What is Bluegrass Music?
Even if you’re an avid bluegrass listener, the genre can be challenging to define. It’s traditional yet cutting edge, subdued yet rowdy. It’s a musical contradiction.
At its core, bluegrass is a folksy, rootsy genre of American music that developed throughout the early history of country music. But it’s so much more than just a subgenre of country or folk. Bluegrass is part of the rich tapestry of Americana, and it deserves thorough exploration.
The Hallmarks of Bluegrass Music
So, what is bluegrass music? Ultimately, it’s a sum of its parts. There are five essential characteristics of bluegrass music that almost every bluegrass band will employ in their compositions.
#1 Narrative Lyricism
Bluegrass, like its related genres of folk and country, exists as a medium for oral storytelling. Whether their song is autobiographical or pure fiction, bluegrass singers often use a narrative style to tell their tale, making the music personal and relatable.
Thematically, a bluegrass song tends to deal with the trials of the everyday. As a traditionally blue-collar, working-class style of music, bluegrass singers tackle concepts like railroading, coal mining, and systemic oppression. Other frequent topics include love and heartache.
#2 Acoustic Instrumentation
As a rule of thumb, bluegrass is an acoustic genre with more instruments to offer than an acoustic guitar. The infamous originators of bluegrass, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, played five acoustic instruments:
- Upright bass
- Five-string banjo
If you’re a traditional bluegrass purist, these are theoretically the only instruments that make up a bluegrass band (as Bill Monroe’s band used these instruments almost exclusively). However, you’ll find plenty of experimentation within the genre, and a bluegrass musician may play any of the following:
- Dobro (also called the resonator guitar)
- Drums and percussion
Of course, rules are meant to be broken in music. These days, you’ll see bluegrass bands incorporating the electric guitar and other electrified instruments into their performances (especially when they need amplification to play larger rooms). Still, “true traditional” bluegrass players stick to acoustic instrumentation.
#3 Tightly Stacked Vocal Harmonies
In most popular music, the main vocal melody—the lead line you’re likely to sing along to—is often either at the highest or lowest end of a stack of vocals. With bluegrass, the lead voice of a vocal trio generally sits between the baritone and tenor singers, creating a tight stack of close-harmony parts.1
This technique is not unique to the bluegrass style, nor is it the only way to build vocal harmonies in bluegrass music. Nonetheless, it forms part of the genre’s characteristic sound.
The other telltale vocal styling of bluegrass is the “high, lonesome sound,” defined as a vocal line that stands out at the top of the stack.
#4 Dynamic Rhythms
The majority of popular Western songs count time in 4/4—four beats for every bar. Count “1, 2, 3, 4” along to your favorite tune, and you’ll hear the way the patterns repeat.
Many genres place the accent on the “1” and the “3,” emphasizing the “on beats.” But a bluegrass musician usually accents the “2” and the “4,” known as the “off-beats.” (Those familiar with ska music will recognize a similar favoring of the off-beat.)
Additionally, bluegrass players anticipate their notes, playing on or even ahead of the beat.2 Compare this technique to the blues, which is often behind the beat, and you’ll hear the trademark energy of the bluegrass style.
Here, bluegrass takes a page out of the jazz playbook. Bluegrass tunes commonly have a “breakdown” section, in which musicians take turns improvising a solo over the other instruments.
These breakdowns are pure displays of talent; tempos reach a foot-stomping fervor, and soloists shred up and down the fretboard.
The Origins of Bluegrass
The story of bluegrass begins somewhere around the late 1930s or early 1940s in the American Southeast when Bill Monroe gathered together his band of Blue Grass Boys.2 Along with original members Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Joel Price, Monroe took cues from various genres and fused them to form something wholly new: bluegrass.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Musical Influences: Country Music and More
Bluegrass is often described as an offshoot of country music. While that’s somewhat true, bluegrass and country have a few differentiations and it might be more apt to say that the genre was influenced by country. But for the bluegrass pioneers, country music was not the only genre from which they drew inspiration.
The more you listen to bluegrass, the more you’ll hear the influences of other musical styles, such as:
- Traditional folk – The string-forward sound of bluegrass comes primarily from English, Scottish, and Irish folk music, as does its fondness of storytelling.
- Jazz – Bluegrass borrows the frequent improvisations and syncopated rhythms of jazz (which, in turn, came from African-American music) and places them in a roots-country context.
- Blues – Via the blues, bluegrass takes many of its lyrical themes and church music influences.
