Bluegrass Presentation

“Mule Skinner Blues” –Bill Monroe (1930)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Very traditional vocals, and playing styles
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • Performed on the WMV
    • Has been covered a few times (i.e. Dolly Parton)

“What a Friend we have in Jesus” –Doc Watson (1984)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Harmonica
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Very different, it only used one person’s voice, and it was low
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • Did fairly well
    • It was on a more personal album “Down South”
    • All comments on it were saying it is true bluegrass

“Working Girl Blues” –Hazel Dickens (1986)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Banjo, guitar, bass,
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Traditional style, but women singing together was very new
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • Received very well. Said to have inspired future female artists

“Man of Constant Sorrow” –Dan Tyminski (2002)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Keeps with traditional blues music
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it? Received?
    • Made very popular by the movie “Oh Brother Where art Thou”
    • Said to have created the resurgence of bluegrass today
    • Used in many scholarly articles to show bluegrass progression
  • Marketing???
    • Popularized by the movie
  • Lyrical meanings

“Wagon Wheel” –Old Crow Medicine Show (2004)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Banjo, fiddle, bass
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • More traditional sounds, and the subject material is more traditional
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • It really reopened bluegrass to younger generations.

“Psycho Girls and Psycow Boys” – Sam Bush (2007)

  • What instruments are used?
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?

“Kangding Qingge” –Abigail Washburn (2008)

  • What instruments are used?
    • banjo
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Not at all. Not even in english
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • Popular in China

“This Girl” –Punch Brothers (2012)

  • What instruments are used?
    • Mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo
  • How does the sound compare to traditional bluegrass?
    • Not at all. Very popular vocals and playing style. Almost beach like
  • How was the popularity of the song? How successful was it?
    • Very well received by younger crowd

Gender in Bluegrass

Over the past few weeks we have been going over gender in bluegrass. Discussing the hardships that women had to go through in order to create their space in the genre. Surprisingly, most of the speed-bumps came from other women who did not think that a woman should travel and do shows, but instead stay at home and care for the children.

Clearly this is not the way Abigail Washburn sees her role in the family, and going back further, Hazel Dickens fought long and hard to gain her place. In a past movie documentary, “Its hard to tell the Singer from the Song.” This is actually were I would like to maintain the focus of the blog. This film was absolutely perfect as far as explaining the hardships that everyone faced when people had to leave the farm and go to work in the cities.


One scene that was particularly interesting was when Hazel explains how she wrote her song “Workin Girl Blues.” It was pretty awesome that she wrote it on the back of an inventory list while at work stocking shelves. She had a great work ethic and it really came through in her music. Ever since she was young she began understanding the importance of music and her voice as it moved many people and enhanced the voices of the people around her.

One of my favorite parts in the film was when she sung her song “Black Lung” and the way she put so much passion and soul into it. She wrote it to protest the mines after her brother passed away from getting black lung from working down in the earth. The way she was able to move people and cause so much of a stir was brilliant. If you have not had a chance to see the film, I highly recommend it. You will laugh, you will get sad, and you will be moved. She really showed me the importance of the voice and its place in helping begin progression in society.

What does Bluegrass look like today???

Upon reading  “Bluegrass Today” by Neil Rosenberg I saw a few things that I found interesting. The first of which was the fact that it took until 1971 to have the first real book published about the genre when it had been around for so long. But I suppose that it would make some sense considering all of the ground that one would have to cover (all of Appalachia) to gather the facts and listen to the different styles. But the book was by James Rooney and it was in most parts a focus on Bill Monroe. This would be fine and all, but for Rooney, it must have not looked like an important question to ask Monroe, about his feelings on the newgrass movement or any of the newer bands coming out.

The only reason I bring this up is that even to this day, fans are divided on the issue of what they consider bluegrass. You have your loyal Monroe fans and you have others who have more progressive stances on the genre. This does not seem to have affected the spread of the genre because it has moved into all corners of the Earth. Abigail Washburn for instance has done serious work in spreading the sounds of bluegrass in China. There are also bands that are starting to take up popularity in New Zealand and in many parts of Europe.

To me, the problems that were not addressed back when the genre started or when people began putting it in history books, may have had a hand in making the genre what it is today. It may be a good thing, and I look forward to seeing its continued progress.









