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80 Years of Bluegrass

Written by: Kara Kundert

We've talked a lot on here about the history of Pride and LGBT culture. But a lot of folks here know that part -- they came to Bluegrass Pride from the Pride side of the equation. So what about bluegrass? Where did this driving, lonesome music come from?

While the roots of bluegrass are much older, the musical form known as "bluegrass" has only existed for, at most, 80 years. It all started with Bill Monroe. In the 1920s and 30s, he and his brother Charlie formed one of the most popular acts of the time, The Monroe Brothers. Together, they played as a guitar-mandolin duo and sang in harmony. When the brothers split up in 1938, they both went on to form their own bands. Bill Monroe formed a band he titled "Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys", a reference to his beloved home state of Kentucky.

The Blue Grass Boys played music like nobody had ever heard before. Featuring driving beats, high lonesome vocal harmonies, and powerful instrumentation, they played music that was made for listening rather than dancing -- something that the recent development and popularization of the radio in America enabled. It had influences from old-time string bands, black churches, Dixie work fields, and country and blues musicians. And at the center of it all was Bill Monroe.

While the band first formed 80 years ago in 1939, arguably what we think of as "bluegrass" music wasn't invented until 1945, when Earl Scruggs first joined the band playing the banjo. His unique three-finger style on the banjo has since become one of the hallmark sounds of bluegrass music, and the 1945 makeup of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys has since become the touchstone of all bluegrass.

Three years later, Earl Scruggs left the band with the guitar player, Lester Flatt, to form their own group, The Foggy Mountain Boys, more commonly known as Flatt & Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs were immensely influential, helping to bring bluegrass music to a much broader audience through appearances on national television, radio, and at venues such as schoolhouses, concert halls, and universities. Throughout the 40s and 50s, the genre began to grow. Bands began to form all over the country, and Bill Monroe officially gained the folk title, "The Father of Bluegrass".

Shortly thereafter, the first bluegrass festivals started appearing on the map. Carlton Haney is credited with creating the first ever weekend bluegrass festival, which took place in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. With the creation of these specialized festivals, artists that had previously been thought of as competing for gigs were able to share the stage with each other and a musical community was given a new avenue through which to grow. Thus began a fruitful legacy of late-night jams, broken down barriers between stars and fans, and dusty campsites beloved by bluegrass fans of all ages. 

Bluegrass music has been heavily featured throughout American pop culture over the decades. Flatt & Scruggs helped to introduce the genre to a nationwide audience through playing The Beverly Hillbillies theme (fan favorite "The Ballad of Jed Clampett") and the Bonnie and Clyde movie soundtrack. The soundtrack to the movie Deliverance also famously featured bluegrass music through the song "Dueling Banjos", which ironically featured a banjo dueling a guitar. In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their triple LP set Will the Circle Be Unbroken, helping to introduce bluegrass music to fans of pop music and other genres. And more recently, the 2001 release of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its triple-platinum, GRAMMY Award-winning soundtrack helped to revive the genre, introducing an entire generation of music fans to this storied style of American traditional music.

Bluegrass music is now performed and enjoyed all over the world, though it hasn't remained totally the same. There are musicians that love that traditional sound and seek to emulate the performances of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs, and then there are those that push the genre to new limits, borrowing influences from classical symphonies, avant-garde jazz artists, grandstanding pop musicians, and traditional music from around the world. 

While the music will continue to change and grow with the influences of the musicians that play it, at its heart bluegrass will always be a music defined by the intersection of revolution and tradition. It wouldn't exist without the hundreds of years of traditional music that came before it, nor would it have thrived without the modern technology that allowed it to reach its audience. Even if everything else changes, that touch of magic and zeitgeist will always be what bluegrass sounds like.


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