Tag Archives: Bill Monroe

The Dept. of Religion and Culture’s Undergraduate Research Day

Undergraduate Research Day

(Sam Winter, Paul Wotring, Chris Youngs, Molly Hilt, and our fearless leader, Jordan Laney)


This weekend, four students from our class had the privilege of presenting our research at the Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture Undergraduate Research Day! With food, speakers, and excellent presentations all around (check out the lineup below), the event was a great opportunity to share our work and get feedback on our research from the community.

Undergraduate Research Day Schedule

(Wow, I feel so official!)

After the keynote and a brief break, Ms. Laney introduced us and we were off! Four quick presentations (Chris, Paul, and Molly knocked it out of the park!) followed by a Q&A session that covered everything from authenticity and bluegrass in other languages to geographically rooted music and the desire to claim ownership of a sound.

Below is my presentation (A.K.A. a brief overview of the reason I haven’t posted anything on this blog for several weeks). Enjoy, and look out for the first few sections of my Annotated Mix-tape in the following days!


Thanks, Chris. Hello, I’m Sam, and thank you all for coming out here today.

Traditionally speaking, to become a bluegrass musician, you need inspiration and influences. A big part of bluegrass culture is this idea of roots and the acknowledgement of one’s musical lineage. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had Arnold Shultz and, of course, his Uncle Pen in the dance hall circuit of rural Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, pioneer of the now standard Scruggs-style banjo technique, had Bill Monroe, and the music-loving community of Flint-Hill where he grew up. So sure, you need musicians and mentors to emulate and learn from, but there also has to be a surrounding culture that exists to nurture and support musicians as they grow into their musical maturity. To make it big as a musician, there has to be an audience, and when you are starting off, that audience often takes the form of your hometown.

Arnold Shultz

(The bold text represents slide transitions. I’ll include some pictures and captions here. This one is the only known photo of Arnold Shultz, Bill Monroe’s mentor and friend.)


So when I started looking into a path of research within bluegrass music, I immediately went back to my own roots, back to my hometown, which, fortunately for me, has an incredibly rich and diverse bluegrass history. I’m speaking, of course, of Southern California. More specifically, San Diego County.

San Diego Map

(I was going for the shock value here. “Just LOOK how far away San Diego is from Kentucky!”)


Yep, San Diego. With it’s white beaches and surfer culture, its yoga studios and urban sprawl, it’s about as far away from the rural hills of Appalachia, the locale most commonly associated with bluegrass music, as you can get.

And yet…

swami's beach

(My hometown: Encinitas, CA. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)


What’s great about the studies conducted in the department of religion and culture, is that they encourage the mapping of commonly held conceptions and stereotypes before turning right around and tearing them down to get a little closer to the real story. Here, in the first bluegrass class to run in the history of Virginia Tech, we do this sort of thing everyday. So far, I’ve learned that bluegrass music started outside the boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains, that it has more in common with contemporary jazz than it does with contemporary country, and that the “High Lonesome Sound,” the primeval music of the Scotch-Irish settlers, is in fact younger than Mick Jagger.

commercial bluegreass

(Roy Acuff, Grand Ole Opry, 1939. Bluegrass was commercial from the start.)



(I may have made some enemies with this Florida Georgia Line jab, but it was worth it !  >:D  )


So what does San Diego have to offer in terms of bluegrass? Well for starters, it’s had a thriving bluegrass community since the late 1950’s (right around the time people started using the word bluegrass to describe the sound), and been home to a broad range of country and folk venues as well as festivals. It has not one, but two bluegrass associations in the county, and has giving rise to the likes of bluegrass legend and pioneer of the country rock genre Chris Hillman, and more recently, the members of the Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek. The fact that so many bluegrass artists have come out of San Diego and the surrounding areas is testament that such a culture exists.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(Chris Hillman and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, San Diego, CA)


This semester, I’ve researched this culture to put together an annotated mixtape that explores the key components that made a bluegrass scene possible. Briefly (because you’ll soon be able to read and listen to the whole mixtape on my section of the class blog), those components involve a steady stream of immigrants (Okies, Navy families, college students, etc), the existence of public musical spaces, and the success of local musicians.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands, 1930. Photo Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)


So what do you gain when you look for bluegrass, and find it, in a place you’d least expect? Well when you start looking at a place, when you really start digging, it’s amazing what begins to emerge. What you find is a more complicated and nuanced picture of what that place really is. I found such a picture coming here to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, through this class, through Appalachian Studies, and through my own experiences in the region. Out west, I found a story of displaced people that all wound up in California for one reason or another. It’s story of people connecting over a music that brings them closer to home, dipping into feelings of longing and nostalgia, loss and loneliness. I found stories of underground scenes and hole-in-the-wall venues that played host to a wealth of local artists and even the likes of Bill Monroe himself. Talented musicians and festival organizers, basement newsletter publicists, record store owners and folk record collectors. All these people, and more, working to build a community around a music that somehow manages to find an audience no matter where it travels.

 pizza jam

(NCBFC Today’s Pizza Jam, Encinitas, California)


I would like to leave you all with a quote by San Diego Troubadour columnist, Dwight Worden:

“If bluegrass grows on your heart, then this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego.”

