The Punch Brothers

Is it Bluegrass?

This week, I was confronted with a pretty simple question.


“Is this bluegrass?”


John Lawless, editor of the popular site Bluegrass Today, asked us this question, before admitting to registering it as a domain name for a future humor site poking fun at the question and the people who spend their time online asking it.


“If Flatt and Scruggs are up there on the stage playing, and Earl breaks a string, is it still bluegrass?”


Jokes aside, the question of a standard bluegrass definition is one I have been asking myself since day one. There are the undeniably classic bluegrass artists, the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but what about The Country Gentleman, members of the prestigious Bluegrass Hall of fame, who pushed the boundaries of the bluegrass repertoire since at least 1963? If they’re out, there is no hope for the Avett Brothers.


Some judge by instrumentation, vocal range, lyrical content, and even geographic origins. Others will argue the historical angle, claiming even Monroe wasn’t playing bluegrass until Earl Scruggs and his iconic style appeared on the scene in 1945. We all know how Monroe felt about that…

While we’ve talked about the usefulness of definitions before , I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated by the constant attempts to unify the sound. Online, heated debate runs rampant. Surely no other musical community has faced such a crisis!

(Note to self: A link between the early online bluegrass community and the modern flame war? Potential Thesis?)

The point I want to make here is that for some this does matter. A lot.

As mentioned before, the power to define is the power to decide who’s in and who’s out of the club. The desire for acceptance is part of human nature, and the approval of the older generation can make or break a musician’s career. But for up and coming musicians, bluegrass might not be the most profitable club to join.


“If they’ve never heard you, do you want them to think you are a bluegrass band?”


In Chris Pandolfi’s Bluegrass Manifesto, he explains why the Infamous Stringdusters made the choice to distance themselves from the bluegrass label.


“Not if you want to portray the image of a rising act capable of playing huge rooms to huge crowds, because right now that’s just not what bluegrass is, not what it wants to be.”


He’s got a point.

Bluegrass has traditionally found itself more at home in smaller venues, perhaps owing to it’s roots in the living rooms of people across the country via radio. And while it is totally valid to point out the first bluegrass band was a tightly run, commercial machine right from the start, the modern scene hasn’t exactly been quick to embrace that.

Perhaps the folk movement’s role in bluegrass resurgence has something to do with that. Is the modern bluegrass scene the result of the “long hairs” hijacking the music of the “short hairs” in the 60’s and 70’s?

(Drive out to Floyd county in July for a visit to Floydfest to see what I mean.)

Pandolfi reminds us of this odd imbalance in his piece:


“Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford and Yonder want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before. Respect for the masters is profound. But the bluegrass world is tough, and there’s just no solid mutual respect. Unfortunately, bluegrass needs these bands… way more than they need bluegrass.”


Which is exactly why this debate matters for the genre. It’s an ideological war to define the past for control of the future of bluegrass.

If the community decides to accept the likes of the genre-bending Punch Brothers or (heaven forbid) Railroad Earth with their flashy lights and area-rock stages, will it spell the end of the genre as we know it? Or, like Pandolfi suggests, will it usher in a new era of bluegrass where

“This amazing, deeply historical music could really get its due, and we would all have something to celebrate together.”


I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure.

Peter Rowan and the Dharma Blues

Peter Rowan and Yungchen Lhamo
Peter Rowan and Yungchen Lhamo. Photo by Charleston City Paper

Before becoming a giant on the progressive bluegrass scene, Peter Rowan performed with the first giant of traditional bluegrass: Bill Monroe. Ditching Boston in 1965, Rowan found himself playing rhythm guitar for the Blue Grass Boys for two years, recording 14 sounds with Monroe before his departure. The more traditional bluegrass practiced by the Monroe, and the artistic friction he experienced would lead him to form the psychedelic rock group, Earth Opera, with David Grisman.

It’s easy to argue that the Earth Opera sound is about the furthest departure Rowan made from Bluegrass, but I’d like you to take a listen to the later (around 6:15) vocals in “As It Is Before,” and remember them for later.

Got it?


