Decisions Decisions

On Wednesday, we were given the opportunity to have John Lawless, head editor of Bluegrass Today, visit our class to talk to us about Bluegrass music and many other interesting topics. One of the things that hit me the most was how quick he was to give his definition of Bluegrass. He told us, “If it has mandolin, fiddle, and a banjo in it, and I like it, then I consider it Bluegrass.” I thought about what he said and I have to wonder, what is Bluegrass?

“If it has Mandolin, Fiddle, and a Banjo in it, and I like it, then it is Bluegrass.”

The older generation considers Bluegrass music that is played with the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. Some even claim that it is not Bluegrass if it is not played in Scruggs style. My grandparents always considered Bluegrass to be played with the banjo, fiddle, and bass. My grandfather used to say, “If the banjo ain’t playin’, then the music is Blue-trash”.

Times have changed, and as we read in the Pandolfi article, musicians have had to adapt to the audiences. Nowadays, band like Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons can and are considered Bluegrass to the newer generation. It’s considered bluegrass because they still play the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, but their style is more upbeat and the use of drums and amplifiers have made them sound different than the string sound of the older bands. Many people do not consider them Bluegrass, but the newer generation hears a fiddle or banjo and consider it bluegrass.

Old Crow Medicine show can be classified as Bluegrass because of their wholesome sound and the instruments heard in their songs. I have seen them perform in concert, I know they do not stick to the standard mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. I’ve seen them run around the stage, playing drums, playing piano, and different kinds of guitars. There sound is more Bluegrass than some of the other bands, but they do not stick to the old time sound either.

Here is a video of Old Crow Medicine Show, and incorporating the use of drums into their music:


I do not know how I classify Bluegrass to be honest. I would like to say that I have a simple definition, but I do not. The banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass are all similar instruments played within a Bluegrass band, but I do not believe those are the only classifiers that make a bluegrass band a bluegrass band. Bluegrass is whatever you want it to be. If it hits you in your heart with an old song about your childhood, or it has an old lonesome sound, or if it just makes your first instinct assume it is Bluegrass, then it is Bluegrass. Bluegrass is more of an idea, to me, instead of an actual thing. The old string instruments being sawed on on a Saturday night in the heart of town are considered Bluegrass, and so are the amplified banjos and guitars played on the stage of an Old Crow Medicine Show concert. Bluegrass is whatever you think it is, noo what someone tells you it is.

Don Reno

Don Reno

Don Reno, a master of the five-string banjo and the one credited for the emergence of the guitar, was a superior master of the tenor vocalist and songwriters of his time. He was born in South Carolina in February of 1926. He grew up in North Carolina and as a kid, built his own banjos. When he was in his teens, he recorded with the Morris Brothers and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He recorded with Woody Guthrie and was asked to become part of Monroe’s the Blue Grass Boys, but he denied in order to serve in World War II.  {}

In 1948, Reno replaced Earl Skruggs in the Bluegrass Boys. He was a little irritated that people referred to his banjo picking as “Skruggs style”. He always believed that if he would not have gone off to war, “Skruggs style” would have been “Reno style”. He played for two years with the Bluegrass Boys until forming Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. The band lasted for nearly fourteen years and realeased pick hits like, “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map”, “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”, and ‘Don;t Let Your Sweet Love Die”. His son, Ronnie Reno, played mandolin for the group that quickly became a regular on RFD TV.

In 1964, Red Smiley retired from the Tennessee Cutups, so Reno joined his guitarist, Bill Harrell and formed Reno and Harrell. Red Smiley joined Reno and Harrell on occasion until his death in 1972. In 1976, Harrell and Reno parted ways and Reno settled in Lynchburg, VA. He played alongside his sons, Don, Wayne, Dale and Ronnie until his death in 1984. {}

Don Reno’s legacy was known for his wicked Banjo and creating room for a lead guitar. In all the bands Reno played in, he brought his unique banjo style and his high tenor voice. His legacy is carried on through his sons, The Reno Brothers.

Bristol Sessions Performers

In September, I was given the opportunity to visit, “The Birthplace of Country Music” in Bristol Tennessee. I was able to learn about “The first family” the Carter’s and many others. A.P. Carter, his wife- Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle, were a few of the first performers to make the Bristol Sessions successful and well-known.  They sang wonderful harmonies and shape-note hymns. There music was popular when the sessions first began and their music has carried over to today. Maybelle play the lead guitar with her thumb while the other sang in great harmony.

Jimmie Rogers, another great performer, split from his band just before the Bristol Session. When he split, he sang solo at the Bristol Sessions. The Carters and Jimmie Rogers tend to overshadow other major performers at the Bristol sessions. Some include Reverend Phipps and his Holiness singers, Alfred Karnes and Alfred Reed; all of which sang for the holiest of people. They were all tied in with religion, like most all Bluegrass and old time at the time. Reed grew up in Bedford County, VA (maybe 30 miles from my hometown!), and soon worked his way to Bristol, VA/TN.

Here is a link for a performance by the Carter Family and Another for Alfred Reed: