Coming from a West Virginian family, I have learned to love country and western music. From that point, it was only a small jump over to bluegrass. My first experience with bluegrass was during my sophomore year of high school when I found a CD by the band The Blue Rags on the discount rack at my local record store. I completely loved the album, and it was only later that my bass teacher, who was in a bluegrass band, told me that the entire album consisted of covers of classic bluegrass songs.
In order to fully understand bluegrass, one must know where it came from and how it became what it is now. So, to start out, bluegrass first came about in the Appalachian Mountains, played by immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The music adopted characteristics similar to the traditional styles of those regions. Bluegrass was dance music for the rural mountain towns of Appalachia. Although the genre supposedly developed in the 1930s, it did not gain national attention until 1948, when the music began to be recorded. It was at this point that the music of the Appalachian Mountains became open to the world.
The first big bluegrass bands came about in the 1950s, and thus the time period was dubbed the “Golden Age of Bluegrass.” These bands set the stage for how bluegrass would grow. Bill Monroe, for example, set the precedent for what the proper instrumentation of a bluegrass band was, and most traditional bluegrass bands followed his example. Thus, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass became the instruments of bluegrass. It was also at this time that the famed bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs developed what would be the most popular way to play the banjo.
Although Earl Scruggs came from the first generation of famous bluegrass players, he earned his place in the sub-genre known as “progressive bluegrass.” But this style didn’t fully come into its own until the late ’60s. These progressive players sometimes used electric instruments and brought in elements from other genres. Their music often has a jam-band feel to it. Another of the classic bands from the second generation of bluegrass, The Dillards, also falls under this category. The Blue Rags, whom I mentioned earlier as my first exposure to bluegrass, falls under this listing, as well.
In contrast to that sub-genre, the traditional style of playing focuses on sticking to the set precedent. The Bill Monroe instrumentation is used and the chord progressions are often simple.
In the 1980s, while progressive music was incorporating electric instruments more and more, the traditional players began using the electric bass. More importantly for the genre, however, the traditional players began breaking away from the same old traditional chord progressions.
Despite losing its popularity and having difficulty breaking into the mainstream, bluegrass still has a significant presence in the Appalachian region. The genre is big enough that there was a whole bluegrass day during the Three Rivers Arts Festival this summer in Pittsburgh, featuring local bands such as the Allegheny Drifters and the Mon River Ramblers. Ralph Stanley, one of the classic names in bluegrass, also performed. There are a number of bluegrass festivals held across the country each year, inlcuding the RockyGrass Festival in Colorado, Berkley Old Time Music Convention in California and Foggy Hollow Bluegrass Gatherin’ in Alabama, not to mention the countless festivals held in the Appalachian region, itself.
Apart from the bands at these festivals, which typically feature more traditional than progressive bands, there are many progressive and newgrass bands around today. The Defibulators, for example, is a newgrass band from Brooklyn, N.Y. New York City is quite different from Appalachia, but The Defibulators’ music clearly has the typical bluegrass sound, as well as some punk (and occasionally Dixieland) elements. The Defibulators can’t be referred to as traditional by any stretch, as they employ electric guitar and bass and a washboard player (whose name is listed as Metalbelly) — certainly not part of Bill Monroe’s traditional lineup.
The bluegrass genre has continuously changed in the 60 years it has been around, adapting to survive. From its start in Appalachia, the genre has gained a following as far away as the Czech Republic and received further influences from various genres. But no matter how far it travels or how adapted it becomes, Bluegrass will always be a part of Americana.
Joey Wilks is the host of “Whatever,” which can be heard every Wednesday night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on WPTS Radio.