Let’s move on.


Despite his artistic departure, Peter Rowan’s childhood love of the bluegrass sound would continue to draw him back to his roots. His next collaboration, Seatrain, had a more recognizable bluegrass influence. (Some songs more than others)


After Seatrain came two bluegrass supergroups, Muleskinner (with Richard Green, David Grisman, Clarence White, and the first bluegrass recording to include drums) and Old and in the Way (with Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia). The second’s self-titled album, “Old and in the Way,” would go on to become the best-selling bluegrass album of all time (that is, until the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack rolled out in 2000).

(Thanks, Keith Richards)

This relatively short period (about a year) of Rowan’s career garnered him a strong following and produced many bluegrass classics (see Panama Red and Land of the Navajo), but was also a major time of spiritual development for Rowan.

While living in Marin County (near San Francisco), Rowan had a life changing encounter with Kalu Rinpoche, the Buddhist lama and Tibetan exile. His new-found faith would go on to have a deep impact on his music and the bluegrass genre itself:


“Tibetan music shares a similarity with bluegrass…They’re both from remote mountainous areas populated by hill country people. Like Tibetan music, bluegrass has a very rootsy sound, earthy, and yet with spiritual overtones, both in the straight and the sacred songs. They have a kind of longing, a yearning for transcendence.”

-Peter Rowan, Marin Independent Journal


After years working in various arrangements, Rowan began a solo career that continues to this day. His faith and his roots continue to inspire his work, as seen time and again in each of his recordings (Yes, that’s a tanpura on Dharma Blues). Most recently, Rowan has been collaborating with Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo to great effect. Check them out with folk duo Mandolin Orange (Get it? Get it?!?!) at Merlefest this year:

(If Lhamo isn’t the epitome of “high and lonesome,” I don’t know who is. If they don’t release an album, I don’t know what I’ll do.)


Rowan himself has a lot to say on the subject of his unique blending of east and west, a blending of spiritual searching that meets in his music:


“There are a lot of links. I loved bluegrass especially because it spoke of the earthiness of life. And most of the songs that I learned were all about suffering. To me, that’s all spiritual music the same as Buddhist music. You know, there’s no difference. It’s just a difference in the meaning, on a subtle level. It all lines up, if we’re not dogmatic about it and open minded about it we can make the world a good place.”

-Peter Rowan, NPR interview


Take a listen to this:

“I sing a song of freedom while I’m riding…”

Where does that song sound like it is from? America, right? I mean, who else sings about freedom and riding horses and rolling hills?

“Across the rolling hills I come riding, I’ll ramble where I will.”

What does that song sound like it’s about? The Civil War, perhaps? Maybe a cowboy?

“Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. Padmasambhava comes riding.”

Ah, okay. Wasn’t it obvious? This is a song about Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche), the Indian Spiritualist that brought Buddhism to Tibet.

(And here I thought it was some sort of newgrass tribute to She’ll Be Commin’ Round the Mountain.)


If you get a chance, take another listen (here’s a version someone overlayed with artwork depicting Padmasambhava). Focus on the seamless merging of Buddhist spirituals with the four-part harmony, a neat take on progressive bluegrass, if you ask me.


Okay, remember those vocals I asked you to listen to? Here are some more:

(A different kind of high lonesome sound, am I right?)


While these type of Vedic spiritual vocals aren’t found in any of Rowan’s music that I have listened to (though he did bring back the tanpura!), it is neat to see a musician’s style form over time. The Earth Opera years were probably the first instance of eastern influence in his sound, but they were certainly not the last. Rowan’s musical legacy helps us realize that the high lonesome phenomenon is not necessarily an Appalachian phenomenon, but a human phenomenon.


I look forward to further exploration of this high lonesome sound in the hopes that it might just explain bluegrass’s cross-cultural appeal.


For more information, check out these great resources:

Peter Rowan’s Website

“The Enlightened Sound of Peter Rowan’s Buddhist Bluegrass”  by Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent Journal

The Fresh Air Interview: Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

Thomas Goldsmith, The Bluegrass Reader, chapters 39 and 47




The Roots of Innovation

“What distinguished the Monroe Brother’s music from the rest was perhaps that it best exploited the medium of radio by discovering ways to excel within its narrow auditory confines.”

-Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown

Historian and Folklorist, Robert Cantwell, argues that Hillbilly artists like The Skillet Lickers found a new freedom in the recording studio, taking advantage of the new medium, the record. No longer restricted to the preferences of their typical audience of dancers, they could make music for musicians. Dropping the strict patterns and reasonable tempos required for dancing, string bands were able to experiment with new sounds. In time, these changes would come to alter the audience’s tastes, increasing the demand for what might never had occurred live in front of an audience.

This sort of experimentation runs rampant at public music events like the Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention that I recently had the pleasure of attending. Unlike musicians at festival performances, musicians at musical contests are not held to the standards of the audience at large. Rather, a smaller group of judges (who I can assure you are not dancing during the performances) carefully evaluates the performers according to various criteria. More often than not, this criteria involves the skill and style of the performer and does not take into account how easy it is to dance to the music. On the periphery of the contests, musicians gather to form jam sessions, feeding off each other’s energy and style to produce music that they enjoy playing. In this sort of context, it is easy to see how a separation between musician and audience could lead to innovation.

(try dancing to this tempo)

In the 1930’s the Monroe Brothers took experimentation to the next level by “exploiting” the new medium of radio. If the role of radio in the 30’s found it “amplifying the audience’s consciousness of its own identity, or even defining it,” as Cantwell claims, Bill Monroe’s unique style is a prime example. The Monroe Brother’s played clean, elegant music, easily reproduced by early radio technology. Experimenting with a new take on the mandolin and the brother’s clear, high vocals, Bill and Charlie Monroe created a niche for themselves on the radio scene, laying the groundwork for a sound that would soon come to “define” a culture and region.

A side note:

Does Robert Cantwell’s description of Radio’s power to connect remind anyone else of the Internet’s role today?

“Before the pervasive influence of network broadcasting, federal regulation, and commercial homogenization, the radio dial was an instrument of fantastic sweep and power, which could convey the listener aurally from region to region, city to city, and voice to voice, and even in effect move him about in time at the speed of light, establishing in his imagination far more effectively than a geography book a sense of the larger society to which he belonged, with ceaseless activity, prodigious strength and variety, even its” fleetingly perceptible form.”

– Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown

I mean, seriously. Switch around a few words, and Cantwell could be describing modern connectivity. I’d argue that a big difference is the public’s ability to directly interact with the medium, but I think the comparison is worthwhile. For instance, consider the threats “network broadcasting, federal regulation, and commercial homogenization” may pose to the “free space” we experience today.

Dancing at a Fiddler’s Convention

The Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention last Saturday (February 7th, 2015) in Boone, North Carolina was an opportunity to see the old time music culture in action. The venue was conducive to such an event, with multiple rooms for workshops, stages for performances, and plenty of separated areas for the jam sessions. In every nook of the Student Union (from the cafeteria to the space under the stairs), musicians gathered in informal jam session, practicing (and perhaps showing off) their picking skills.

I spent a fair amount of time at the clogging workshop with Rodney Sutton of the Green Grass Cloggers. In a short hour of instruction, he shared stories, taught exercises, and shed light on the purpose and history of flat footing in Appalachia.

(Sutton was excellent, but yeah, that’s not quite what we looked like after the workshop…)

What most struck me about Sutton’s story was the group’s humble origins. From the way Sutton described it, none of the early members (including founder Dudley Culp) had had any performance experience or formal dance training before joining the group, an incredible fact if you see them dance today (please see attached video). According to Sutton, Culp and the early cloggers went through a rigorous process of collecting and dissecting the different styles of flatfooting to learn and teach themselves. This process reminded me of some of the folklorist activities discussed in class, particularly the work of song collectors like Olive Campbell and Cecil Sharp, with the cloggers preserving steps learned from all parts of Appalachia. On the other hand, maybe the Green Grass Cloggers are serving a role more similar to the Bristol Sessions, tapping into an important piece of heritage and making it more accessible to people outside the region (as far away as China).  Either way, observing the ASU Fiddler’s Convention allowed for these stories to be told and questions proposed.

