Seriously, What Is Bluegrass?

In relation to the visit our class had today from John Lawless, editor of, and an article by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters, I’m going to (yet again) address the question of just what exactly bluegrass is, something I previously touched on in an earlier post.

In class today, Mr. Lawless said that bluegrass can be music played by people brought up in the bluegrass tradition, even if they’re doing something different now. Pandolfi feels similarly about bluegrass. Pandolfi says that bluegrass is “wide open,” and “whatever someone says it is.” He continues to argue that bluegrass isn’t politics, but music. The issue that lies in this approach is that many of the traditionalists of the genre are very conservative in what they will designate as bluegrass. They take an approach of exclusivity, with a great hesitance to call something “bluegrass” for fear of tarnishing one of the greatest musical traditions around.

Is this a reasonable approach to take? Bluegrass, as I’ve said before is one of the most interesting genres of music currently around due to its reverence for tradition and roots and its supposed appreciation for innovation. However, the appreciation for innovation does seem to contradict with the conservative view.

In 1965, Bob Dylan (rest assured, I’m not arguing that Bob Dylan is a bluegrass artist) played Newport Folk Festival. Dylan decided on a whim that he would play with a full backing band, or “electric” as they called it. At this point, Newport Folk Festival was a pretty traditional folk festival, with “electric” acts getting a bit of a hard time and disapproval. Dylan wasn’t exactly a fan of this attitude, and in an attempt to subvert this perception, decided to go “electric” with his set at Newport. This was met with mixed reactions. Both booing and cheering were heard as Dylan played his music. Some artists appreciated what Dylan was doing, some hated it. Some attendees loved it, some hated it. In that day and age, folk music didn’t venture too far from acoustic instruments, which is why, when Dylan played with an “electric” band (electric guitar, electric bass and drums), he was met with some harsh criticism. However, in retrospect, this is absolutely an innovation in folk music, as we see modern folk music using a variety of both acoustic and electric instruments, and few people even bat an eye at this.

Honestly, I see the bluegrass community being similar today. A more conservative crowd, fearing the tarnishing of something they loved dearly reacted negatively to something that, in retrospect, was innovative, but at the time seemed to be destructive to a prized genre. Others, seeing the innovation and being excited by it, reacted positively.

My point is that, by fearing the destruction of tradition, are we missing out on innovation? None of these modern artists are actively trying to destroy bluegrass. They all have a deep reverence for the tradition in bluegrass. Pandolfi says that he isn’t sure “traditionalists understand how much respect the young progressive players give to guys like Earl and Ralph, even if they don’t copy their music.” When I saw Mumford and Sons in Fairfax, Virginia about two years back, Marcus Mumford (who is from England) told the crowd it felt good to be back in the south (of course, few people from the states would consider Fairfax, Virginia the “south,” but that’s another argument entirely). While this may seem inauthentic or misinformed, I didn’t take it that way. I took it as a showing of respect for the musical traditions of the south, including the folk and bluegrass traditions, which have obviously heavily influenced a band like Mumford and Sons. Now, of course, we could debate the “bluegrassness” or “bluegrassality” of Mumford and Sons for days, and I’m not saying either way whether or not I think they are bluegrass (because I’m honestly torn), but who is to say they aren’t? Maybe they’re an innovation of bluegrass. Maybe the Avett Brothers are an innovation of bluegrass.

Now, I want to clarify and say I mean no disrespect whatsoever for the traditionalists of bluegrass. Bill Monroe was a master, Lester and Earl were incredible and Ralph and Carter are extremely valuable as well. But what were they if they weren’t innovators? Bluegrass didn’t exist when Bill started playing. Earl invented a whole new style of banjo playing.

Pandolfi point out an irony in the current tension between bluegrass traditionalists and progressive artists. “Ironically, while traditionalists feel they are protecting ‘real bluegrass,’ acts like Mumford (Mumford and Sons) and Yonder (Yonder Mountain String Band) want to celebrate the traditional idiom like never before.” He goes on to say that “bluegrass needs these bands way more than they need bluegrass.” I would have to agree.  Nobody is trying to tarnish the good reputation of bluegrass. The fact that these bands want to be called “bluegrass” and that they are seeking out this distinction from a community known for being stingy with such a distinction should indicate a great respect for the tradition. I don’t think tradition will be lost if these artists are allowed the title of “bluegrass.” If anything, these bands will help bring more people to know the tradition. Tradition does run the risk of getting lost if these artists aren’t allowed the title of “bluegrass.” By broadening the definition of the genre, it will broaden the fan base of bluegrass, allowing many more people the opportunity to explore the wonderful world of bluegrass some people are trying so hard to defend.

So here’s to Bill Monroe. Here’s to Scott Avett. Here’s to Earl Scruggs. Here’s to Marcus Mumford. Here’s to coexistence and acceptance. Here’s to bluegrass.


J.D. Crowe Biography

J.D. (James Dee) Crowe is a well-known banjo player.  Crowe was born on August 27, 1937 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Crowe first picked up the banjo when he was 13 years old, after seeing Flatt & Scruggs play.  Crowe began attending their performances frequently and would sit as close as he could to the stage so he could study Scruggs’ picking style.  He first came to prominence as a banjo player in the 1950s while playing for Jimmy Martin.  He recorded for Jimmy Martin between December of 1956 and August of 1960.

