(Bill Monroe. Credit: Thomas S. England/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Before radio, records, CDs, amplifiers, movies, TV, video and Apple, there were acoustic instruments. In America, at the turn of the twentieth century, music was part of society’s language. Most everyone (with means) was trained to read music and play at least one instrument. It was a way to interact socially. Most houses had a music room that housed a piano, violin and perhaps a parlor guitar. Courtship included impressing the desired lover and their family with one’s musical prowess. It was both socially acceptable and a means of expressing affection publicly. Sheet music was the way popular music was circulated. It was big business: new popular songs would regularly sell as sheet music in the millions of copies.
The most popular instruments of the day included pianos, violins, mandolins and parlor guitars. Queen Victoria had made the piano an acceptable social instrument for young ladies (unlike the cello or bass fiddle which required straddling the instrument between one’s legs).
Not everyone, however, was brought up in pleasant society — not everyone had the means. Those without the money and education still had access to instruments. Violins, mandolins, guitars and banjos were available at all price-points, all over the country — thanks to catalog distributors based in Chicago like the Sears & Roebuck Company. The instruments were available to every cultural group in the cities and small towns.
Each new wave of immigration brought new cultural influences that cross-pollinated other existing influences. The Italian communities had their mandolin-based indigenous music that had an impact on the black banjo-playing communities, The black blues-playing guitar work of the Southern share-croppers had an impact on the Southern white working-class communities with fiddle-based European roots. The Irish Great Hunger of the mid-19th century brought waves of Irish seeking opportunity and bringing Celtic traditions on fiddle and mandolin. The Jews fleeing persecution in Europe brought Russian fiddle-based dance music to the mix. The Spanish brought Latin guitar music, the Moors brought middle Eastern music and so forth.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century contributed free time and small amounts of extra money to spend. Those with industrial work found themselves with some spare time and spending money. They appeared to enjoy spending that time and money on a nightlife that included music & dancing. This increased the desire for new musical styles and entertainment. In effect, the cultural times sped up the process of cross-pollination. Musicians have traditionally welcomed new influences and the desire to play with other talented musicians. If someone had an exciting new music that caused people to want to hear it (or dance to it), then everyone wanted to learn it. This also contributed to greater interaction between cultures and classes. The rich seemed to seek out the more exciting musical forms in the poorer parts of town. The music was rowdier and bawdier – generally more intriguing and entertaining. This process was amplified by prohibition between 1920 & 1933. Apparently, the consumption of alcohol elevates both the libido and the appreciation of music.
By the mid to late 1880s, the waves of Irish immigrants with their Celtic musical roots had interacted with the Italian immigrants in urban areas and the popularity of the mandolin had grown. The instrument was ideal for the expression of both cultures and even found its way into classical music as mandolin orchestras developed and grew across the country. The instruments were small, portable, and equal in volume to the fiddle. They were also tuned the same way and many musicians could manage quite well on either instrument. They were well suited to supporting vocals and had a rich tradition of delivering the pulsating rhythm necessary for dancing.
At the turn of the 20th century, Orville Gibson developed his archtop mandolin prototype and demonstrated that the instrument could get even smaller, louder and more comfortable to play.
World War I exposed many young Americans to additional European traditional music and the influences exploded into the Roaring Twenties. Following the War, the general attitude shifted to optimism for a great future and a rejection of the traditions of the past. Music found expression in this hopeful optimism and sprang forward embracing all American forms of music: shuffling them together and dealing out whatever emerged that was exciting and energetic. The banjo and mandolin, representing older traditions, fell out of favor for a time. They were never entirely lost, but temporarily pushed aside by the guitar and new rhythmic possibilities based largely in Jazz. Ironically, Lloyd Loar, working as an acoustic consultant/technician for the Gibson Musical Instrument Company, was developing the refinements to the guitar and mandolin that included ‘F’ style sound holes that improved the character of the voice of the mandolin to the point that the 1925 Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolin is one of the most sought-after instrument of the vintage market.
