Bluegrass and Appalachia

My initial reaction to the question, “Does Bluegrass music represent Appalachia?” was “Of course!” I grew up in Southwest Virginia, hearing Bluegrass and Gospel Bluegrass everywhere from churches to county fairs.  Many of the themes in Bluegrass remind me of home, whether it be spending Sundays at the little church down the road or coming home after a long day on the farm. However, after discussing this question a little further in class, I started to think about it differently. Why is it said that Bluegrass solely represents Appalachia when it was born in western Kentucky, outside of the ARC’s definition of the region (seen below?) How can it represent only Appalachia if the majority of the audience at early Bluegrass festivals consisted of hippies and Appalachian “outsiders”? And finally, how can it represent Appalachia if you were able to hear “traditional hillbilly music” at a bar in New York City in the 1960s, sung by the Greenbriar Boys who hailed from Queens and New Jersey (Goldsmith)?

appalachia map

greenbriar boys

Carlton Haney, the mastermind behind the first Bluegrass festival, was able to bring a diverse audience to Fincastle, Virginia in 1956. Among these, one particular group (as noted in Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass:  A History) stood out as a relatively large part of the crowd. These “citybillies” wore, as described by Ralph Rinzler, the “uniform (blue jeans…beards and sandals or tennis shoes)” and contrasted against the various “salt-of-the-earth farmers and factory workers” that you would typically expect to be at a Bluegrass concert (Rosenberg).


Also noted in Rosenberg’s chapter “The First Festival and Bluegrass Consumers:  1965-66” are the “several evidences of resentment from local musicians at the expensive instruments and somewhat mechanical precision of city boys.” Going back to my initial reaction about Bluegrass representing Appalachia, I can understand why people from the Appalachian region would get defensive about this genre of music that is such a large part of their lives. If Bluegrass is truly representing Appalachian culture and lifestyle, there should be a certain effort to protect it from “outsiders.” However, I don’t believe this is the most important function of the music. What if it is not so much a question of “Does music represent a place?” but instead a question of “How does music bring different places together?” Rosenberg alludes to this question by stating in his book, “While there was some polarization between the citybillies and the hillbillies in the small crowd, many of those present shared an enthusiasm for the music which transcended cultural differences.”



Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass:  A History

Thomas Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader

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