After his time with Martin’s band, Crowe went on to form the Kentucky Mountain Boys, a band which lasted for a few years.  By the time the early 70’s rolled around, Crowe had gone on to form J.D. Crowe and The New South, and they would go on to become one of the most influential groups of the 1970s.  The original lineup had Tony Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bobby Sloan on bass and fiddle.

The New South was so influential because they blended folk, blues, country and rock styles together to create an innovative form of bluegrass.  They also emphasized playing on electric instruments to aid their unique style.  Their 1975 self-titled debut album took the world by storm, and many considered it an incredibly important album in the development of bluegrass.

Crowe is still alive today, though he (sort of) retired from touring in 1988.  I say “sort of” because he has appeared on a few tours and played a number of shows since his “retirement.”

This video is a live recording of J.D. Crowe and The New South from 1974.



Radio and Bluegrass in the Early Days

In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, Cantwell writes about the influence that radio had on bluegrass music in the genre’s early days.  In the 1920’s, when the Monroe Brothers were coming into prominence, radio was in its early stages.  The quality of audio coming out of radios wasn’t anywhere near the quality we are used to today, and for some forms of music, that wasn’t such a great thing.  However, bluegrass found itself prospering on the radio.  The simplicity of bluegrass lent itself very well to the primitive forms of radio people had in the 1920’s.  As Cantwell states, “it communicated to the airwaves only what the receiving set could be relied upon to reproduce with perfect accuracy: simple melodic lines and parallel harmonies…high-pitched but effortless singing, a steady and unaccented rolling rhythm.”  Bluegrass did certainly contain all of these things, which made it the perfect match for radio in the 1920’s.  Early radio was not good at reproducing tones in the bass end of the spectrum, nor was it good at reproducing dynamics within a song.  Bluegrass, while not completely devoid of dynamics, is often not very dynamic, making it a great choice for an audio system unable to produce a high dynamic range.

The Monroe Brothers, of course, embodied these characteristics that made bluegrass suitable for the radio, and as such, they became one of the most popular groups of that era. The Monroe Brothers embraced the technology of their time and found ways to excel within those parameters. The following video is a recording from slightly after the era in question (mid 1930’s), but is a good example of the quality of recordings in this time.

So in reading about how the Monroe Brothers embraced the technology of their time, I began wondering about modern bluegrass artists, nearly a century later, and how they are embracing the technologies of their time. While not exactly a bluegrass artist, David Crowder is an artist who clearly has some bluegrass influence in his music.  On his most recent album, Neon Steeple, Crowder included the song “My Beloved.”  The song is written to be used in church worship services, but includes a distinct banjo part on top of an electronic drum beat. This fusion of bluegrass tradition with modern instrumentation is certainly interesting and notable, but I doubt this is the future of bluegrass, and I don’t believe it will become as influential as Bill Monroe and his embrace of technology.

One of the most interesting things to me about bluegrass in today’s world is that I can see bluegrass influences on a wide variety of music outside of what is traditionally considered bluegrass.  For example, bands like Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers both mix traditional bluegrass with rock music, but they do so in distinctly different ways.  In my opinion, Mumford and Sons plays music sort of in the vein of alternative rock music blended with a bit of folk rock, but does it all with traditional bluegrass instrumentation.  A typical performance from Mumford and Sons involves just an acoustic guitar, a banjo, an upright bass, a keyboard you can barely hear, and a bass drum keeping the rhythm.  The following video is a great example of the Mumford and Sons style, with a driving rhythm and chord progression that one might say is atypical of bluegrass, but certainly more typical of alternative rock, but played with bluegrass instruments.

On the other hand, we have the Avett Brothers, who have played a wide range of music over their career, but some of it falls into the traditional bluegrass genre. Below is a song called “Laundry Room,” which is played in a style that is closer to traditional bluegrass (especially the breakdown at the end), but is played with instrumentation not always seen in bluegrass such as drums and keys.  (Sidenote: I tried really hard to find a video of the Avett Brothers playing a traditional bluegrass tune with drums and such, but I had a hard time finding one.  I recall them doing something along those lines in a concert I saw of theirs once.)

So this raises the question of what is bluegrass and what isn’t bluegrass in the modern age? Bluegrass is a genre that values tradition and innovation equally.  As such, what can be considered bluegrass innovation and what is to be considered outside of bluegrass?

Ed Haley Biography

Ed Haley was a musician born in Logan County, West Virginia in 1885. At three years old, Ed lost his eyesight after contracting measles. As a boy, his uncle gave him a fiddle, and within a few years he was playing with many different local musicians.

Haley would go on to become known as one of the best fiddle players in all of Appalachia. He almost never recorded his music out of a fear that he, as a blind man, would be taken advantage of by the record companies. He was known for having an incredibly wide repertoire of old-time music, and performed this music in all sorts of places.

Haley died around the age of 65, due to a heart attack. He will be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in October 2015.