With the floor of the main stage totally packed with spectators and waiting performers alike, we found ourselves wandering to the balcony overlooking the stage for a better view. From above, it was easy to see, not only the performance, but also the faces of the audience below. As the music played, I got a chance to assess the demographics of the convention. There were far more woman, both watching and performing, than I might have expected. I recognized many faces from the folk singing performance I had just witnessed upstairs, the faces of talented vocalists and musicians alike. Perhaps more surprising was a wide age range, and the odd gap that left out the group I most expected to see: college students. While performers and audience members from the very youngest to the very oldest were present, I did not get a sense that many students were in attendance (at least not as many as I expected on a college campus).

(Anneli Burnett and many other talented young singers competed in the folk song competition against people six times their age!)

This supported the idea we had earlier discussed that the convention, while entirely student run, was more of a community event than a collegiate one. But given the range and talent of the participants, that was just fine by me.

(This was a fun day, and I’m glad to report YouTube has a fine selection from the convention)

The Evolution of Ernest V. Stoneman

In 1924, the musically inclined carpenter and occasional miner, Ernest Van Stoneman heard a recording by old time musician Hank Whittler, and decided he could do better.

At the encouragement of his wife, Hattie, he left his home in Carroll Country, Virginia, and headed for New York, where he would soon record his first single and biggest hit, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” for Okeh Records (and later for Edison Records on wax cylinder). This performance is famous for its use of autoharp, Stoneman’s signature instrument, and is thought to be the first ever recording to feature the instrument. Audiences across the country recognized the talent of the pioneering musician and over four million records of the single were sold.

Leveraging his success, Stoneman convinced Ralph Peter of Victor Records to visit the south to record the local talent, and in 1927 the famous “Big Bang of Country Music” occurred in Bristol, Tennesee. With Stoneman acting as a talent scout and a sort of celebrity draw (newspapers advertised his profits from the sales of his singles), Peter recorded nineteen performers and seventy-six songs. Among the artists were the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Stoneman himself, who recorded six songs with his family band, The Dixie Mountaineers. In addition to the six, Stoneman (and his wife, Hattie) can be heard on ten additional tracks under three different names.

Listening to the Dixie Mountaineer recordings, it is amazing to hear the progression of style from the lone autoharp and harmonica of “Titanic” to the fully-fledged string band and vocal accompaniment. This shift brings us closer to the familiar sound of bluegrass that would begin to emerge in the late 1930’s. (Another bluegrass parallel is the triple vocal arrangement in Stoneman’s 1927 “Dying Girl’s Farewell.”)

The Great Depression hit the Stoneman’s particularly hard, forcing them to move into a small shack in DC and Ernest to rely on occasional carpentry jobs. His final pre-war recordings return Stoneman to the solo path but keep the stringed backup. Several of the songs (“All I Got’s Gone,” “The Poor Tramp Has to Live,” etc.) deal with the issues facing the country at the time.

Over the course of their lives, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman had 23 children (13 of which made it to adulthood), each of which participated in their own musical careers to some degree. As the economy improved, the Stoneman’s found success by performing together in groups, including  “The Stoneman Family” and “The Blue Grass Champs.” The later gained fame on ABC’s The Jimmy Dean Show, where “Pop” Stoneman would occasionally perform with them.

Ernest Stoneman’s own music is not what he is best remembered for, as evidenced by his frustratingly recent 2008 induction to the country music hall of fame. Rather, his legacy and the impact he made on the history of country music are among his greatest achievements. From his home in rural Virginia, to bluegrass and televisions across America, Ernest Stoneman and the burgeoning Stoneman family share a history that parallels that of country music itself.

Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and his characteristic autoharp and harmonica.

For more information, check out the following sources:

Thomas Edison’s Attic Podcast:

Country Music Hall of Fame:

My Kind of Country Blog:

Country Music Discographies:

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.