Bluegrass music – Everything you need to know

What is Bluegrass Music?

Bluegrass music is a genre of Americana roots music. Roots music refers to many subgenres of Americana music: early blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and rock. One aspect evolved into what we know as Bluegrass Music, but it is more than that, it is the synthesis and blending of blues, American southern string band music, English, Irish, and Scottish traditions. It incorporates elements of both sacred and country music.. The Reel is a dance and a popular style in the folk music of South West England. It crossed the Atlantic ocean with Irish and British immigration 1800’s and early 1900’s and is featured in many songs.

Bluegrass was honed and recognized in 1940s in the Appalachian region of the United State. The genre derives its name from the seminal band that developed the early sound: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Kentucky blue grass is smooth meadow-grass that is predominant in the Appalachian region and to them, it seemed a fitting name.

What is a Bluegrass Banjo?

Any banjo can be a bluegrass banjo, it’s more in the style of clawpicking, than the actual instrument. In clawpicking, picks are on the thumb, index and middle fingers. However the best banjo for playing banjo is 5 strings, and has a back called a resonator, which makes it louder. The style of picking is rapid fire and complex.

When did bluegrass music start

The earliest records of bluegrass music really begin in the mid-1930s, but it didn’t become well known, and widely heard until the 1940s and then mostly in Appalachia.

History of bluegrass music

The earliest roots of bluegrass are found in the 1600’s when people from Ireland, Scotland, and England brought ‘country music’ to Appalachia in the United States. The earliest banjo-like instrument was in 1620 which as a “gourd with neck and strings” in Africa. In 1855 a Thomas Briggs Banjo Primer published that detailed not only songs, but how hold, tune, strike & finger the banjo. In 1870, Henry Dobson creates 5-string banjo with frets.

Bluegrass music came out of the rural south after World War II, and was developed by Bill Monroe, a mandolin player who took the style of playing to the banjo. It was perfected by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style, now called “Scruggs style”.

Bill Monroe & Bluegrass Boys played on Grand Ole Opry in 1939.

In the 1940’s groups like Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and Foggy Mountain Boys began playing.

In 1972, bluegrass became world prominent with the arc of Dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance.

Bluegrass is now played throughout the world.

what is the difference between bluegrass and country music

Country music is a lyric based music, sharing elements that current pop music has but it is more dominant in Country Music. Country Music has an earthy resonance to it in part because of the staple instruments like steel guitar, fiddle and banjo.

Technically, Bluegrass is a sub-genre of Country Music.

However, Bluegrass is unique because, it has a syncopated rhythm and that off-beat feeling that sets the pace. It is distinguished by its high energy, fast tempo sound. It includes lead vocals that feature a high-pitched tenor voice, and harmonies are tight and smooth. It has a stronger influence of jazz and blues than country music. Unlike mainstream country music, it also has a broad number of instruments that can be combined for a unique sound. Bluegrass is played on several combinations of acoustic stringed instruments. The most common combination is a five-string banjo,a fiddle, which is played differently than a violin, and a guitar. Very often a mandolin, and upright bass or string bass added. Additionally are often joined by the resonator guitar known as a Dobro, and for special effects on certain songs, a harmonica or a Jew’s harp can be played.

Bluegrass music also has a unique feature called a breakdown. Similar to a feature of jazz, , bluegrass allows performers to improvise and take turns playing lead. A break is a short instrumental solo played that is conventionally a variation on the song’s melody, in fact, any one with an instrument, old or young, is invited to play what is known as a ‘passing break’. This instrumental form that features a series of breaks during a song that is played by a different instrument and performer each time. This is in stark contrast to Old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together.

Bluegrass music also features some instrumental playing techniques that are distinctive to the genre, and have little cross over into other genres of music.

The vocals have a unique flavor to them, that distinguish the characteristics of bluegrass. These include particular vocal harmonies featuring two, three, or four parts, There is often a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice. Modal music is specific, it uses diatonic scales . These scales are not necessarily major or minor and don’t use functional harmony , most people are accustomed to in other music. The term modal is most often associated with the eight church modes of music.

