Examination of Bluegrass Identities Through Theories of Identity

Performance Theory & Articulation Theory

“When one starts to think carefully about how discourse might be said to produce a subject, it’s clear that one’s already talking about a certain figure or trope of production.  It is at this point it’s useful to turn to the notion of performativity…So what I’m trying to do is think about performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names.  Then I take a further step…and suggest that this production actually always happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation.” -Butler (Vila, p. 35-36).

Enter the Performance theory, or the perception of identity not as a stagnant form, but as an ever-changing performance.

Michel Foucault, a French historian and philosopher:

-rejects the idea that there is a true and fixed identity within everyone

-referred to identity as something we communicate to others during our interactions

-identity is a shifting and temporary construction

Evidence:  Bluegrass genre a means of adjustment for southerners

-Bluegrass musicians’ values being rooted in their home places

-desire to constantly relive and identity with these places in the music they create and perform

In his book titled Bluegrass:  A History, musicologist and folklorist, Neil Rosenberg, suggests that

“Bluegrass seems symbolic of responses to outside pressure for social change through group solidarity.  This helps to explain its popularity with Appalachian migrants in northern urban areas, since these people are frequently subjected to such pressure.  It is ironic that those aspects of bluegrass which are restrictive and bound by tradition are, culturally speaking, the most innovative part of the music, since they place the group ahead of the individual” (Rosenberg, p. 9).

In the same spirit, in his article titled “An Introduction to Bluegrass,” folklorist and musician, Mayne Smith, says that

“bluegrass is a nexus of many different cultural factors…the often traumatic process of industrialization and urbanization have swiftly displaced millions of Southerners both geographically and culturally, and there has been increasing economic and political pressure upon the South to conform to Northern urban ways of living.  Bluegrass is both a symptom of and a reaction against this pressure.”

The result is a plethora of songs about leaving the simple life and songs about working in mines (“Dream of a Miner’s Child”), farms (“Thirty Years of Farming”), and mills and factories (“Cotton Mill Man”).

Mandolin player, Bill Monroe, left his rural hometown of Rosine, Kentucky for Indiana, where he worked in an oil refinery & Earl Scruggs left his rural birthplace in Shelby, North Carolina to work in a nearby textile mill

British sociomusicologist, Simon Frith, expresses the following ideas about performativity within music:

-Often times listeners assume a logical flow, beginning with the social identity of a performer and ending with respective musical expression

-Identity is an experiential process and this experience is both social and aesthetic

Mayne Smith: “Bluegrass has acted as a decisive agent for the preservation in commercially viable form of musical performance values that have hardly survived the rest of hillbilly music.  The jazz-like rhythmic elements and ensemble integration of bluegrass function as a vehicle for the continued use of small non-electrified string groups, relatively simple harmonies, traditional vocal styles and repertoire.  Bluegrass thus represents a reaction against the movement of hillbilly music-and perhaps of Southern culture-away from the traditions of rural Appalachia; and the appeal of bluegrass, its means of livelihood, must partially derive from this negative role” (Goldsmith, p. 90).

As a result, Bluegrass music is heavily saturated with southern ideals and values, including life, family, religion, simple living, love, materialized in musical form, as a preservation of the “southern” way of living.

Relevance to women in Bluegrass:

Inspired by Foucault, American gender theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler, applies this notion to the concept of gender.

Butler, “Imitation and Gender Subordination”:  “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a libratory contestation of that very oppression.”

She also claims that these are “idealised and reified norms which people are expected to live up to.”


Mayne Smith summarizes musicians’ own ideas for what makes Bluegrass “Bluegrass”:

“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” (Goldsmith, p. 78).

“Male” musicians=idealised norm as players within the genre

“female” musicians=”others” ……”pretty good for a girl”

-Identification of Bluegrass as a male-oriented genre and its promotion as hyper-masculine

-Women’s hyper-sexualization and hyper-femininity in their performances

And since Butler believes that “identity is an effect of power relations,” therefore, these acts are also a direct attempt to undermine such power relations.

Articulation theory, or the theory that “Music and identity are engaged in a constant process of articulation and rearticulation.”  

Author Pablo Vila proposes that narratives construct a character’s identity through construction of the story (Reagan 1993):   “what makes the character’s identity is the story’s identity and not vice versa” (Ricoeur 1992).

In Bluegrass, this can be seen in musicians’ narratives or stories of movement and industrialization. Massive rural to urban migration that occurred in the 1930s to 1950s led to the industrialization of rural southerners…

Other stories include lost love, travel, and nostalgia…

Bluegrass Contradictions

*Old vs. New:  Musicians self-identify as “old-time” musicians despite the genre’s relatively late development

-recorded post-WWII, more than 20 years after first recordings of country music

-by the 1970s musicians used terminology like “traditional bluegrass,” albeit a very brief tradition

Musicians perform in a way that gives value to “tradition” and connects them back to their roots more so than identifies them as city-slickers.

*Limitation of musical individuality, contrastly to supposed high value of individuality in Appalachia

“It seems to me that there is no folk musical form that is more restrictive and bound by an established tradition than is bluegrass.”  Howard Wight Marshall

Mayne Smith, says that “texts determine the identities of songs, since a large number of different songs have nearly identical…yet the literal meanings of texts have relatively little importance to many bluegrass musicians.” He even says that “an informal count discloses over a hundred bluegrass songs that have at least one close tune-mate; many have more than five” (Goldsmith, p. 83).

Uniformity can even be seen in their matching outfits.

Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
The Country Gentlemen
The Country Gentlemen


As Frith asserts, identity is an experience of aesthetic and social processes.  Additionally, his assertion that texts of songs determine their identifies aligns with the theory that identities are created through ever-evolving narratives.  Rosenberg claim that Bluegrass is a reaction against change by use of group solidarity is exemplified in the uniformity in their dress.

*Bluegrass portrayed as strictly white European-based form while in actuality, it is the result of cultural exchange (banjo-African roots, blues and ragtime, gospel songs, country, Irish ballads)

Mayne Smith includes musicians’ over claims that:

“Bluegrass is hillbilly music:  it is played by professional, white, Southern musicians, primarily for a Southern audience.  It is stylistically based in Southern musical traditions” (Goldsmith, p. 78).

“Talking performance patterns as a whole, bluegrass shares more stylistic traits with folk tradition than any other well defined category of hillbilly music now produced in quantity.  Anglo- and Afro-American traditional styles ave laid down the lines followed by bluegrass melodies, harmonic accompaniment, and phrasal organization.” -Mayne Smith (Goldsmith, p.84)

African banjo
African banjo
Bela Fleck seeks out African banjo music
Bela Fleck seeks out African banjo music

Performing as an all-American band, as boys from the hills of one place or the valley of another, allows musicians to form an identity that is firmly planted in national tradition and music to which Americans want to relate.

*Bluegrass musicians often referred to as “pickers,” “boys,” and “folks” and they even downplay their ability to perform when they announce that they’ll give a tune a “try”

“Bluegrass was developed by professional musicians, and professional musicians are the ones who define and change the music in their paid performances. The style requires a degree of instrumental virtuosity and a type of ensemble integration seldom found among folk musicians in the United States.” -Mayne Smith (Goldsmith, p. 84)

Performance and Gender Bias in Bluegrass

When considering women’s space in Bluegrass, or even music in general, there are inherent struggles that women face within these communities.  Women are confronted with the dilemma of celebrating traditional Bluegrass forms or reinventing what it means to be a “Bluegrass” artist.  However, the genre’s lyrical content very strongly upholds social norms, with Anglo and patriarchal biases.  Additionally, due to the historical absence/shortage of women in music scenes, women’s performances are judged by the standards that men have created.

Based on accounts of Bluegrass musicians from past years, it seems that males within the Bluegrass community have derived their sense of competency and pride from their opinions about gender and gender roles.  Contrary, preconceived notions of gender were only a source of limitations for women…obstacles to defy.  The commonly stated phrase that a woman can “play good for a girl,” perfectly reflects the frame of mind that reduces femininity to something to overcome rather than something to celebrate.

Another factor to consider is the idea that identity is constantly performed and that, therefore, identity is always being created and reformed:  “The concept of narrative, in other words, is not so much a justification of the idea of personal identity, as an elucidation of its structure as an inescapable piece of make-believe” (Ibid., p. 1058).  When applied to women in the music scene, performativity can reveal deeply-rooted societal prejudices and hierarchies.  While true “identity” can be questioned across gender lines, it is especially relevant to consider what identities women choose to “perform.”  Often times we see women avoid their full creative potential for fear of not being taken seriously.  While men have been encouraged and supported when making their own decisions and therefore, their own identities, women must justify their actions and “perform” the identities dictated to them.

I feel that the following video demonstrates this concept of conforming and performing perfectly.  It is both concerning and empowering to think that humans hold such power to shape how they are perceived:

Communities and Values

In “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life,” Robert Gardner quotes Richard Florida, who says, “Where old social structures were once nurturing, they are now restricting.  Communities that once attracted people now repel them.  Our evolving communities and emerging society are marked by a greater diversity of friendships, more individualistic pursuits, and weaker ties within the community” (Gardner, p. 173).  I agree with this sentiment that many people have found themselves disillusioned with modernization and urbanization.  The stereotypical desire of past generations for the suburban house, with a white picket fence and garage! has even trickled down to our generation.  However, more frequently this “dream” is being replaced with the more pressing longing for creative self-expression, as well as fulfillment through acquiring knowledge, cultural immersion, shaping history, etc.  Florida speaks to this notion when he says that although people undoubtedly seek community, it is “not to the extent that they [are] inhibited from living their own life and being themselves” (Gardner, p. 173).

Parallel to this idea, Gardner summarizes festival-goers’ sentiments by stating that “they described their involvement as driven by a quest for intimate community, open and equal social relations, and simple living, elements they found in short supply in their daily lives. Whereas traditional community forms depend on residential stability, these participants intentionally cultivated and supported alternatives that emerged in response to participants’ geographic mobility” (Gardner, p. 155).  Gardner is suggesting that these individuals sought out to capture their values in their lifestyles and behaviors.

It interests me how this take seems to contrast other opinions on the development of communities.  In a chapter titled, “Music and Identity,” Simon Frith suggests that it “is not that social groups agree on values which are then expressed in their cultural activities…but that they only get to know themselves as groups (as a particular organization of individual and social interests, of sameness and difference) through cultural activity, through aesthetic judgement” (p. 111).  When this idea is applied to the Bluegrass community which Gardner studied, this would mean that members did not seek out certain values, but instead established behaviors and values through their playing Bluegrass and their geographic mobility.


The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life by Robert Gardner

Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure and Community in Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books

Chapter “Music and Identity” by Simon Frith


Music and Place

Relationships between place and music can be drawn on various levels, as each influences the other.  While the physical and cultural geographies of a place often provide inspiration for music, and may even dictate style, music also influences the character of a place.

Creation:  Place can simply be a space to gather and create music or celebrate it.  Congo Square in New Orleans is a prime example of this.  This space where slaves gathered and played music was originally named “Place de Negres,” or “Place Congo.”  It provided a means of holding on to their heritage and culture and escaping reality for a brief time.  Another example close to home is the evolution of Appalachian music.  Many manual laborers sang old traditional songs to pass time and others eventually integrated a wide array of influences to create what we know as Old-Time music.  Much of the songs’ subject matter is representative of Appalachian ways of living and Appalachian people’s sentiments and values.  No matter the location, these types of spaces have been vital to the emergence of new musical forms and shared musical experiences.

In the past, certain types or styles of music were more closely connected to small areas, speaking to local-scale innovation and creativity.  In modern times, music seems to defy the concept of “place” due to the relative ease of movement and rapid sharing of ideas and techniques.  On the flip side, while it may seem that “place” becomes trivial or less relevant as musical influences and cultures mesh, origins of music cannot be ignored.  The importance of place has always been an integral component in the evolution of music.  It represents a certain time in history when people and situations converged to allow for the creation of something powerful.  With regard to Appalachian music specifically, no other place shares the same exact geographies, lifestyles, mindsets, interests, etc.

Mutual influence between place and music:  Typically, music is a means for telling a place’s story…for expressing values.  Therefore, the place itself infiltrates musical content.  Within Appalachia, the physical geography of the mountains is so evident in the region’s music.  The lifestyle of Appalachian peoples is a main component of the song material.  Furthermore, the content in music itself seems to influence a place.  We can see this in the power of music and its use in past social struggles throughout history.  It can drive people to act and changes ways of thinking and doing, in general.  A famous example of the unifying power of music is the performances during the March on Washington in 1963: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fa6VwMbzSjc

Preservation and influence:  A place, or space, can also allow for the preservation and celebration of a musical heritage, whether it be through the collection of material music or through festivals and performances to commemorate it.  Fred Bartenstein wanted “to fix a place where the tapes and records and biographies of these artists can be kept so that a hundred years from now, people could come and hear the original generation, the way they played” (Goldsmith, p. 189).

“Music and Politics” by John Street

The Power of Music and Censorship

          John Street suggests that music and politics are not two distinct entities that interact and respond to each occasionally but are instead extensions of each other.  Rather than simply providing a forum for expression, he contends that music embodies political sentiments and values.

In her book, Music in Everyday Life, Tia DeNora suggests that while music can be used as a tool for control and oppression, it can also be used to empower people through articulating identities and emotions.  Considering music’s ability to inspire and shape individuals’ socio-political beliefs, it is not surprising that the urge to censor music has practically existed since the emergence of music.  Through investigating past censorship, Street considers the notion that governments, state agencies, other organization, etc. set out to censor music not because of its highly political content but instead because it may be seen as promoting certain political ideologies.  Therefore, he concludes that perhaps it is the responses of particular powerful interests who deem content to be offensive and act accordingly.  Most importantly, Street stresses the existence of political networks and dependencies surrounding censorship that make it rarely about the censoring of “offensive” material.  This is especially relevant when considering musical content that is deemed “subversive” to the U.S. economic or political system.

Another interesting approach to censorship is the one expressed by Cloonan which holds that “censorship should not be attributed only to the deliberate intent of identifiable censors…censorship can occur even where there is no deliberate intention to do so.”  This approach interests me because we all have underlying opinions and beliefs that subconsciously affect every action or choice we make.  Just like no matter how hard we may try to be unbiased, bias is always present.

Ultimately, I feel that the article’s intent is to prove how censorship itself stands to show how interrelated music and politics are, even in everyday life.  Street claims that music “has the power to disrupt the social and political order.  It does not just shock and scare; it changes hearts and minds.”  When one accepts that music has this power, especially in the realm of our political and social lives, then one can truly see the concern with censoring this major tool and influence.


“Music and Politics” by John Street

Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen


Charlie Waller was born in Jointerville, Texas in 1935 but spent his childhood in Louisiana.  He started playing music at the age of 10.  In the early part of his career, he appeared on television with George Jones, Jimmy Newman, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and others.  Charlie Waller, along with mandolin player John Duffey, banjo player Bill Emerson, and bass player Larry Lahey, formed The Country Gentlemen in 1957 in Washington, D.C.  The band originally served as a replacement group for Buzz Busby and he Bayou Boys after several of their members were injured in an automobile accident.  Shortly after the band’s creation, the semi-permanent lineup consisted of Charlie Waller on guitar and lead vocals, John Duffey on mandolin, Eddie Adcock on banjo, and Tom Gray on bass.  This line-up is considered the “classic” one:

Eddie Adcock, John Duffey, Tom Gray, and Charlie Waller
Eddie Adcock, John Duffey, Tom Gray, and Charlie Waller

The Country Gentlemen toured bluegrass and folk arenas throughout the ’50s and ’60s.  Other line-ups ensued, including Doyle Lawson, Bill Yates, and Ricky Skaggs at one point.  While more than 100 musicians have been members of the band, Charlie Waller has remained constant and the band continued to perform until Waller’s death in 2004.  Some say that he was one of the best flat pickers in Bluegrass and that his rhythm guitar playing was unmatched.

The following songs, “Doin’ My Time” and “Less of Me,” are from the Country Gentlemen’s earlier recordings:

Listening to their concert from 1972 helps one hear variation and evolution in their sound over time:

The following song, “A Miner’s Life,” is from their album “Songs of the American Spirit, released in 2004, very shortly after Charlie’s death:





Robert Cantwell on the Commercial Background of Hillbilly Music

The Monroe Brothers

Cantwell reminds us that “it is always a bit of a shock to realize that the human career, which seems so brief from within, can embrace spans of time which have become historical.”  He relates this notion specifically to Monroe’s recordings, asserting that they “represent what we now regard as the high-water marks of old-time music, the best achievements of what is often called the ‘golden age’ of hillbilly recording” (Cantwell, p.51).

“The Monroe Brothers stood squarely at the center of that tradition, not by virtue of the retrospect that we enjoy, but by virtue of the unique convergence in their lives of rural background, radical dislocation, still widespread social change, and the entrepreneurial energy of the early record companies” (Cantwell, p.52).

Cantrell parallels the emergence of the Chicago style of Jazz as a result of Louis Armstrong’s brilliance with the emergence of the bluegrass style due to Bill Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing.

He says that many bands emphasized certain aspects of hillbilly music.  For example, the short-lived Georgia string band, The Skillet Lickers, exploited the new medium of radio to make lively southern mountain dance music a personal experience for listeners.  Here is Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers performing “Cripple Creek”:

While Cantwell emphasizes that Bill Monroe provided hillbilly music with stabilization, it is important to consider that the numerous bands that the Monroe Brothers listened to were extremely influential to their development.  “Elements of instrumental technique, aesthetic posture, rhythm, and even the moral position Monroe would adopt for his music” is evident in those records (Cantwell, p.56).

