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The History of Bluegrass Music

Updated on December 6, 2011

bluegrass, mountain music, and old time music

I grew up in a musical home. My dad had a great voice and played the guitar, and even though my mom couldn’t sing a lick or play any musical instruments, she loved listening to music. The strange thing was that my parents’ tastes were worlds apart when it came to music. Mom was always listening to classical music and opera, while Dad enjoyed bluegrass. Of course, as a kid, I was caught in the middle of the “war of the stereo.” On any given day, I might be exposed to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, and Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. It was an unusual musical existence, but looking back, I think I actually benefited from experiencing both ends of the spectrum.

upright bass
upright bass

Daddy was a huge fan of the Carter Family. I can still recall many of their songs, word for word. It’s not that I was paying attention on purpose – I hated the “wangy twangy” music and the mournful voices. I memorized the lyrics through osmosis because I was so often subjected to them. I liked Mom’s music a heck of a lot more, and when I started college at the age of seventeen, I found that my knowledge of classical music proved a big help in my music appreciation classes. As I grew older, however, I began to gravitate to bluegrass music more and more. I didn’t abandon my love for classical music or for other types of music. I enjoy a wide range of musical genres, including classical, show tunes, jazz, country, rock, pop, heavy metal, folk, Celtic, and bluegrass. There are even a couple of rap songs that I like.

My interest in bluegrass began in earnest years ago on a trip to the Appalachians in South Carolina. I befriended a family of bluegrass musicians there, and they performed a couple of impromptu concerts on the front porch of their farmhouse. After that, I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about the history of bluegrass, so I began to research.


Early history of bluegrass

Although Bluegrass is considered a form of American music, its first seeds came from the hills of Scotland and the green fields of England and Ireland. When the people of these regions began immigrating to America, they brought their customs and traditions with them, of course, including their music. Many of these folks wound up in the Appalachian Mountains, especially in the southern half of the range, including the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you listen closely to Celtic music and bluegrass music, you can’t help but notice the similarities. The immigrants’ instruments largely included the guitar, which had been used in Europe for several hundred years; the mandolin, which came to England, Ireland, and Scotland via Italy; the upright bass, a fifteenth century descendant; and the fiddle, which is a type of violin. The Dobro and the banjo were added later. Banjoes were introduced by African Americans, and the Dobro, a resonator guitar, was developed in 1928 by the Dopyera Brothers.

Basically, the earliest bluegrass music was a combination of old folk songs and mountain music. The traditional folk music themes and lyrics were often re-worked and set to new tunes. Of course, at the time, the term “bluegrass” hadn’t yet been invented, so the music was usually called “old-time music,” “hillbilly music,” or “mountain music.”

My favorite bluegrass song:

Another of my bluegrass favorites:

The Carter Family

My dad passed away in 2001, but if I were to write this without giving a nod to his beloved Carter Family, I’m sure he’d come back to haunt me. While the Carter Family wasn’t specifically a bluegrass group, their influence on bluegrass and country music can’t be ignored. Much of their music is considered to be folk music, but it had definite overtones of what would later be called “bluegrass.” The original group was made up of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter.

Hailing from the mountainous area of southwestern Virginia, the Carter Family is often thought of us the first stars of country music. They made their first recording in 1927, a 78 record that included “Poor Orphan Child” and “Wandering Boy.” Some of their most popular hits include “Wildwood Flower,” “Can the Circle be Unbroken,” “Wabash Cannonball,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

As I was listening to some of these old tunes the other night on Youtube, how I wished my father had been there to enjoy them with me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to internet music before his death. My brother has all Dad’s old records now, but I can relive some of my musical childhood memories through my computer.

"Wildwood Flower," by the original Carter Family:

Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe is known as “the father of bluegrass music.” Born in Kentucky in 1911, Monroe grew up in a musical family that often got together and played and sang. Since other members of the family already played the guitar and fiddle, Bill was taught to play the mandolin. Such “family bands” were fairly common in the Appalachians. Many of these people were largely cut off from the rest of the U.S. because of their isolation – both geographical and cultural. Music provided them with a form of entertainment and a way to express their emotions and tell their story.

