Bluegrass: The First Generation 1945 - 1970
Created | Updated May 14, 2013
Does the term conjure up an image of foot-stompin' drunken overalls-clad troglodytes, playing jugs, washboards and spoons as they howl at the moon? Sorry to burst your bubble, but you're in the wrong studio.
Does the music itself evoke images of hillbilly road chases? Yup. The connection has become a cliché in modern culture, thanks to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and a certain TV show based in a certain Hazzard County.
Historically speaking, bluegrass is a fairly recent development in American music, and can be included in the jazz generation.
A New Way to Play Old Music
Bill Monroe (1911 - 1996) is the father of bluegrass. His band, the Blue Grass Boys1, evolved a newer, fresher, jazzier take on the rural music scene. Between 1939 and his death in 1996, Monroe mentored more than 150 musicians in the band. A true musical institution, the Boys developed a distinctive style, described at one point by Monroe as 'that high lonesome sound'. That sound found its form partly through Monroe's vocal arrangements (three- or four-part harmony), and through superior virtuosity on the musicians' part.
The 1945 lineup, with Lester Flatt (1914 - 1979) on guitar and vocals, and Earl Scruggs (b 1924) on banjo, crystallised the Blue Grass sound. As the style was tried by other artists, beginning with the Stanley Brothers, it retained the 'bluegrass' name, and was eventually recognised as a genre. Most of the prominent bluegrass musicians during the first generation were Blue Grass Boys at one point or another. It seems as if one needed to serve an apprenticeship to be able to do it right. The playing of good bluegrass requires much of the same dexterity and discipline that would be expected from a Bach ensemble. Make no mistake, bluegrass played badly sounds hideous.
The Stanley Brothers were old-time musicians with Appalachian roots, and were heard predominantly through their regional radio shows. They listened to that fresh style, liked what they heard, and, in 1946, embarked upon their own bluegrass journey with their newly formed band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Carter Stanley (1925 - 1966) was arguably one of the best country singers ever, and Ralph Stanley (b 1927) is active yet in 2006, as is Earl Scruggs.
Flatt and Scruggs 'graduated' from the Blue Grass Boys, and established the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948 to broaden the genre's exposure. They engaged a group of talented musicians and singers for their roadshows, and delivered bluegrass to America in person. Touring extensively during the 1950s and 1960s, they visited every possible venue, from high school assemblies to Texas roadhouses, with an occasional radio and TV appearance. Their odd-sounding names were truly iconic due to their influence during that period.
As Flatt and Scruggs gathered converts and fans, Bill Monroe was content to keep the bluegrass academy running. These three men became the inaugural inductees of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
The Traditional Bluegrass Instruments
The fiddle is virtually identical to the violin, but it has an attitude. Violinists are reared in the plush comfort of the Classics, whereas fiddlers begin by skreeking2 away, and keep on skreeking until they come up with something pretty. Some violinists do cross over, from time to time.
Of the many good fiddlers that have been known, from the Auld Country to the backwoods, from scratchy old 78 discs to cyberphonics, Vassar Clements (1928 - 2005) righteously stands to the fore. Clements paid his dues with the Blue Grass Boys, and solidified his reputation as a first-class fiddler through a career spanning 50 years and thousands of recording sessions with a surprising variety of musical acts. He was the 'Mr High Lonesome' of fiddlers. His passing was a genuine loss to the world of music.
This has become the signature bluegrass instrument, thanks in large part to Earl Scruggs, whose Foggy Mountain Breakdown provides a signature bluegrass banjo theme. After 16 bars of vigorous triple-picking3, we can see who the real banjo-pickers are. It takes talent to play it correctly, with its necessary rhythms and syncopations.
Steve Martin, the comedian, actor and musician, has the talent. To sum up one of Martin's comedy sketches, it's impossible to feel depressed when you're playing the banjo. No more Prozac, folks - banjos for everyone!
On that note, there are obvious occasions when the banjo needs to disappear. Ballads tend to lose the necessary mood, with all that happy plinking going on. Scruggs habitually switched to the guitar for a gospel set. 'Amazing Grace' with banjo accompaniment? 'Precious Memories'? Hardly.
There is an accessory that allows the banjoist to accurately tune up or down while playing, with a quick twist on a pair of calibrated pegs. The Scruggs style frequently requires changes of intonation during a song, and the 'd-tuners' serve where a capo could not.
Where the fiddle might assume the raucous voice of the bluejay, the mandolin evokes the nightingale. Its bell-like mellow tones provide a good textural counterpoint to the skreeking and plinking. It is quite demure as a lead instrument, and the other two are usually toned down so that the mandolin's voice can be heard. Bill Monroe played the mandolin to a high level of virtuosity. David Grisman (b 1945) followed in his footsteps, not only as a mandolinist, but as a guiding spirit of bluegrass and other acoustic styles.
The guitar and double bass, played pizzicato, complete the traditional bluegrass acoustic ensemble. There are no percussion instruments, so these two provide the rhythm, with the guitar replacing the banjo on occasion.
Other instruments occasionally visit the bluegrass stage. The harmonica and dobro are notably good fits, and some piano styles work well.
The dobro deserves special mention. The trademarked resonator guitar, resting flat on the player's lap and fretted with a slide, contributed another signature bluegrass sound. Josh Graves hit the scene in 1955 with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and he did for the dobro what Scruggs did for the banjo.
The Music and Style
Much of bluegrass can be traced to traditional folk roots. The simple themes of old favourites were given new life. It was Monroe's intention from the beginning to apply a subtle jazz interpretation to the traditional old-time and country repertoires. The style's development occurred in two phases: first the vocal harmonic scheme, and later, the application of instrumental virtuosity.
Three- or four-part vocal harmony predominated. The higher voice (Monroe, Flatt, and Ralph Stanley) tended to a jazzy dissonant mode. This captured the 'high lonesome sound'.
The instruments were given more demanding roles. The fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, all traditional instruments within the larger rural genre, were allowed more improvisation. Elaborate solos became the norm, and with Earl Scruggs' phenomenal mastery of the banjo, a form of 'country jazz' was born that broke through many of the traditional barriers within the American music scene.
New Sounds and Directions
The first generation of bluegrass players were an extended family, working and playing together to define the new tradition. The 'newgrass' generation, fostered in the late 1960s and 1970s, brought a sense of cultural maturity, and new levels of virtuosity, to an already exciting genre of music. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Old and In the Way were the first groups of the next generation.
But that's a whole 'nother story.