Monthly Archives: January 2015

So What is Bluegrass?

Hello, and welcome to my blog!

Before I attempt to define bluegrass, let’s turn to the experts to get a rough idea of what bluegrass is. Folklorist and author of Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg, characterizes bluegrass first through its technical aspects, focusing on the use of acoustic instruments and the “mastery of virtuoso instrumental techniques (such as Earl Scruggs’ banjo style) executed at rapid tempos.” Other defining aspects of the music according to Rosenberg, include its historical origins and its ability to spread beyond the southeast as “an American cultural export.”

The Oxford dictionary is far less detailed in the historical area, but does a good job of describing the style of the music in a succinct manner:

“A type of country music played on acoustic stringed instruments, typically with emphasis on the banjo, fiddle, or mandolin, and characterized by a quick tempo and high-pitched vocal harmonies.”

In his “An Introduction to Bluegrass,” the first scholarly work on the subject, Mayne Smith took great care to define the genre:

“The word bluegrass has been used since about 1950 by musicians and disc jockeys to designate a style of hillbilly music performed by bands which most commonly include bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin.”

-Mayne Smith, An Introduction to Bluegrass

Through a systematic deconstruction of sound and composition, Smith goes on to state the three most important “distinguishing characteristics of bluegrass:”

  1. “Bluegrass bands are made up of from four to seven male musicians who play non-electrified stringed instruments and who also sing as many as four parts.”
  2. “The integration of these instruments and voices in performance is more formalized and jazz-like than that encountered in earlier string band styles…”
  3. “Building on earlier string band styles, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys played the first bluegrass music in 1945… Every bluegrass band includes a banjo played in ‘Scruggs Style’ or some derivative thereof.”

The “Scruggs style” mentioned by Smith is the unique instrumentation attributed to Earl Scruggs, the banjo player for Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Smith, and the bluegrass community at large, trace the genre’s origins to this iconic group of performers.

It’s funny, then, that the “Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe himself, reportedly took offense to Smith’s classification, calling his piece and his definition of bluegrass “damn lies” (Rosenberg 10). It is possible to attribute Monroe’s stance to Smith’s glossing over of the six years’ worth of performances by the Blue Grass Boys before Earl Scruggs joined. On the other hand, the Scruggs style remains an important identifier of bluegrass to this day. To ignore Scruggs’ banjo would be to leave out arguably the most widely recognized piece of the sound.

What this really boils down to is a question of ownership and the power that definition has in determining ownership. Was it up to Mayne Smith to define bluegrass, to decide what characteristics had to combine to be included? For that matter, was it up to Bill Monroe to define the genre, or by that time had bluegrass already grown beyond his ownership and the band’s personal style? If Della Mae declares themselves a bluegrass band, but omits the banjo and the menfolk, is it anyone’s place to argue?

As a scholar, I must work within the world of definitions to clearly communicate what it is I am describing. But definitions are tough. How does one decide what to include and what to leave out?  To formulate a formal definition of a musical style, it is important to identify songs considered to be representative of the genre that style represents, to analyze these songs for shared characteristics, and to explore the fringes of the style for important historical departures. Part of this approach is the elimination of subject matter in the definition.

Allow me to back up for a moment.

As far as I can tell, “style” is different from “genre.”

Style omits song content and origins, serving primarily as a modifier to existing songs. Style is a characteristic of genre, a single piece of what identifies a song as belonging to one group or another. Is a song that originates in another genre that is covered in a bluegrass style considered part of the bluegrass genre, or is there more than style to this classification? I’ll leave that to Trampled by Turtles.

Given the genre’s resurgence amid the musically diverse folk revival, one could venture a guess and include this genre-bending as a defining characteristic of bluegrass itself (at least since 1973).

With all these things in mind, I define the bluegrass style as follows:

“Bluegrass is the genre of music incorporating the styles of old time string music with faster rhythms and structured instrumental and vocal characteristics, including the use of the “Big Six” acoustic instruments, multi-part harmonies, Scruggs style banjo, and a “high lonesome sound” achieved by the vocalists.”

It is my hope that this definition can serve as a rule of thumb for the semester, a sort of rough criteria for identifying bluegrass music as we encounter it. That being said, I am fully prepared to push the bounds of this definition, to see what bluegrass is, what it is not, and trace how it arrived where it is today. As we work through this semester, I can’t wait to discover, dissect, and debunk my definition and the other “damn lies” that surround this fascinating genre.

Smith’s statement that the music began with Monroe’s post-war band and his inclusion of Earl Scruggs-style banjo as one of the defining characteristics of the music were, Monroe told Smith angrily, ‘damn lies’ as far as he was concerned.

– Neil Rosenberg, “Bluegrass: A History”