Thank you.

“It’s a boy!” (or how we gender instruments here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Murphy Henry’s (founder of the Women in Bluegrass magazine) keynote address from the 1998 IBMA Trade Show. In the process of describing the successes achieved and the remaining obstacles faced by women in the genre, she touched upon the idea of gendered instruments, something I’d never really thought about in the context of bluegrass.


(I’m not going to say  I’ve NEVER thought about an instrument as inherently feminine…)

In her talk, she expresses her frustration with the author of the liner notes for The Essential Bill Monroe boxed collection over his unnecessary and unfair gendering of a bluegrass origin story involving the mandolin.

“You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender-related about that story. But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid of girl. And the way this guy has written this up, it’s like nothing could be worse— the mandolin is a girl’s instrument— isn’t that awful?” -Murphy Henry

Henry goes on to describe how this particular author describes the creation of bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s attempt to create a masculine music on an inherently feminine instrument. Needless to say, Henry (and I) had to disagree with that particular interpretation of events, but it got me thinking about instruments and gender.

(That is NOT what I meant! Though it would make an interesting study in performativity…)

So what’s the most feminine instrument? With the help of some hall mates from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, I brainstormed a list:

  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Tambourine
  • Harp
  • Clarinet
  • French horn

This list is in no particular order (except for the order I wrote them down in), but I’ll tell you that when I asked what the most feminine instrument was, the answer was overwhelmingly harp. When I asked what the most feminine bluegrass instrument was, the answer was a resounding “violin” (not fiddle, interestingly enough). Though I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant, Lindsey Sterling certainly does make a strong case:

(Fun fact: Did you know that “fiddle” and “violin” have separate Wikipedia pages?)

I kept bothering my friends and produced the following gender assignments for a traditional bluegrass lineup:

  • Fiddle- Feminine
  • Upright Bass- Masculine
  • Mandolin- Non-gendered (or “asexual,” as one person put it. Maybe Thomas Adler was on to something…)
  • Banjo- Masculine
  • Acoustic Guitar- Masculine

From my very small sample size, I noticed a few interesting breaks from what I would have expected. The fiddle, the “devil’s box,” long associated with dancing and other sinful behavior, is now considered the most feminine of bluegrass instruments! (at least here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

Satan and his fiddle

(Note to self: Blog post exploring the fiddle’s long association with Satan and Co. ?)

Another interesting point to note is that the upright bass, an instrument often associated with women in bluegrass (thanks largely to Bluegrass Boy Bessie Lee Mauldin) was denoted as a masculine instrument, and the supposedly feminine mandolin was deemed non-gendered.

(Food for thought: is a non gendered entity perceived as more feminine in a male-dominated culture?)

But the more I think of it, the more I realize that the mandolin is pretty evenly split in the bluegrass scene (as even as it can be in the bluegrass scene).

So here is a montage of some fantastic female mandolin players:

(Sierra Hull! Can we forgive her amplification? Yes, yes we can.)

(Ashley Lewis picks pretty good…for a HUMAN BEING)

(Even the New Queen of Bluegrass plays the mandolin!)

And here is a montage of fantastic male mandolin players:

(Yeah, he went to my high school. No big deal.)

(What’s with San Diego and mandolin prodigies named Chris?)

(Does this song give anyone else the chills?)

But the mandolin isn’t the only bluegrass instrument being played by women. Not by a long shot.

(Insert literally any Della Mae clip here)

As a final thought, I’d like to address Rosenberg’s claim that the banjo is “the only instrument in American tradition which has not been feminized.” Despite the long list of women in and outside of bluegrass playing the instrument, I think he might be right (no, not because Della Mae leaves it out of their lineup!).

Unfortunately, I suspect this stereotype (and it is a stereotype, like all gendering of inanimate musical objects) comes from a more deeply held image: that of the banjo as the instrument of the poor, white, uneducated hillbilly.

(My point is, there’s a REASON Kermit’s playing a banjo, not a guitar or a mandolin)

But that’s a topic for another post.

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




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.