As popular musical arrangements became more sophisticated and the bands grew bigger through the 1930s, the mandolin remained in the shadows, waiting for a new musical form to bring it back to light. Big Bands had horn sections. The guitar was largely used as a rhythm instrument until the amplifier (and Charlie Christian) helped elevate it to a Jazz solo instrument. The banjo and mandolin were not in favor. Movies and radio emerged as new methods to disseminate music and culture and they made it possible to deliver the best bands of the nation to households from coast to coast.
The 1930s were the depression years and, a 3-year draught on the mid-west helped create the dust bowl. Farmers and workers were displaced and pushed to the fringes of the country seeking work and relief from disrupted and destroyed lives. Their existence was not the same as what appeared on the silver screen. They did, however, find a voice in Woody Guthrie and others that expressed what was going on in music & song. The guitar, banjo and mandolin were small, portable and useful for entertainment and interaction in the many camps and population movements of the time.
In the Appalachian region of the United States, the folk traditions had been absorbing English, Irish, Scottish and German immigrant influences. These were now expanding to include the blues and rural folk from displaced farmers and the impact of the country music available late at night from powerful radio stations in Nashville, Chicago, and other mid-western & southern sources. The banjo & mandolin, never entirely forgotten, reemerged.
William Smith Monroe (September 13th, 1911 – September 9th, 1996) was born on his family’s farm near Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of eight children. In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery. Together with his brothers Birch, Charlie, and childhood friend & guitarist William “Old Hickory” Hardin and Larry Moore, they formed a musical group the Monroe Brothers to play at local dances and house parties. Birch Monroe and Larry Moore soon left the group, and Bill and Charlie carried on as a duo. They eventually performed live on radio — first in Indiana and then in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and North Carolina (1934 – 1936). RCA Victor signed the Monroe Brothers to a recording contract in 1936 where they scored a hit single with the gospel song “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?”. They ultimately recorded 60 tracks for Victor’s Bluebird label between 1936 & 1938.
The Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938 and Monroe formed ‘The Kentuckians’ in Little Rock, Arkansas. The group only lasted for three months. Monroe left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia to form the 1st edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten and bassist Amos Garren. The group name was derived from Monroe’s Kentucky roots, the Blue Grass State. The genre was not called “Bluegrass” at the time, simply “Old Time Mountain Music” or “Hillbilly Music.” The name “Bluegrass” wasn’t applied until the music’s revival at the folk festivals of the 1960s.
In October 1939, Monroe successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe recorded Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues” along with 7 others at his 1st solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940. The Blue Grass Boys then consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
Monroe was still experimenting with the sound for his group. He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor recordings; preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the Monroe Brothers. A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion, a sound that was soon dropped from the band. Monroe added banjo player David “‘Stringbean” Akeman in 1942. Akeman played the instrument in a relatively basic style and was rarely featured in instrumental solos. Monroe’s pre-1946 recordings consisted of a transitional style from his string-band roots and the musical innovations to come.
Sometime during 1945, Monroe found a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin for sale for $150 at a Florida barber shop. The instrument had the right kind of sound and feel — it was loud and cutting. It had a ‘bark’ to it and he liked the sound enough to buy the instrument. He had no way of knowing that he would change history with that mandolin.
In December 1945, at the end of World War II, Monroe added a North Carolina banjo prodigy named Earl Scruggs. Scruggs played the 5 string banjo with a distinctive three-finger picking style that quickly caused a sensation among Opry audiences. The Blue Grass Boys lineup included singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts (who sometimes performed under the name “Cedric Rainwater”). That band has been dubbed the “Original Bluegrass Band” since the resulting music included all the elements that now characterize the genre: breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmony arrangements and impressive instrumental abilities on the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. By that time, Monroe had acquired a 1923 Gibson F5 model “Lloyd Loar” signed ‘F’ hole mandolin which became his trademark instrument.