The Monroe Brothers as an Attestant to the “Binding Influence” of Radio

Cantwell asserts that radio allows people to transmit diverse messages across various geographical and cultural boundaries.  He also says that live radio stations served the social function of informing communities of local activities and is more accessible than other forms of media.  It also brought rural music and voices into urban cities just as it brought urban life into rural homes (Cantwell, p.43).  Additionally, he says that “the structure of live broadcasting and personal appearances built on the radio provided the hillbilly musician with a haven-not, admittedly, a perfectly secure one-from the Great Depression, while at the same time bringing him into regular and immediate contact with audiences far more demanding than the old rural society” (Cantwell, p.48).

Cantwell suggests that the distinguishing factor between the Monroe brothers’ music and others of that time was that they fully utilized radio and excelled by finding ways around radio’s “auditory confines” (Cantwell, p.49).  He also proclaims that the Monroe Brothers simplified Appalachian music.  I wonder what made the Monroe Brothers’ music identify “more closely with the southern mountain tradition” than other hillbilly and old time artists? (Cantwell, p.58).

Additionally, what specifically allows the Monroe Brothers to stand out as the ones whose music resonates more with listeners and their experiences?  In contemplating this question, I’ve considered Cantwell’s opinions regarding Monroe and the Monroe Brothers:

“Monroe’s personal experience repeated the experience of thousands of people like him, his audiences, who had left Appalachia for the industrial North, an experience which literally reiterated what in effect was a kind of national myth, expressed in popular music, of an expulsion from an idyllic South into an urban and technological wilderness in the North…Monroe entered professional music, too, at a time when the hillbilly musician was valued for his power to represent and evoke the past, so that the musician’s very purpose was to explore and in some measure recover his own tradition; in Monroe’s cause, that recovery extended years later to his personal experience, particularly that of his early youth, transfigured by time and distance, and especially to his earliest musical influences, which became for him quasi-sacred prototypes” (Cantwell, p.47-48).

Cantwell, Robert. “Ch.2, Hillbilly Music: The Commercial      Background.” Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern  Sound. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1984. N. pag. Print.

The New Lost City Ramblers


The New Lost City Ramblers are an old-time string band, originally formed in New York City by John Cohen (left), Mike Seeger (right), and Tom Paley (center) in 1958.


However, Paley left the band in 1962 and was replaced by Tracy Schwarz (left).


Nevertheless, the group proved to be extremely influential during the folk and old-time revivals.  Folkways Records released five of their albums in the early ’60s and their high degree of popularity led to their performing at countless colleges, as well as many folk festivals and various other venues.

The NLCR strove to stay true to the traditional, old-time styles of the 1920s and 1930s.  However, listeners discovered that while the NLCR were guided by the styles and techniques of past old-time and folk music, they also made the songs their own and could captivate wide audiences.  People say that they really brought the old 78RPM records back to life.


The NLCR’s cover of “Stackerlee,” originally named “Stagger Lee” and written by Lloyd Price and Harold Logan:

The New Lost City Ramblers’ influence can also be seen indirectly through their impact on musicians who followed in their footsteps…

“I listened to The New Lost City Ramblers. Everything about them appealed to me — their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and especially I liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.”–Bob Dylan from “Chronicles”


The following video is a must-watch and is amazing in conveying the group’s influence on Bob Dylan, even into his later career.  It is even a little amusing!

“Bluegrass Music”

In the Introduction to Goldsmith, it is asserted that bluegrass was invented with the introduction of public radio.  Contrary to earlier mountain music, this commercialized version of original country is relatively more polished and places greater focus on technique (Goldsmith, p.4). However, Bluegrass is still relatively simple compared to other music genres and Rosenberg says that Bluegrass’s form, content, and style are reminiscent of earlier mountain folksinging. He also says that due to its harmonies and high-pitched singing, some have referred to it as the blues of country music (Rosenberg, p.3). Bluegrass is traditionally acoustic and relies on the use of the fiddle, banjo, dobro, mandolin, guitar, and bass and its lyrical content mostly consists of everyday occurrences and community values.  Therefore, while there exists multiple methods of playing and singing within the Bluegrass community, the fundamental functions and content of mountain old time, country, folk, and Bluegrass have remained fairly constant over time.  These functions include, but are not limited to, the gathering of community with Bluegrass at the center, the expression of everyday strife, and the sharing of religious beliefs, love, community, and the beauty of Appalachia.