A Quick and Useless History of Bluegrass

In the world of country/bluegrass, there was a time when Bill Monroe’s music was new and radical:

Slowly, it started to sound typical. Some of the big “original” names of bluegrass were born out of players coming and going from Bill’s “Blue Grass Boys” band: Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers, etc. They all kinda got the sound from Bill then did their own thing. They didn’t even call it bluegrass right away since it was so new (“hillbilly music” was more common β€” don’t hate it). This is some 1940’s stuff. The apples didn’t fall that far from the tree.

By the 50’s and 60’s, there were bands already really stretching the sound to new places. Bands like The Country Gentlemen came along and, while they pay homage to bluegrass roots, were the new radical:

That song above was actually early 70’s. They were doing Beatles covers, for example. Bands like Hot Rize (swing! boogie!) and Seldom Scene (stage banter! early “jamming”!) came along that were even more willing to push the sound, while still being pretty rooted in the instrumentation and honoring the history. So many of these bands share musicians, like John Duffey coming from the Country Gentlemen to Seldom Scene).

Today, Seldom Scene kinda just sounds like “traditional bluegrass,” especially if you don’t listen to a lot of this stuff. That three-finger banjo sound just does that. Once things got different enough, as in pulling more songs from more genres, using instruments like an electric bass and drums, more unusual improvisation, etc, they started calling it Newgrass. Sam Bush was kind of a frontman for that movement. Here’s them shouting out to John Hartford (who always just kinda did his own thing) and incorporating a dobro, which is pretty darn bluegrassy today:

Perhaps the next major stretching of genre was bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and String Cheese Incident who do some pretty out-there stuff but still pull from bluegrass roots at least a little with some of the instruments and sound, but more at home at jam band festivals.

Unless a band is very specifically trying to replicate the old sound, I’m not sure there is “bluegrass” anymore. Even bands that will literally go on stage in 2022 and thank Bill Monroe and try to emulate whatever authentic bluegrass is, will sound modern and clean, and the temptation to allow influence from the last half-century is too much to ignore.

I don’t know what we’ll think of the 2020’s bluegrass. Like I said it’s probably just not really a thing unless you’re particularly trying to emulate it. I think of Trampled by Turtles, Punch Brothers, Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, and Old Crow Medicine Show as drops in the river of music that started at the bubbling brook of bluegrass, but now weave and wind all over the place, musically. BΓ©la Fleck has stretched the banjo about as far as is possible, and is currently on tour with a wide variety of musicians back under the bluegrass banner often with fresh younger players like Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle.

For every band I’ve mentioned, there are 20 more in close proximity, and I’ve intentionally tried to avoid other related genre trajectories (country, old time, etc).

2 responses to “A Quick and Useless History of Bluegrass”

  1. Matt says:

    Nice summary there of a history of bluegrass using a few snippets of music. I really cannot claim to know anything about bluegrass at all, but having heard the Punch Bros snippet the main thing that to me defined the era as opposed to what Seldom Scene were doing was the singers voice which is similar to a lot of, “The (insert rest of band name here)” style of singing at moment as well as the use of modern production techniques of course.

  2. Josh Green says:

    Hey Chris I found this really nice Banjo song and I was wondering, firstly if this was kinda like the stuff you play and secondly is this proper Bluegrass? Here is the Youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0myIB1Fh6Ts

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