Monroe’s family band broke up with the death of his mother, when Bill was only ten years old. He lived with several different relatives before finding a home with his uncle, Pen Vandiver. Vandiver was a fiddler and often played at dances, and Bill accompanied him on his mandolin. Monroe’s substitute father exposed him to many old-time songs and served as the inspiration for one of Monroe’s most famous songs, “Uncle Pen.”

When Bill turned eighteen, he and his brothers, Charlie and Birch, moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery. They had brought along their music, and they enlisted a friend, Larry Moore, and started a band. They called themselves the “Monroe Brothers,” and soon found gigs. After the other two band members went their separate ways, Bill and Charlie performed together as a duet. Beginning in 1934, they began performing live on radio stations that broadcasted to several states. In 1936, they landed a recording contract with RCA Victor.

By 1938, Bill and his brother broke up, and Bill formed another group in Arkansas, “The Kentuckians.” This group was short-lived, and Monroe soon moved to Georgia. In Atlanta, he formed a band that would ultimately leave an indelible mark on the music industry – the Blue Grass Boys. Eventually, the word “bluegrass” would come to define this specific type of old-time mountain music.

The original Blue Grass Boys landed a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, beginning in 1939. Until 1945, Monroe’s musical group consisted of a guitar, a bass, and a fiddle, along with Monroe’s playing the mandolin. He was still experimenting with a lot of different songs and sounds. That year, a new band member added a new instrument and another dimension – Earl Scruggs and his banjo joined the group. At this point, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Howard Watts, and Chubby Wise. Their musical talent was so impressive that the group is often referred to as “the original bluegrass band,” and by the 1950s, just about everyone was using the term “bluegrass” for this type of music.

Bill Monroe - "Uncle Pen"

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys - "Blue Moon of Kentucky"

Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs:

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs - "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"

Today's Bluegrass

Sometiems called "New Grass," bluegrass music is still alive and kicking. Some of the old tunes are performed by new groups, and new songs are written, also. Many popular country artists often have a bluegrass song or two in their repertoire, and even some rock bands occasionally turn to bluegrass. The interest in the genre was revitalized and broadened with the 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Bluegrass fans love hearing their favorite old time music performed live, and there are bluegrass music festivals all over the United States. These are often huge events, and some last for several days. With multi-day bluegrass festivals, attendees often bring their campers so that they can take full advantage of all the festivities.

One of the most popular bluegrass music festivals in the nation is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Held in Colorado each year, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival usually sells out months in advance. In addition to bluegrass music, guests can enjoy other types of music, as well. The 2012 Telluride Bluegrass Festival will take place June 21-24. In addition to practically nonstop musical performances, there are also song-writing contests, band contests, jam sessions, and workshops.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival - New Grass:

2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival:


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      Superbly written and abut a music I love. Thank you, Holle.

    • profile image

      Richard Harris 6 years ago

      I was working for the summer of 1963, after graduating university, at a boys' juvenile detention center, just outside Nashville. Got to go to the Grand Ol Opry a few times and, best of all, learned the guitar licks to "Wildwood Flower," from a fellow employee, an old timer at the detention center. I can still picture myself quietly picking my old acoustic, in a darkened dormitory, watching over young hoodlums as they slept. Thanks for this post and for stirring old memories.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Coolmon, thanks a bunch for reading!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      CMerritt, believe it or not, "Wildwood Flower" is the first song I learned to play, too!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Fudd, I wished you lived closer! I'd love to hear you play.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I enjoyed the videos and I enjoyed reading your article on the history of Blue Grass music, well done.

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 6 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      The first song I ever learned to play (about 35 years ago) on a guitar was "wildwood flower"....and to this day, that is about the only thing I can play.

      I love Bluegrass...

      This was a fun hub, and I enjoyed it very much.


    • profile image

      Cousin Fudd 6 years ago

      habee you've touched my heart strings. Love bluegrass and try to play guitar, banjo, fiddle, and would love to play a doghouse bass but "old arthur" has invade my fangers. Local jams are always good for pickers and grinners alike but we do have several festivals close to whet our appetites. Most folks think a G-string is a pair of women's panties and a G-run is a hole in them boy are they mistaken.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      I love Dusty, too!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Heck Yeah!!! Shame on me! I love Dusty!!!!!!!!!!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      I don't know those guys, but it sounds great to me! Doesn't 50caliber play? I can do rhythm guitar and vocals.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Do you know "Fiddleman?" He can play!!! Uncle Fudd is another one!

