Styles & Forms | Bluegrass Music | Country
Unlike practically any other strain of indigenous American music, bluegrass can be traced back to a particular time and a particular group of men: Kentucky-born mandolin player/bandleader Bill Monroe and a select handful of musicians he gathered in his band, The Bluegrass Boys.
Monroe and the celebrated 1940s vintage line-up of The Bluegrass Boys first transformed traditional acoustic guitar-fiddle-bass-fiddle country string band music into something fresh, exciting and revolutionary in its innovation. They did this by kicking it into a higher gear and giving it a driving, syncopated beat along with close, high-pitched, ‘highlonesome’ lead and harmony vocals on favourites like ‘Uncle Pen’, ‘Muleskinner Blues’ and ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. Monroe also elevated the mandolin from a rhythmic to a fully fledged lead instrument. Earl Scruggs essentially did the same with the five-string banjo.
The Grass Is Always Bluer
The music that Monroe and a handful of his talented contemporaries forged more than half a century ago has not only endured, but has also enjoyed renewed popularity in recent decades. In fact, one of the most acclaimed and best-selling country albums of the new millennium, despite getting practically no airplay on country stations, is the soundtrack from the 2000 feature film O Brother, Where Art Thou? A quirky, dark comedy directed by the Coen Brothers, O Brother transferred a Homeric epic to a rural 1930s setting. Its rich soundtrack featured vintage bluegrass by veterans such as Ralph Stanley, as well as old-time country and gospel music by an imaginative line-up of popular and obscure musicians, and contemporary newgrass and alt. country figures like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. The soundtrack sold several million copies, won five Grammy Awards and sparked yet another revival in rural musical Americana.
It was the stellar 1945–48 line-up of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys – Earl Scruggs on five-string banjo and vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater and Monroe himself on mandolin – that deserves the lion’s share of credit for forging this intricate, high-energy musical hybrid from its more traditional antecedents. To this day the seminal late- and mid-1940s Bluegrass Boys recordings serve as the template, and the Holy Grail, of the traditional bluegrass sound.
Tennessee-born Flatt and North Carolina-born Scruggs, a pair of former textile mill workers, left The Bluegrass Boys in 1948 and formed their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. This new ensemble would play nearly as central a role as Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in further defining the bluegrass spirit and style. With his intricate three-finger banjo style, Scruggs elevated the banjo from a traditional rhythmic role to a lead instrument as crucial to bluegrass’s soul as Monroe’s kinetic mandolin style. The Foggy Mountain Boys also imbued their bluegrass sound with smoother lead vocals while adding a second guitar and speeding the rhythm up even more, with an emphasis on Scruggs’s intricate breakneck speed banjo playing. In...
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