The singing style was originated by Bill Monroe, and it knows as a ‘high, lonesome sound’. It is characterized by an expressively emotional, powerful and earthy style of musical expression which is characterized by an unmetered music score and use of gapped scales in singing. A gapped scale is different that a regular diatonic musical scale. It has five notes; usually the fourth and seventh notes of the diatonic scale are omitted. The difference between modal and tonal are in the harmonic languages surrounding the tonal center. Tonality is the harmony by the eighteenth century that uses major and minor keys. The tonal center is the first note of the major or minor scale.

Rick Spencer of Catfeather Art & Music, an historian and performer of Americana music, commented on the difference between Bluegrass Music and Country Music. “Bluegrass is to Folk music and traditional Country music, as Jazz is to Rock or Rhythm & Blues. Their roots are similar, but Bluegrass and Jazz are much more sophisticated forms of music, and require far greater instrumental proficiency.”

Bluegrass instruments

what instruments are used in bluegrass music?

The mandolin and the banjo are the keys to the Bluegrass sound, although the instruments used are used it many genres, it’s the unique lineup of acoustic five-string banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.

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Popular Bluegrass Songs

Bluegrass christmas songs

Christmas is an important holiday in the bluegrass community. Bluegrass Christmas albums are a staple in many homes.

This is a season when there are some cross overs that are unique, Alison Kraus who is a well known modern bluegrass singer, has played Christmas carols like The Wexford Carol, with cello impresario Yo-yo Ma. In fact, the traditional Christmas carols, as opposed to Christmas songs, are kept alive by the bluegrass community.

One few Christmas songs with Appalachian roots is Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. It is played in the Carter Family-style music.

White Christmas is a favorite song and holiday classic in many styles but it is best done in bluegrass style by Larry Sparks.

Bluegrass songstress Christmas Rhonda Vincent is known for her holiday albums and brings a hopeful sweetness to the well know song, Time at Home.

Another traditional carol is given a new and sparkling spin that is sure to delight the children. The Johnson Mountain Boys give the Christmas story a new look with barn animals commonplace in rural America in the carol, The Friendly Beasts .

Comforting home settings and going home are staple themes in Bluegrass and no one sings it better for Christmas than in the poignant, I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time by Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys

A long list of carols and songs are done by many bluegrass artists in the distinctive style. Christmas is alive and well in Bluegrass.

  1. Angels We Have Heard on High
  2. Joy To The World
  3. Good Christian Men Rejoice
  4. He Is Born
  5. Jingle Bells
  6. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  7. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
  8. Snowflake Reel
  9. Good King Wenceslas
  10. Sing Noel/Patapan
  11. Away In A Manger
  12. Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella
  13. Breaking Up Christmas
  14. Once In Royal David’s City
  15. Up On The Housetop
  16. Infant Holy
  17. Deck The Halls
  18. The First Noel
  19. O Come All Ye Faithful
  20. O Holy Night
  21. Frost And Snow
  22. What Child Is This?
  23. Ding Dong Merrily On High
  24. Go Tell It On The Mountain
  25. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  26. Carol Of The Bells
  27. In The Bleak Midwinter
  28. Christmas Eve
  29. The Coventry Carol
  30. Silent Night! Holy Night!
  31. Oh Holy Night

bluegrass gospel songs

Gospel plays as strong a part in bluegrass as Christmas music does, as most of the musicians, artists and listeners are from a strong, southern Christian faith. A southern funeral of a prominent member of the community would not be complete without a bluegrass gospel.

