Bluegrass Music Appreciation

Here's a look at the history and contemporary status of bluegrass music by a folk musician and bluegrass music fan.

| September/October 1981

  • bluegrass music - Marc Bristol
    Down-home musician Marc Bristol sings and strums a tune at a local Bluegrass music festival.

  • bluegrass music - Marc Bristol

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That's what this column is about. Homegrown music... and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.

Bluegrass Music: The Bright Experiment

Back in the 60's I became really excited by the theme music for the (otherwise somewhat moronic) television program The Beverly Hillbillies. The bright, new sound that caught my ear came from the banjo of bluegrasser Earl Scruggs. His picking style impressed many other people, too, and by the time Earl had done the theme music for the movie Bonnie and Clyde (in 1967), nearly everyone had heard of bluegrass and knew that it was uptempo, acoustic country music featuring a lot of sparkling banjo and fiddle work.

The roots of this invigorating style go all the way back to old-time string band music. However, it was Kentuckian Bill Monroe (born in 1911) who developed and defined the special sound of bluegrass, and gave the music its name.

Bill started his career by playing backup guitar at local dances with his uncle, fiddler Pen Vandever (later to be immortalized in some of Bill's best-known songs), who exerted a strong influence on the young man's style. Then, in the 30's, when Bill and his brother Charlie landed a radio job as a singing duo (with Charlie on guitar and Bill on mandolin), they evolved the vocal style that's the soul of bluegrass.

After the brothers drifted apart, Monroe put together a group he called the Bluegrass Boys, and began to fine-tune his distinctive sound. It wasn't until the late 40's, however, when he hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, that the banjo assumed its position of importance in the genre. Earl's driving, three-finger picking technique was new and exciting, and his banjo style soon became the instrumental trademark of bluegrass music.

Lester and Earl eventually got tired of being on the road with Bill and broke off to form their own act, the Foggy Mountain Boys, but by then the bluegrass sound had been defined. To this day, the banjo players in Bill's band pick in a style similar to the one Earl created.


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