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Bluegrass vs. Country: What's the Difference?

Bluegrass vs. Country: What's the Difference?

 On the surface, bluegrass and country music may seem interchangeable. Country musicians sometimes dabble in bluegrass, and bluegrass bands headline country music festivals. The fluid nature of these musical styles can make it challenging to assign a genre to an album or artist.

Even as a music expert, it can take an attentive ear to hear the differences. However, once you start listening to the two side by side, you’ll recognize some of the distinctive features of each genre. 

What exactly are these features? Read on as we explore them below.

Sonic Differences

The best way to understand the differences between bluegrass and country is to listen to the two genres back to back. But if you don’t know what to listen for, you might not catch the more subtle nuances. To prepare for a closer listen, familiarize yourself with these sonic differences.

Sound

Writing about sound is notoriously difficult, but here goes:

When you first put on a country record, you’ll hear influences as diverse as honky-tonk, pop, and rock and roll, as well as the distinctive “Southern twang” of the vocal. Bluegrass takes some cues from country music, then combines them with: 

  • Jazz 
  • Blues
  • Folk

Above all, there’s a wistful, lighthearted folksiness to bluegrass that differentiates it from country. Without generalizing too much, country can be a bit rougher around the edges than bluegrass—though there are always exceptions.

Vocals

Whether it’s the singing cowboys of old or the modern country-pop sensations, country music often revolves around the lone singer. The soulful duet is another country calling card. Vocal harmonies are prevalent in country music, but they’re not a must.

Bluegrass, on the other hand, relies heavily on harmonies. At any given time, you’ll hear three or four members creating a close-harmony vocal stack.

The “high, lonesome sound” is another trademark of bluegrass; one voice floats high above the rest, often adding dissonance or a modal sound.1

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Instrumentation

In country music, there are no real “rules” around which instrument a musician plays. While the early days of country music were full of fiddles, banjos, and guitars, it was more about using any instrument available than unspoken guidelines.

While bluegrass is also free of strict rules, there is more of a framework around acceptable instrumentation. Traditional bluegrass ensembles are, by definition, acoustic string bands. The five most common instruments in bluegrass are:

  • Banjo
  • Mandolin
  • Guitar
  • Upright bass
  • Fiddle

Today, country and bluegrass have both evolved with the times. Modern country music is a free-for-all in the best way. Switch on your local country station, and you’ll hear everything from electric guitars and harmonicas to electronic drums and record scratching, all tied together with a twangy country vocal. As pop, indie, and even rap merge with country, artists keep experimenting with new instruments and textures.

Contemporary bluegrass players are also pushing the boundaries of the genre, but by and large, you’ll find that they stick to acoustic instruments.

Rhythm and Tempo

Country artists are masters of the ballad, and you’ll usually find a soulful, downtempo song or two on most country albums. That’s not to say that country stars can’t get the house rocking when they need to, but there’s a long-standing tradition of heartfelt storytelling.

Bluegrass is traditionally faster, with fiddlers and mandolinists often moving up and down the fingerboard at a breakneck pace. And even if the tempo of a bluegrass song is relatively slow, the strumming stays quick and nimble. In particular, listen for the acoustic guitar’s characteristic “boom-chicka-boom-chicka” pattern.

As for rhythm, a country musician is more likely to accent the “on” beat—generally, the “1” and “3” beats of a standard bar. A bluegrass musician typically favors the off-beat—the “2” and the “4” of the bar—which gives it a jaunty, energetic feel.

Song Structure

Because country music focuses on storytelling, its songs often have a more straightforward structure, featuring:

  • A few verses
  • A few choruses
  • Maybe a bridge

The music is generally secondary to the vocal, and a simplified arrangement makes that possible.

On the other hand, bluegrass borrows the tradition of improvisation from jazz music, incorporating boot-stomping breakdowns into the mix. While the vocals aren’t unimportant, they often take a backseat to the virtuosic performances. Song structures become more fluid, with musicians taking turns soloing over the accompanying bass and guitar.

Historic Differences

Beyond the differences you can hear, bluegrass and country diverge in their histories. While their stories are intertwined, they take different twists and turns along the way, arriving at two separate destinations.