  1. Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord
  2. Church in the Wildwood
  3. Shall We Gather At The River
  4. Angel Band
  5. Are You Washed In The Blood
  6. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
  7. Where the Soul Never Dies
  8. This World Is Not My Home
  9. When We All Get To Heaven
  10. Just Over In The Gloryland
  11. Nothing But the Blood of Jesus
  12. Standing On the Promises
  13. In the Sweet By and B
  14. The Unclouded Day
  15. I Love To Tell The Story/Stand Up Stand Up For Jesus
  16. The Old-Time Religion
  17. I Am A Pilgrim
  18. I Am Bound For The Promised Land
  19. When The Roll Is Called Up Yond
  20. There Is Power In The Blood
  21. Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life
  22. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  23. Bringing In the Sheaves
  24. Hallelujah, I’m Ready
  25. The Lily Of The Valley
  26. Life’s Railway To Heaven
  27. Tis So Sweet
  28. Send The Light
  29. Will The Circle Be Unbroken
  30. Amazing Grace

famous bluegrass songs

  1. With Body And Soul – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  2. Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
  3. Rank Stranger – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  4. Blue Moon Of Kentucky – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  5. Rocky Top – The Osborne Brothers
  6. On The Sunny Side Of The Mountain – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  7. Orange Blossom Special – The Stonemans // Johnson Mountain Boys
  8. Jerusalem Ridge – Kenny Baker & Bill Monroe
  9. I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow – Stanley Brothers (1959) // Soggy Bottom Boys (2000)
  10. Fox On the Run – Country Gentlemen (Rebel Records, studio, 1971)
  11. I’ll Fly Away – Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch
  12. I’ll Meet You In Church Sunday – The Stanley Brothers
  13. New Muleskinner Blues – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  14. Mountain Dew – Grandpa Jones
  15. I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby – Jerry Douglas Band w/Alison Krauss
  16. You Don’t Know My Mind – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  17. Molly & Tenbrooks – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  18. Wayfaring Stranger – Emmylou Harris
  19. Salt Creek – Norman Blake, Tony Rice & Doc Watson
  20. Paradise – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  21. Little Maggie – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  22. I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could – Jim Eanes & The Shenandoah Valley Boys
  23. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home – Mac Wiseman & The Country Boys
  24. How Mountain Girls Can Love – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  25. Uncle Pen – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys (1950)
    // Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder (1983)
  26. The Boys Are Back In Town – Patty Loveless
  27. Wild Horses – Old And In The Way
  28. I’ve Got That Old Feeling – Alison Krauss & Union Station
  29. Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
  30. Feudin’ Banjos – Arthur Smith & Don Reno
    // Duelin’ Banjos – Eric Weissberg w/ Steve Mandell
  31. Clinch Mountain Backstep – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  32. Worried Man Blues (1971) – Wade Mainer
  33. High On A Mountain – Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals
  34. I Am A Pilgrim – The Kentucky Colonels
  35. Drink Up And Go Home – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  36. Dooley – Dillards
  37. I Know You Rider – Seldom Scene
  38. Ruby, Are You Mad? – The Osborne Brothers
  39. Callin’ Baton Rouge – New Grass Revival
  40. Last Train To Kitty Hawk – Balsam Range
  41. The Little Mountain Church – Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
  42. Devil’s Train – James King Band
  43. Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
  44. Freight Train – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  45. High Lonesome Sound – Vince Gill
  46. It’s Mighty Dark To Travel – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  47. Georgie Buck – Carolina Chocolate Drops
  48. I Saw The Light – Roy Acuff w/The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  49. Meet Me By The Moonlight – The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  50. A Voice From On High – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  51. The Fields Have Turned Brown – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  52. Girl At The Crossroads Bar – The Bluegrass Cardinals
  53. ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered – Mac Wiseman & The Country Boys
  54. Nine Pound Hammer – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  55. Little Birdie – Wade Mainer (1953) // Red Allen & The Kentuckians
