by Alex Cosper (12/15/12)
Bluegrass has become a subgenre of country music, yet its origins come from many influences outside of today's country music. Geographically, bluegrass has its roots in the Appalachian Mountains that covers the center of the country music industry, Nashville. Tennessee and Kentucky make up the home of where the music blossomed. Bluegrass music was partially inspired by African musicians who brought the banjo to America in the 19th century. Other influences come from European cultures as well as American jazz artists. The folk sound of bluesgrass traces back to the English and Irish immigrants who brought their traditions to the Appalachians in the 1700s.
Ballads and spirited dance songs played on fiddle from England, Scotland and Ireland formed a huge body of traditional music in the region. A lot of these songs were upbeat instrumentals played on fiddle and bagpipes. Popular traditional bluegrass songs include "Cuckoo Bird," Pretty Polly" and "Cumberland Gap." One of the all time most popular bluegrass songs is "Orange Blossom Special," written by Ervin T. Rouse in 1938. The song was featured in the 1979 film Urban Cowboy and was covered by Gilley's "Urban Cowboy" Band. It's considered an anthem for fast-playing fiddle players, who simply call it "The Special." The influence of bluegrass was also felt in music by Chet Atkins, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and Bela Fleck.
One of the earliest American pop stars to influence a national audience with country/bluegrass music was bandleader Bill Monroe (1911-1996) in the 1920s. Monroe is considered by many music historians to be the "Father of Bluegrass" as a songwriter and singer. He rose to popularity on Chicago radio station WLS from 1929 to 1934 with a country music show called "Barn Dance." A few years later he was signed to Victor and later on Columbia. Monroe was an instant success on country stations with the song "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul." Monroe went on to be a regular star on the Grand Ole Opry radio show starting in 1939. His biggest hit was the top three country song "Kentucky Waltz" in 1946. Other nationally known bluegrass artists by that point were Jimmie Rodgers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who joined Monroe's band in 1945.
One of the most famous bluegrass instrumental songs of all time has been "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," written by Earl Scruggs. He recorded this banjo standard with the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1949. The song was re-released and re-recorded in 1968 after being featured in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. The song's fast tempo, rhythm and picking style make it a very challenging song to learn and has become a barometer of advanced musicianship on both banjo and fiddle.
A musical characteristic of live performances of bluegrass is shifting solo instruments, similar to live jazz. Many times musicians will improvise when it's their turn to play a solo. The music is by no means simple like common folk songs. Bluegrass at its finest, like classical or jazz, covers a wide terrain of complex chords and high speed dynamic musicianship. While contemporary country music has integrated highly produced synthesizers, bluegrass is firmly based on acoustic instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and harmonica. Banjo and guitar players tend to use fingerpicking. Vocals tend to use multiple harmonies and lyrics deal with everyday life and gospel themes. One of the elements that lures people into bluegrass music is its honest, friendly communal sound.
Bluegrass is still very popular around the nation at bluegrass festivals and on public and college radio stations. Country artists who have used elements of its bluegrass traditions include Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.