The Evolution of Bluegrass: From McCoury to Krauss
- By Hannah Epstein
- Published on May 02, 2011
|Yonder Mountain String Band in 2007|
Hearing the name Jerry Garcia doesn’t just evoke thoughts of The Grateful Dead. His iconic persona represents the jam band genre, the 1960s counterculture movement and a certain point in the history of the country.
The same could be said for John Coltrane and jazz, Elvis Presley for rock n’ roll and even Mozart and classical.
But Bill Monroe is no such household name despite being on the same level as many of these founding fathers.
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Born on a Kentucky farm in 1911, Monroe is the founding father of bluegrass music, a genre that has had a larger effect on contemporary music like rock, fold and indie, than many might know.
What makes the genre unique is that in a world where musical styles change faster than people can keep up with them, bluegrass has endured in essentially the same form as it was originally conceived, and still manages to draw fans from all over the world.
|Yonder Mountain String Band's Adam Aijala in 2010|
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In a day and age where electronic sounds and sex appeal seems necessary for mainstream success, it was amazing to see bands playing string instruments on the same stage as pop stars like Usher and Lady Gaga and receiving the same amount of laudation from the audience. The endurance of the genre is a fascinating tale that mimics the evolution of our music culture in the last century.
Where It All Started: Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
Monroe first played with his brother, Charlie, in the Monroe Brothers, but it was his second band, formed in 1938, that pioneered one of the defining genres of American music. The band was Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and the ensemble went on to form the basis for bluegrass music.
At its inception, the band consisted of Monroe on mandolin, singer and guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts, although the band went on to have a carousel of members. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys were unique because of the blend of string instruments, danceable tempos and lyrics that told a story.
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At the beginning of the twentieth century, three musical genres coalesced to create what is now known as bluegrass. According to Dan Hays, president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Irish music, American gospel and blues were the dominant influences on Monroe when he first started playing.
“Lots of folk was handed down from an oral tradition that became the basis of the music,” Hays said.
The style of bluegrass remained true to the founding ensembles until the 1960s and 70s, when the genre incorporated a new artistic change called progressive bluegrass or “newgrass.”
In the early 70s, a band called New Grass Revival, which featured greats such as Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, formed. The band was different from traditional bluegrass acts – their long hair, usage of electric instruments and desire to play rock songs in a bluegrass style were vastly different from contemporary bluegrass acts.
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“[These artists] brought a whole new level of sophistication and virtuosic instrumental prowess,” contemporary bluegrass quintet Head for the Hills’ bassist Matt Loewen said. “They were able to expand the whole pallet to incorporate jazz and rock and Latin music and all kinds of other things.”
|Bill Monroe's gravestie. He died in 1996.|
Bluegrass in the 1990s and Today
The third generation of bluegrass, which began in the 1990s, involves musicians such as Alison Krauss and Del McCoury. This generation further expanded on the second generation’s willingness to incorporate a variety of styles into bluegrass music.
“Today, people are getting more open minded,” The Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Falco said. “People are more receptive to the experimentation and are okay with the different fusions and different styles and influences put into the music.”
Contemporary bluegrass bands like the Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth and Yonder Mountain String Band continue to draw large audiences all over America and blend their own aesthetic sensibilities with the roots of bluegrass music. There are even bluegrass festivals hosted by popular acts such as Yonder Mountain’s Harvest Moon Festival in Arkansas and DelFest hosted by Del McCoury in Maryland.
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Krauss has won 27 Grammy awards, the most for a female and second most all time, has helped promote the genre with her popular albums as well as with her work in popular films such as “Cold Mountain” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
|The Infamous Stringdusters at DelFest 2008|
Today there are also over 200 organizations around the country whose purpose is to promote bluegrass music in America. Having an established system for promoting the music and culture has helped bluegrass musicians and fans alike to connect with the music and with one another. While this kind of network exists for classical and jazz music, it is something that separates bluegrass from the contemporary genres of country and rock.
Bluegrass Beyond America
In addition to having a vibrant bluegrass scene in America, bluegrass has also spread to other countries.
“When [other countries] began to get exposed to the broader world culture, they adopted in many cases some similarities in instrumentation and styles of bluegrass and made it their own particular sound in their own particular region,” Hays explained.
The Czech Republic, Brazil, Japan and Australia are just a few of the countries that boast active bluegrass scenes of their own.
“In Japan, as an example, the influence of the music came right after World War II,” Hays added. “You have Americans there after the war still playing the music and influencing people there and some people got attached to it. The people in Japan took to it so the seed was planted.”
|Alison Krauss in 2007|
The Future of Bluegrass
Bluegrass’ ability to stay relevant throughout its over 75-year history is due to many components of the music itself and the culture surrounding it.
“[Bluegrass] has endured because with every generation, there’s been a new group of people that have come along that have given it their own artistic interpretation,” Hays said.
“Its just a fun music, it feels good, and it puts smiles on people’s faces,” Falco said.
And with grandchildren playing songs with their elders in the spirit of the music, bluegrass shows little signs of slowing down.
“Its a music that has a lot of integrity to it,” Falco said proudly. “It’s not out there just kind of being mass produced for a fad."
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