  56. Tennessee 1949 – Larry Sparks
  57. Walls Of Time – The Johnson Mountain Boys
  58. The Ballad Of Jed Clampett – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys
  59. Fair And Tender Ladies – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
  60. Pretty Green Hills – Dave Evans
  61. Tortured Tangled Hearts – Dixie Chicks
  62. Grayson County Blues – No Speed Limit
  63. Pretty Polly – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  64. Please Be My Love – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  65. Rocky Road Blues – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys
  66. Long Black Veil – John Duffey
  67. Steam-Powered Aereoplane – John Hartford
  68. Going Across The Sea – Valley Road
  69. I’m On My Way Home – Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
  70. Black Mountain Rag (live) – Doc & Merle Watson
  71. Howdy Neighbor, Howdy – Reno & Smiley & The Tennessee Cut-Ups
  72. I Found A Hiding Place – Carl Story & His Ramblin’ Mountaineers
  73. 20 Years Of Farming – James King Band
  74. Better Times A Coming – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  75. Sparkling Blue Eyes (1971) – Wade Mainer
  76. Gloryland – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  77. Angel Band – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  78. Me And The Jukebox – Buzz Busby & The Bayou Boys
  79. Cabin On The Hill – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
  80. Kentucky Borderline – Rhonda Vincent & The Rage
  81. Electricity – Jimmy Murphy
  82. Little Gloria Rose – Seldom Scene
  83. Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die – Reno & Smiley & The Tennessee Cut-Ups
  84. Windy Mountain – The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers
  85. Bile ‘Em Cabbage Down – Heights Of Grass
  86. Long Journey Home – The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover
  87. Cripple Creek – The Stonemans
  88. Rain And Sorrow – Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals
  89. Old Home Place – J. D. Crowe & The New South
  90. Two Highways – Alison Krauss & Union Station
  91. Blue Ridge Cabin Home – The Bluegrass Album Band
  92. Duncan & Brady (He’s Been On The Job Too Long) – The Johnson Mountain Boys
  93. Shady Grove – Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
  94. Bluegrass Express – Rhonda Vincent & The Rage
  95. John Deere Tractor – Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers
  96. Will The Circle Be Unbroken? – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  97. Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown – Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs
  98. Kentucky Waltz – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys
  99. Barbara Allen – Moore & Napier
  100. Roving Gambler – Country Gentlemen // Larry Sparks // Peter Rowan
  101. Colleen Malone – Hot Rize
  102. I Wonder Where You Are Tonight – Jim & Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys
  103. White Dove – Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  104. Spanish River – The Masters, featuring Jesse McReynolds
  105. Cotton-Eyed Joe – Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys
  106. Sally Goodin – Byron Berline Band
  107. Sea Of Heartbreak – Country Gentlemen
  108. Nashville Cats – Del McCoury Band
  109. Free Born Man – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  110. Heartaches And Teardrops – Cedar Hill
  111. Bringing Mary Home – Country Gentlemen
  112. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ – Bill Monroe amp; The Bluegrass Boys
  113. More Pretty Girls Than One – Volume Five
  114. Someone Play Dixie For Me – Dry Branch Fire Squad
  115. Choctaw Hayride – Alison Krauss & Union Station
  116. Mary Ann – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  117. Kentucky – The Louvin Brothers
  118. One Way Track – Boone Creek
  119. Hit Parade Of Love – Jimmy Martin amp; The Sunny Mountain Boys
  120. O Death – Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  121. Please Come Home – James Monroe Band
  122. When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again – Bill & James Monroe & Bluegrass Boys
  123. I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still – Reno & Smiley & The Tennessee Cut Ups
  124. Muddy Waters – Seldom Scene
  125. Only Me – Rhonda Vincent w/Willie Nelson
  126. Tennessee – Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys
  127. Sparkling Brown Eyes – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
  128. The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier – Country Gentlemen
  129. Bed By The Window – James King Band
  130. Echo Mountain – Cedar Hill

Christmas Bluegrass Classic:

• Christmas Time’s A Comin’ – Bill Monroe (1951)

Bluegrass music has variations in every part of the globe and has a strong following.


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