All hail, Bill Monroe (1911-1996), Father of Bluegrass Music. If you’re like me, when you hear that bluegrass was cooked up in the 1940s, you’ll, be like “Wha-? Huh? Isn’t that way too recent?!?”
Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t, I sure didn’t and I grew up listening to records by Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Bluegrass turns out to be a relatively modern niche with distinctions that make it different from what is now called “old time”. Now I obviously knew that bluegrass was different from country, which is more commercial and amplified, where as bluegrass employs traditional acoustic instruments (banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, etc) and often, but not always, traditional tunes. That much is obvious. But I’d always assumed that “bluegrass” was simply the word for the older, traditional folk form that became country. But it turns out it is not. It is a genre that puts its own spin on the old time style, one that places emphasis on virtuosity, and uses the technique of musicians taking turns on improvising, which we associate with jazz. Bluegrass also relies on the rhythmic technique of playing notes in anticipation of the beat, making for an exciting, even jittery musical experience. The old time music was meant to be danced to. But, much like be bop is to jazz, bluegrass is meant to be LISTENED to. Naturally, there is a certain amount of bleed and overlap between the genres, though some people are purists.
The name for the music comes from Monroe’s home state of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, which literally is carpeted in places with bluegrass. His band was called The Blue Grass Boys. Flatt and Scruggs were among its members, as was Hee Haw‘s Stringbean Akeman. Ramblin’ Tommy Scott played with an earlier incarnation. Monroe is known for his 1939 version of “Mule Skinner Blues“, which we wrote about here, as well as his original songs “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (1945), covered by many, notably Elvis Presley, and “Kentucky Waltz” (1946). His own instrument was the mandolin. Astoundingly, his last performance was in 1996, just a few weeks before he died at age 85.