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?