An Attempt to Define Bluegrass

I had some technical difficulties getting my blog up, but here is my first post on the definition of bluegrass.

What is bluegrass? That’s a question that is sure to spark some conversation, and perhaps even controversy. When tackling this question, and attempting to “define” bluegrass, for me, a good place to start would be to look at the technical aspects of the genre. Bluegrass music can easily be identified by the instruments present. These instruments often include, but are not necessarily limited to: Acoustic guitar, 5-string banjo, mandolin, violin/fiddle, Dobro, and double bass. However, it is not simply just the simple combination of these specific instruments, but it is also identified in the techniques and styles of the players. One of the most prevalent sounds in bluegrass is the 5-string banjo. The 3-finger picking style or Scruggs style of banjo playing is inherent to the development, and lasting legacy of the genre. Another aspect of technique that I find to be very rooted in the genre is how the mandolin is played. When it is not being featured as a solo, the mandolin employs itself in a more percussive role. This gives us the back-beat, and drive to the music often referred to as the “chop” on beats 2 and 4. This technique can also be mimicked on other instruments as well, but I find that the mandolin and bass together often serve as a sort of “rhythm section” in bluegrass.

I think I could talk about technique on instruments forever, but in my opinion the techniques of the banjo, and mandolin are more important to bluegrass than the others. Obviously, that point is debatable, and without all the specific techniques coming together – we would not have bluegrass. Another aspect that I find possibly the most important is the use of improvisation in bluegrass music. Improvisation is something that sets bluegrass apart from other genres of music like pop, and mainstream country. A way to hear this is when an instrument is featured during a solo, or a “break”. The fact that bluegrass values improvisation, virtuosity and ultimately artistic creativity in a musical setting is extremely interesting to me. I think this in some way pours over into the culture surrounding the music and genre, especially during festivals and other concerts.

Instrumentation, technique, and improvisation and three things that are inherent to the genre of bluegrass to me. With that being said, it is clear that bluegrass does not need all three of those aspects to be considered bluegrass music. Some banjo players play clawhammer style, and that can still be considered bluegrass. Not all songs can have a mandolin chop since they are in 3/4 time. Not all bluegrass groups even have a mandolin player, or a banjo player, or a guitar player, etc… So where does that leave us? I’m not too sure, but I don’t think that it is even possible to define bluegrass at a technical level. Yes, we can say, “bluegrass often features high and lonesome vocal harmonies, or the I IV and V chords” but it is obvious that sometimes it doesn’t have a single aspect of what we just mentioned.

Do we look to the IBMA or “the trade association that connects and educates bluegrass professionals, empowers the bluegrass community, and encourages worldwide appreciation of bluegrass music of yesterday, today and tomorrow” in order to get our definition <>? Personally, I’m not absolutely sure about the IBMA as being something that should define the genre for fans of bluegrass music. I would argue that they have taken the approach to defining bluegrass in a different light. Instead of asking, “what is bluegrass?” , they ask “what is NOT bluegrass?”. A quick look into the IBMA’s most popular event, their yearly award ceremony sheds a little light on this. A specific example would be the Infamous Stringdusters, a bluegrass group based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2007, the Infamous Stringdusters won awards for Song of the Year (“Fork in the Road), Album of the Year (Fork in the Road), and Emerging Artist of the Year. Since 2007 the ‘Dusters have only been nominated for one IBMA award (2011, entertainer of the year). In addition to this, the band has recorded two studio albums since 2011, Silver Sky (2012) and Let it Go (2014). The group failed to receive any nominations from the IBMA for either of the albums. The Infamous Stringdusters up until 2011, in the IBMA’s book, were a bluegrass group, and now they are not.

Now, whether you think these albums are worthy of the IBMA nomination is certainly up for debate, but seeing the same artists up for nomination every single year gets a little old (sorry Del!). Maybe they still are bluegrass in the mind of the IBMA. Honestly, who knows, but it is obvious that this exemplifies some sort of unwillingness to change within the community of bluegrass. That is a topic for another time though.

My point in this example is, that maybe we shouldn’t look to the IBMA to find a definition of bluegrass music. Where do we draw the line at what is or what is not bluegrass music? Should we draw a line? I think the Infamous Stringdusters are indeed a bluegrass group, as well as many other bands that have not been considered for awards by them like Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and Trampled by Turtles. If you are a traditionalist, then perhaps their definition will suit you. I think the IBMA is a great organization and asset for bluegrass music, but in this world, I would argue that the embracing other genres, styles and expanding the music as a whole can only help the scene and culture that surrounds the music.

On that note, I would say that bluegrass, is ultimately something personal. I connect to the music and define it from within myself and from my own experiences. There’s really no amount of music theory, and other technical jargon I can learn that will allow myself to define the music. There’s no person, or people, or group that well help me get a grasp of this music on a personal level. To me, it reminds me of my grandparents in Waynesboro, Virginia and where my mother grew up. It reminds me of the values I’ve been taught through my life such as the importance of family, the importance of home, and the benefit of hard work. It makes me think of the mountains in Virginia. It makes me think of Appalachia. I think that however someone connects to bluegrass music personally, is ultimately their definition of the music. It’s really not something that can be made into a tangible definition, rather it is one that comes from the heart.

If anyone has any opinions, ideas, answers, or any other comments – please feel free to add. Thanks!


–Ryan Murdock


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