Fincastle 1966

Looking at a time line, bluegrass started out of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 40’s with Bill Monroe and, the Stanley Brothers, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and was found to be quite popular radio entertainment. At that point in time, there wasn’t many other outlets for the music to be presented or promoted outside of a local jam. But in September of 1965, Carlton Haney brought bluegrass out of the local jams and singular concert playing bands, in a festival that went on for three days. People from all over the country camped out and bonded together over the music day and night. All of the artists they had only been able to hear on the radio, were only a football fields length away at any given time. Not only did the festival bring people who were already into the music around but it spread the genre out further across the nation by inspiring others to promote their own festivals all throughout Appalachia and beyond.

You can see all of the excitement in the biography “Bluegrass Country Soul,” and it goes into depth on the festival and Haney’s take on what brought the people together. Unfortunately, he stopped holding the annual festival that generated such a fan base and talent pool, and the Cantrell’s Horse Farm, in Fincastle, Virginia where it was held is now run down and campgrounds are home to none but shrubbery and when you see pictures of it, it is such a nostalgic feeling and it is hard to believe that is where history was made for the music of bluegrass.bluegrass ruins

As addressed in the article by Owen Gardner entitled “The Portable Community: Mobility and Modernization in Bluegrass Festival Life,” he goes over how the festival impacted the spread of the music, and how it brought people away from their homes and took them from festival to festival. The festival life has grown and it truly is a community of its own in which talent is still brought forth and happiness is shared by all who gather to hear the music, and although Mr. Haney may be gone and his rested land no longer feels the tires of campers or the feet of the many fans or the sweet sound of the mandolin, it is nice to see that it sparked such a movement that will never fade.



2015 Appalachian State Fiddler’s Convention

I have never been to a festival or convention for bluegrass before this visit to Appalachian State. The most that I had seen of live bluegrass was at the bluegrass nights when I would go to my volunteer fire station. We bring in once a month, local bands and they would play all night in the station bay, but I never got into it very much at the time. Now that I have been in the class for a bit and started to really get back into the music, I can truly appreciate where it comes from and the place it holds in my own life.

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The convention was a true eye opener to the popularity that the genre still holds. I learned a lot about the music and the people that play and the people that just come to listen. The whole experience was new to me, from the music to the handcrafts to the instrument makers. I loved the whole convention! There was an element that came from seeing and hearing the music that you don’t  get from the class room. I was able to experience that feeling of community that is talked about in every article. I could distinguish the different sounds with the instruments by seeing them individually on stage.

If I had to say, I think my favorite experience from the entire trip, was listening to the music, and watching other people who were there for the show. There was such a great crowd and when a good tune was being played or a catchy dance was being performed, you could really feel the room come to life. People stomped their feet and clapped their hands. Children played and ran about. It was like a whole new community was formed just for that special weekend.

I talked to quite a few people who crafted the instruments and was able to learn why they do what they do. There was a couple people that quit their other jobs just so they could make instruments. Others got into it because they wanted to impress a girl. And still others just grew up in families were it was expected. But each of them shared a common love for the music and the people that it brought together. That is something that you cannot get out of a book or watching a video. Truly an experience unforgettable.

Today’s take on Bluegrass

This past week, my class was given an amazing opportunity to sit down and talk with John Lawless, Co-founder and chief editor of Bluegrass Today. Not only that, but we got to hear him play us a tune on his banjo.

john lawless

It really meant a lot to me personally to have someone as busy as he is to come and have a real conversation with us. It was nice to listen to someone who grew up in my own neck of the woods Norfolk, VA. What was so nice is that he and I share more than roots, but also views on bluegrass as a whole.

There was a point in the class when he said that as long as a band has a banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and a guitar, it is bluegrass music so long as he likes it… Now that point in and of its self makes a world of difference that never really occurred as a thought to me until he mentioned it.

If you do not like the sound, chances are you won’t like the band. True enough right? but how about if you do not like the context in which you listen to the music (say at a bad time in your day or the such)? No matter how good the band, chances are you won’t like the song or the band for that matter.

Now, this concept had me wondering if this could be a huge hindrance to the genre as a whole. When I say this, I mean the debates over what is bluegrass and what is not… This is something that can make or break a band, and more often than not it comes from people not jiving with the sound. Maybe it’s too far and gone from Bill Monroe’s style or maybe they use electric instruments. Whatever may be the case, it is a clear issue for many.