Origins

Country music is the older of the two genres. The history of country music has roots tracing back to the fiddle tunes of the British Isles and musical traditions from Africa. The country sound slowly took shape among the working-class populations of Southern Appalachia, and the first recording sessions of what we might consider “country music” took place in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee.2

What is now known as bluegrass music, originally began in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, more or less as the brainchild of one man: Kentucky-born Bill Monroe.3 Originally thought of as an offshoot of country music, bluegrass combined the trademarks of country with hints of jazz, blues, and traditional folk music. The result was something familiar yet entirely new.

Genre Names

Contrary to what you might believe, the first country and bluegrass stars of their time weren’t performing under these now-universal genre labels. Until the 1940s, country music was called “hillbilly music.” In 1949, the music industry opted for the more acceptable term “country.”4 Other names included “mountain music” and “country and western.”

Bluegrass was also given its current name years after its inception. Even though historians cite Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys as the first bluegrass band, at the time of their rise to stardom, they would have been considered more of an old time country band.5

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the distinctive style was christened “bluegrass” in honor of Bill Monroe’s band of pioneering musicians.6

Defining Artists

Everyone has their favorites, but fans and critics have managed to agree on some of the seminal works of country music and bluegrass. If you’re looking to hear the bluegrass vs country divide for yourself, these artists are a terrific place to start.

Bluegrass Music

If you thought bluegrass music was a relic of the past, think again. While the heroes of yesterday left a lasting mark on the genre, contemporary musicians are pushing bluegrass forward, making the following artists must-adds to your bluegrass musical education: 

  • Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys – As the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” Bill Monroe unknowingly created the blueprint for an entire genre. Your bluegrass journey doesn’t need to start here, but it should make its way eventually.
  • Alison Krauss – Krauss might as well be the First Lady of bluegrass. Having released award-winning albums as a solo artist with her band Union Station and with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss has an immense catalog of bluegrass music waiting to be discovered.
  • Punch Brothers – Made up of prodigal musicians Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Paul Kowert, Gabe Witcher, and Chris Eldridge, Punch Brothers take the dexterity of bluegrass players to another level. The band has reimagined bluegrass for a modern audience, and the results are stunning. Their newest album, 2022’s Hell on Church Street, is another top-notch entry in their catalog.
  • Béla Fleck – For something a little different, there’s Béla Fleck. With his roots planted firmly in the bluegrass tradition, he has spent his career bringing the banjo into unconventional spaces. His trilogy of bluegrass albums culminates in 2021’s My Bluegrass Heart and is worth hearing for its guest appearances alone.

Country Music

With nearly 100 years of recordings to choose from, the hardest part of exploring country music is deciding where to start. Any of these artists is an excellent jumping-off point:

  • Willie Nelson – From the writer of country standards to hero of outlaw country, Willie Nelson is an American music icon. And after 60 years, he still has the spark. Dive into his earlier discography, or spin newer albums like Ride Me Back Home or God’s Problem Child.
  • The Chicks – Is there anything more country than sticking it to the man? The Chicks’ well-publicized feud with George W. Bush aside, their legacy lies in their prowess as a country band. Their earlier records are all worth a listen, but 2020’s comeback album Gaslighter is a real treat.
  • Florida Georgia Line – For a more modern take on country music, give these country-pop boys a spin. Perhaps more than any artist, Florida Georgia Line has defined the sound of radio-friendly country in the last decade. Their latest album, 2021’s Life Rolls On, further cements their status as feel-good country icons.

Hear the Difference for Yourself with Victrola

While you can read about the differences, the best way to understand the differences between country and bluegrass is to immerse yourself in the sound. Victrola has everything you need to put on a record or two, sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy.

To hear the finest country and bluegrass albums, look no further than the Victrola record store. From timeless classics to today’s superstars, you’ll find everything you need to give yourself a crash course on country vs bluegrass.


Sources: 

  1. Library of Congress. Bluegrass Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152684/ 
  2. America’s Library. Birthplace of Country Music: A Local Legacy. https://www.americaslibrary.gov/es/tn/es_tn_bristol_1.html 
  3. Library of Congress. Bluegrass Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152684/ 
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica. Country Music. https://www.britannica.com/art/country-music 
  5. Library of Congress. Bluegrass Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152684/ 
  6. Virginia Living. Old-Time Man: An interview with mountain music virtuoso Ralph Stanley. https://www.virginialiving.com/culture/old-time-man/ 

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