s with the invention of the phonograph and the advent of the radio, music in general quickly spread in popularity. The folk songs of the rural communities began to be broadcasted to the entire United States. Playing music around the house was a popular form of entertainment and a lot of the rural farmers, although never recorded, were very accomplished musicians. The radio stations would bring in a well known fiddler and have contests where locals would be judged against the ringer.
Live broadcasts over the radio made many artists and groups very popular in the early 1900s. Among them were Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers. Charlie and Bill Monroe traveled around the South doing radio shows with Charlie on guitar and Bill on Mandolin. In 1938 the brothers split up and Bill formed a band. The Monroes were from Rosine, Kentucky 'the bluegrass state' and Bill named the band "Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys". The name stuck and a new form of music was born simply called Bluegrass.
The major broadcaster of country music was a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee; WSM. WSM would broadcast live from the Ryman auditorium in Nashville and the gathering of country and bluegrass artist was called the Grand Ole Opry. In 1939 "Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys" made their first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. They quickly became very popular and were regulars on studio shows recorded at WSM.
Bill Monroe's style was a hard driving combination of folk music of the Southern Appalachians and blues played on traditional acoustic instruments merged with ever evolving vocal harmonies. A nickname for this type of sound became the "High and Lonesome" sound which Bill said he developed after hearing the hobos traveling by rail in his native Kentucky as they would holler and yodel while walking through the back country.
In 1945 a young innovative banjo stylist from North Carolina named Earl Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys and the rest they say is history. Earl used a three finger style of playing that completed the hard driving music of Bill Monroe and along with guitarist and singer Lester Flatt the Bluegrass Boys became one of the most popular bands ever to play the Opry circuit.
Flatt and Scruggs went on to form their own band known as the "Foggy Mountain Boys" and included in the lineup of instruments the Dobro. The dobro was a resophonic guitar that was developed by Slovakian immigrants the Dopyera Brothers. It is played horizontally with a slide as the strings are extended off the neck by a good two inches. In 1955 Josh Graves, who had developed a style of playing the Dobro with three fingers picking style similar to Scruggs, joined the Foggy Mountain Boys and stayed with the band until their eventual break up in 1969. Earl went on to form a band with his sons called the Earl Scruggs Review and still tours today. Lester Flatt went on to form "the Nashville Grass" which I had the pleasure of seeing in 1976 with a young mandolin player by the name of Marty Stuart now Grand Ole Opry member and star. Lester continued playing until his death in 1979.
Other notables from the golden age of bluegrass are the Stanley Brothers with Ralph Stanley, the Osbourne Brothers, Frank Wakefield and Red Smiley, the Lewis Family, Mac Wiseman, Doc and Merle Watson, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, the White Brothers, on and on. Bill Monroe continued to play with different lineups and his band became the proving ground for future great musicians such as Ricky Scaggs and Pete Rowan.
In the sixties fledgling rock musicians became interested in bluegrass and folk music styles. Among these fans and players were the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, etc. Out of this odd marriage came a young group of musicians which coined the term "Newgrass" called "the Newgrass Revival" which originally was Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and Ebo Walker quickly replaced by John Cowan. The Newgrass Revival later reformed with a young Bela Fleck on banjo and Pat Flynn on guitar along with Sam and John. Newgrass opened up the bluegrass genre to be mixed with others styles of music such as jazz, classical and Celtic. Noted innovators were and are David "Dawg" Grisman, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Tony Rice, Pete Rowan and the young ones keep coming.
Bluegrass music continues to evolve as an incredible form of music. Both accessible to the beginning musician with its two and three chord arrangements it can quickly become a complex styling that is as rich as any classical piece ever written. The music lives on through young musicians, local jams and the Bluegrass festival. It is very popular in other parts of the world such as Europe and Japan. It is rich both historically and musically. Bluegrass music reflects the meaning of the United States as being a melting pot of styles. It is fun, accessible and easy to play. Go on out and get you some!
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