Something Mr. Lawless said really stuck out and surprised me, was along the lines of he really wished there was less to this issue and that people would either like the music or not like the music, but not fight over what is real or not. I can not really say that I oppose that stance either. The fact that this genre was self grown and self promoted should open up the idea, that if someone wants to add onto the gift of Mr. Monroe, then let that be their contribution to bluegrass. I mean, if they did not share an interest in the music that everyone else shares, then they probably would not try to call themselves a bluegrass band at all.

Does the instrumentation matter enough to call a band not real bluegrass, or does their message mean something a bit more? Is it the sound of a single mandolin or a banjo, or is it the sound of everyone coming together without any rests in the beat that keeps people slapping their hands in unison? At the end of the day, I personally agree in line with what Mr. Lawless said at the beginning of his visit. If it has the right kind of sound and I like it, and it makes me say, “that’s bluegrass,” then that is bluegrass to me. At the end of the day that’s all that matters, and that’s what will always keep the genre going past the old hollars and hills where it started.

On, Keith Whitley

Keith Whitley was a truly interesting gentleman. Born in Kentucky, he began his life in music at a very young age, winning contests by the age of five and getting on local radio stations at thirteen. While he was still in high school he started a bluegrass band with his friend Ricky Skaggs, they called Lonesome Mountain Boys. The duo played only bluegrass and quickly made a local impact as they rose in popularity.


The boys played songs mainly after the Stanley Brothers, and when Ralph Stanley was looking to put a band back together, asked Whitley and Skaggs because of how impressed he was with their music. They became known as the Clinch Mountain Boys.

The group put out some great hits that rose to popularity and finally, Keith left the group in 1973 to pursue a solo career. He did mostly country with a few different bands, but returned to his roots for another two years, putting out another five albums!

After another two years with the band, Keith decided to go solo again after signing with RCA records. He put out a few albums with little return, until his hit single released in 1986, “Miami, My Amy.”

Miami, My Amy http://

Whitley died at the age of 34 in 1989. He had severe alcoholism and on May 9, 1989, he passed due to alcohol poisoning. But even in death, his sound still went on. Just before he died he released an album “I wonder do you Think of Me” and it had a couple singles that rose to the top. Whitley continues to inspire both bluegrass and country performers alike, and in that, he is truly immortal.

At a Glance: Doc Watson

Born on March 3, 1923 from Deep Gap, North Carolina was Arthel Lane Watson, arguably one of the most influential old-time bluegrass artist. Mr. Watson was left blind after an eye infection  during infancy, but that did not hold him back in the slightest. Doc gives much of his credit for not allowing his handicap to get in the way, to his father, who would have Doc help in him in the shop, sawing wood and doing everything that a normal young man could do to pull his own weight.

doc watson

At the age of 12, Mr. Watson began to play the guitar, slowly developing the flat-picking style that would change the sound of bluegrass forever. Much of this credit Mr. Watson gives to Jimmie Rodgers, who heavily influenced the sound Watson was looking for since a very young age.

As Mr. Watson started out, he would play for tips and eventually started playing gigs, until he finally was played on the radio. He was given the name “Doc.” after coming on the air with an announcer that thought he needed a more catchy name. And it stuck with him all the way to his death at the age of 89.

Doc gained national recognition in the 1960s during the music revival. People, including myself, were very taken by his true old time sound, which carries with it all of the feelings of tradition and memory from days long past. Just listening to any one of Doc’s many blues driven songs will take you to the work fields or into a church revival. His quick picking still inspires the youth of aspiring artists today, making him a time transcending force, who will go on always keeping a blue spark burning for the beautiful mountain music he played so simply. So sweetly.

Bluegrass to Me

I have heard a lot about what makes up the components of Bluegrass music such as the type of instruments used (the banjo, the fiddle, and so on), however, when I was watching the film High Lonesome and reading up on the music, I found that my definition of Bluegrass is on of its character and purpose. This is a style of music originating in the hills by people who did not have much but made up for what they lacked in wealth by their good spirits and tradition carried through time by song. Bluegrass started around the family circle after the days labor was finished. When stories were being told and ideas were shared,  and that’s what comes through in the sound and lyrics. Religion plays so close to the sound and style, because that was held so dear by the families. Bluegrass even aided in teaching people how to read, which goes to show that you can not determine the true definition based solely on the instruments played or always by on whose playing it. Even in the film it was said that they would just play what they had sometimes. It is a beautiful compilation of sound expressing emotion of a wide range, heard still in every hollar of the hills where it came and now almost every nook of the world.