Traditional Bluegrass

Bluegrass is a form of commercial country music that developed in America’s Appalachian region in the middle of the 20th century, emerging as a mature and fully-developed style in the mid-1940s. It has its roots in several different musical antecedents, the two most important being the traditional songs and fiddle tunes of the British Isles that were brought to that mountain region by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th century, and Black gospel and blues styles. Both of these traditions feature a rhythmic emphasis on the backbeat, as well as a highly emotional vocal delivery and idiosyncratic uses of harmonic modes and note ornamentation, all of which can still be heard in traditional bluegrass music.

Bluegrass is one of the few musical forms to have been named after an artist: the term derives from Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, who are credited with having largely created and ultimately perfected the music’s instrumental, vocal, and stage conventions. In the 1930s, before forming his own band, Monroe had performed as a duo with his brother Charlie in what was then the popular “brother duet” format: Charlie sang lead and played guitar, while Bill sang high tenor harmonies and played mandolin. The tenor-singing mandolin player would eventually become a standard feature of the typical bluegrass band, which would also usually include a lead-singing guitarist, a banjo player (in the “three-finger” or “Scruggs” style, named after Monroe’s banjo player Earl Scruggs), a fiddler, and an upright bass player. In the early years, Monroe’s band also included an accordion player, but the accordion quickly fell out of favor as a bluegrass instrument, while the resophonic guitar became a common feature in the 1950s.

Traditional bluegrass performance has quite a bit in common structurally with jazz. While vocal numbers are typically performed in a manner similar to that of pop music (verse-chorus song structures with instrumental solos between verses), instrumental performances follow the same approach as that of straight-ahead jazz: the band (or some subset of it) plays a tune, each member takes a turn playing an improvised solo based on the tune, the band plays the tune itself again, and the song ends. Instrumental virtuosity is highly valued among bluegrass musicians, and is largely expressed in these solos; vocal skill – and especially the ability to sing in harmony – is also important, but less crucial than the ability to pick with speed and creativity.

Bill Monroe’s group was the launching pad for what is generally considered to be the second greatest bluegrass band of all time: the Foggy Mountain Boys, led by guitarist/singer Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were both alumni of the Blue Grass Boys, but left to expand their musical horizons. In the 1960s they provided soundtrack music for both the highly popular Beverly Hillbillies TV show and the film Bonnie and Clyde, bringing bluegrass music to a nationwide audience for the first time. Flatt’s voice was smoother and deeper than Monroe’s “high lonesome” tenor, and lended itself to more commercial musical stylings; after his success, a new generation of bluegrass singers began taking the music in a somewhat more mainstream direction.

In the 80 years since it first emerged, bluegrass music has spawned multiple subgenres and variants, but there continues to be a solid core of fans who prefer the hard-edged mountain sound of traditional bluegrass, and a small but dependable cohort of artists who still perform and record in that vein.

The Bluegrass Album cover

The men who got together to record this album in 1981 had all made their names playing everything from very traditional to very progressive bluegrass — but as its title suggests, this was their chance to play old-school songs in an old-school style. Lead singer and guitarist Tony Rice permits himself some jazzy licks but for the most part keeps things very trad on his solos; banjo player J.D. Crowe gets a tiny bit funky on his backup comping, but his solos are straight-ahead Scruggs-style fare. The songs are stone classics (“Molly and Tenbrooks,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” etc.) and the vocals are tight, tight tight.

The Essential Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys (1945-1949) cover

There are lots of good collections of Bill Monroe’s music out there, but if you want to get down to the deep roots of the early bluegrass sound, this is the place to start. Consisting of recordings made between 1945 and 1949 for the Columbia label, it includes early versions of most of his most famous songs, including “Why Did You Wander?” (taken at a breakneck pace), the tear-jerking “Footprints in the Snow,” and “Mansions for Me,” a gospel tune that harks back to his time working as a duo with his brother Charlie. The sound is surprisingly good.

Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass cover

Although she’s known (along with her brothers) primarily as one of the architects of the Bakersfield sound, Rose Maddox also recorded this fun collection of straight-ahead bluegrass material in 1962. The sound is just a bit overproduced, but her voice is sharp-edged and powerful, and she delivers meat-and-potatoes bluegrass fare like “Uncle Pen,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” and “The Old Crossroads” with complete authority. Bluegrass was almost entirely a boys’ club for the few few decades of its existence, and this album was, among things, something of a powerful feminist statement in its time.

Lonesome and Blue: The Complete County Recordings cover

While never as big a name as Bill Monroe or Jimmy Martin, Red Allen was as much a master of the “high lonesome” sound as any of the other first-generation bluegrass masters. In the mid-1960s he recorded two albums’ worth of sessions for the County label, all of which are collected here. The plaintive but powerful sound of his voice is given an added eeriness by his fondness for oddly crooked rhythms and lyrical themes of heartbreak and longing for home. This collection also includes what may be the definitive performance of the bluegrass gospel classic “Heaven.”

Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall! cover

Flatt & Scruggs were almost singlehandedly responsible for giving bluegrass music a national profile in the early 1960s — fortuitously, a time when folk music was becoming a youth-culture craze. (Whether bluegrass fit the “folk music” label was always questionable, but it was at least folk-adjacent.) When they played to an enthusiastic audience at Carnegie Hall in 1963, they had already taken their fame to a new level by supplying soundtrack music for The Beverly Hillbillies, and they run through all their favorites here: “Dig a Hole in the Meadow,” “Salty Dog Blues,” “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” and even a version of “Big Ball in Boston” rendered slyly as “Big Ball in Brooklyn.” This live album is as good as any of their classic studio recordings.

Old Dominion Masters cover

They would eventually become early innovators of the progressive school, but in their early years Jim and Jesse McReynolds played hard-driving traditional bluegrass, as this collection demonstrates. Even here though, Jesse’s cross-picking mandolin style is unique, and there are some forward-looking elements in the production (note the tympani on the intro to “Ballad of Thunder Road” and the oddly extreme instrument separation between channels). And they harmonize like only brothers can.

Diamond Joe cover

This collection provides a fine overview of the work of Joe Val (born Joe Valiante), who grew up in Everett, Massachusetts before becoming a powerhouse of Boston’s nascent bluegrass scene in the 1960s. He and his band released several fine albums of hardcore traditional bluegrass throughout the 1970s and early 1980s before his untimely death in 1985. His high tenor voice and formidable mandolin playing are showcased to great effect on songs like “Lonesome Road Blues” and the hair-raising gospel number “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” not to mention the thrillingly creepy murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith.”

Hymns of the Cross cover

Ralph and Carter Stanley were a powerhouse first-generation bluegrass team, and made hundreds of recordings before Carter’s untimely death in 1966 at age 41. They recorded plenty of standard bluegrass fare, but their most powerful performances were of gospel songs. This 1964 set finds them delivering such standards as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” and the gloriously eerie “Oh Death.” Ralph’s voice is like a ten-pound hammer on “I Just Dropped By,” and the brothers croon together gloriously on “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” This is an excellent introduction to the work of a team that was dissolved way too soon.

Thank God cover

Mandolinist and singer Doyle Lawson is a legend of traditional bluegrass, having spent his formative years with Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe, and the Country Gentlemen during his early career before forming the first of many incarnations of Quicksilver in the late 1970s. Since then one thing has remained constant with his bands: intricate and preternaturally tight harmony singing, and a strong focus on gospel songs. Thank God is a perfect example of both, and features one of his strongest lineups ever.

Bound to Ride cover

Ralph Stanley had one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in bluegrass music, and perhaps in American music generally. His reedy tenor and his use of subtle melodic elaboration could have been trademarked. He was 78 years old when he recorded this album, but his voice still cuts through the mix like a knife through butter, and if his performances on songs like “Will You Miss Me” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” don’t make the hair rise on the back of your neck, you may need to have your pulse checked.