      I'm sure I'm forgetting a few right off hand, I bet that there's LOTS of talent in music here!

      Ari on staff is a classical guitarist!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Yep, Wesman, both those music genres are extremely demanding! We need to form an HP house band. lol

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas


      Gosh, I'd love to go to the Telluride Festival - there's also "Merle Fest" which is a huge one in North Carolina that is held each May.

      I don't know if it's still the biggest, but the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas - held each September - used to be the biggest of the festivals, and maybe it still is.

      I think I like the Bluegrass or even Classical music - simply because being some male or female model type ain't ever going to be enough to allow you to fake it! You've got to be a real musician to play in those genres!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Donna, many thanks for sharing this hub. As a Kentuckian, I'm sure you know bluegrass music well!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Random, always good to see you here!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Sis, that sounds like a plan! I've already told hubby that when he retires, we need to make a trip to Texas!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Mary, I sing - it was my mom who couldn't sing a lick! lol

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, drbj. I hope Dad gets a chance to read it in Heaven! lol

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      dahoglund, I got to experience that music from some home-grown mountain pickers, and it was amazing! Thanks for reading.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      Genna, bluegrass is certainly part of Americana. You're right about "Dueling Banjoes." I almost included it among the videos!

    • DonnaCosmato profile image

      Donna Cosmato 6 years ago from USA

      Awesome hub! As a native Kentuckian and niece of a Grand Ol' Opry musician, I was raised (like you) on bluegrass so this was a wonderful ramble down memory lane. These are all good songs you have showcased, but Rocky Top has always been my favorite. Voted up and sent to my Facebook fans so my mom and family can enjoy a virtual trip to the past as well.

    • randomcreative profile image

      Rose Clearfield 6 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      I agree with ktrapp. Well written! I love bluegrass music.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 6 years ago from Central Texas

      Loved the HUB Habee -- have been a bluegrass fan as long as I can remember -- like you, I pretty much like all music. One of my highly prized possessions is what's called "The Mother Maybelle Carter" banjo -- it was a gift I'll cherish always. I play both guitar and banjo but as to pride in instruments the Maybelle Banjo wins! We have a few good bluegrass festivals in my neck of the woods -- y'all come on down and we'll go! Best, Sis

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 6 years ago from Florida

      I can relate to ALL of this Hub! I grew up listening to the Grand old Opry, and all these great groups of singers and musicians! I loved it when you said you couldn't sing a lick! Goodnight.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      This is not just a beautiful and thorough tribute to bluegrass music, Holle, it is a MONUMENT! Well done, m'dear, your daddy would be proud!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Wwell done.The love of both country music and classical is not all that unusual.A friend of mine from high school days is very much a classical music listener.I was quite surprised to find he also was versed in country music because his mother used to listen to "grand Old Opry" on the radio every Saturday night.A mutual friend of ours is a retired teacher from the University of Wisconsin who has done documentaries on mountain music.He is the only musician of the three of us.So call it hillbilly, country, bluegrass or mountain music it is our national heritage. I remember my friend having some recordings of music done in the mountains that make commercial bluegrass seem tame.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      This wonderful and superbly written hub touched a tender note. I also grew up in a home filled with music. My parents taught us to value all forms of music…from classical to rock. Bluegrass is often an unsung gem in the music world. I loved your selections and so enjoyed listening to them. Many people don’t realize that “Dueling Banjos” of “Deliverance” -- a song they love -- belongs to the Bluegrass. Up and awesome!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 6 years ago from Georgia

      ktrapp, I agree. There really is nothing new under the sun! lol

      awordlover, thanks for visiting and commenting!

    • awordlover profile image

      awordlover 6 years ago

      beautifully written and illustrated. :-)

    • ktrapp profile image

      Kristin Trapp 6 years ago from Illinois

      Habee - I love how you intertwined your personal story with the history of bluegrass music. And now that you mention it, I do recognize the similarities between Bluegrass and Celtic music. I am sure if we take the time to notice, we probably could see the influence in many areas by early immigrants. ~voted up and interesting~


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