Bluegrass manages to meld aspects of these diverse styles together to create a unified whole that has stood the test of time.
What’s in a Name?
Interestingly, the name bluegrass came years after the first “bluegrass” bands. According to Ralph Stanley, celebrated bluegrass banjo player and one half of The Stanley Brothers, “When they started doing the bluegrass festivals in 1965, everybody got together and wanted to know what to call the show, y’know. It was decided that since Bill was the oldest man and was from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky and he had the Blue Grass Boys, it would be called ‘bluegrass.’”3
As you can see, the name caught on. Artists wear the bluegrass badge with pride, and the genre even has its own Billboard chart.4
Notable Bluegrass Artists
Whether you’re a bluegrass fan looking for a new favorite or a newcomer to the genre, these are the bands you should explore.
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
Of course, no list of bluegrass artists would be complete without the man who gave the genre its name. Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys is known as the man who gave bluegrass its name. Hailing from The Bluegrass State of Kentucky, Monroe made waves with his siblings as the Monroe Brothers before forming his own group. That group changed the course of music history, crafting standout songs like “Uncle Pen” and “Blue Moon Kentucky.”
Many of Bill Monroe’s 150 “boys” went on to have successful careers of their own, including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Del McCoury.
Whether she’s performing solo or with her Union Station band, Alison Krauss is a bluegrass superstar. Throughout her nearly 40-year career, she’s released a smattering of Gold and Platinum-certified albums. Before Beyoncé’s 2021 Grammy win, she was the most awarded female artist in history.5
Essential Alison Krauss pieces include “Endless Highway” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye.” Her later albums with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant have further cemented her as a living legend, bluegrass or otherwise.
Best described as “progressive bluegrass,” Grammy Award-winning Punch Brothers is a modern-era band that raises the bar for virtuosic playing. Despite leaning on the five traditional instruments of bluegrass, there’s something unconventional about the music of Chris Thile, Paul Kowert, Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, and Noam Pikelny. It twists, turns, and defies expectations, appealing to hardcore bluegrass fans and newcomers alike.
To get a taste of Punch Brothers, start with “Julep” before sinking your teeth into “All Ashore.” It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth the wait.
The Stanley Brothers
As one of the earliest bluegrass acts, The Stanley Brothers hold a special place in the genre’s history books. Comprising brothers Ralph and Carter, the duo could be considered the “second bluegrass band” after Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Despite being labeled as a “copycat” act by some, the brothers and their band recorded some of the standards of bluegrass music.
To hear The Stanley Brothers at their best, listen to:
- “Angel Band”
- “How Mountain Girls Can Love”
Old Crow Medicine Show
Perhaps best known for their barroom staple “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show is another modern bluegrass band that pushes the genre beyond its traditional roots. With hints of alt-country and folk music in the mix, the sextet cemented their place in bluegrass history when they were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2013.
Besides “Wagon Wheel,” OCMS tracks you should know include “Down Home Girl” and “Take ‘em Away.”
Harris may not identify as a bluegrass artist, but with five awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association under her belt, it’s safe to say she’s earned her place on this list. Her 1980 album Roses in the Snow is one of bluegrass’ finest, with reimaginings of tunes by renowned bluegrass groups like The Louvin Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs.
To hear Emmylou Harris’ take on bluegrass, seek out “Wayfaring Stranger” or her cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”
A Timeless Sound Demands a Timeless Medium
The bluegrass sound evolved when vinyl was the dominant way to enjoy music. Though the times have changed, Victrola is dedicated to delivering the magic sound of bluegrass music on a 33 RPM record.
For a selection of must-hear bluegrass cuts and other favorites, check out the Victrola record store. That way, the next time your friends ask you, “What is bluegrass, and why do you love it so much?” you’ll have an LP ready to wow them.
- Traditional Music Library. Bluegrass Harmony Vocals. http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/bluegrass-songbook/SOME%20NOTES%20ABOUT%20HARMONY%20VOCALS.htm
- Library of Congress. Bluegrass Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152684/
- Virginia Living. Old-Time Man: An interview with mountain music virtuoso Ralph Stanley. https://www.virginialiving.com/culture/old-time-man/
- Billboard. Bluegrass Albums. https://www.billboard.com/charts/bluegrass-albums/
- Los Angeles Times. Beyoncé breaks record for most Grammys by a female artist. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-03-14/beyonce-breaks-record-grammys-female-artist