Between 1946 & 47, the Blue Grass Boys recorded 28 songs recorded for Columbia Records that became classics including “Toy Heart”, “Blue Grass Breakdown”, “Molly and Tenbrooks”, “Wicked Path of Sin”, “My Rose of Old Kentucky”, “Little Cabin Home on the Hill”, and Monroe’s most famous song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954, appearing as the B-side of his 1st single for Sun Records. Monroe gave his blessing to Presley’s rock-n-roll cover of the song and even re-recorded it himself with a faster arrangement after Presley’s version became a hit. Several gospel-themed numbers are credited to the “Blue Grass Quartet”, which featured four-part vocal arrangements accompanied solely by mandolin and guitar — Monroe’s usual practice when performing “sacred” songs.
In 1948 both Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe’s band to form their own group the Foggy Mountain Boys. They found commercial success in the 1950s & 1960s with hits “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, “Cabin on the Hill”, and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”. In 1949, after signing with Decca Records, Monroe regrouped, entering the “golden age” of his career with what many consider the classic “high lonesome” version of the Blue Grass Boys, featuring the lead vocals and rhythm guitar of Jimmy Martin, the banjo of Rudy Lyle (replacing Don Reno), and fiddlers such as Merle “Red” Taylor, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements. This band recorded a number of bluegrass classics, including “My Little Georgia Rose,” “On and On,” “Memories of Mother and Dad,” and “Uncle Pen,” as well as instrumentals such as “Roanoke”, “Big MaLonesomen”, “Stoney Lonesome”, “Get Up John” and the mandolin feature “Raw Hide.” Carter Stanley joined the Blue Grass Boys as guitarist for a short time in 1951 during a period when the Stanley Brothers had temporarily disbanded.
Once the music found its audience on the Grand ol’ Opry, the style caught on and other bands quickly formed. The “Golden Age” of the new genre was during the 1950s. The bands playing at that time included: Wade Mainer and his Mountaineers, the Stanley Brothers, Hylo Brown and The Timberliners, Ervin T. Rouse, who wrote the standard “Orange Blossom Special”, Reno and Smiley, the Sauceman Brothers, Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, Red Allen (who also recorded with the Osborne Brothers for MGM in the mid-1950s), Mac Wiseman, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, Buzz Busby, The Lilly Brothers and Jim Eanes.
Around 1951, Bill Monroe sent his Gibson F-5 mandolin back to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo Michigan for a neck re-set, new frets and refinishing. Several months later, the instrument was returned with the neck properly reset, but the other requested work had not been done. Monroe took out his pocket knife and gouged the inlayed name ‘Gibson’ off the headstock. Monroe reckoned that his use of the Gibson had caused plenty of fans to buy Gibson mandolins and that he deserved better from the company. It started a grudge that lasted 30 years or more.
On January 16th, 1953 Monroe was critically injured in a 2-car wreck. He and “Bluegrass Boys” bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were returning home from a fox hunt north of Nashville. On highway 31W, near White House, their car was struck by a drunken driver. Monroe suffered injuries to his back, left arm and nose, and was rushed to Nashville General Hospital. It took him almost 4 months to recover and resume touring.
By the late 1950s, Monroe’s commercial fortunes had begun to slip. The rise of rock-and-roll and the development of the “Nashville sound” in mainstream country music were the predominant country music of the day. While still a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe found diminishing success on the singles charts and struggled to keep his band together.
A 2nd generation of Bluegrass musicians began performing, composing and recording in the mid-to-late 1960s. These include Doc Watson, J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Norman Blake, Frank Wakefield, Bill Keith, Del McCoury, Tony Trischka and Tony Rice. As they refined their craft, the New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, The Kentucky Colonels, and The Dillards developed progressive bluegrass. In one collaboration, 1st generation bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, progressive mandolin player David Grisman, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia (on banjo), and Peter Rowan on lead vocals played in the band called: ‘Old and in the Way’. Garcia, Chris Hillman, the Stanley Brothers and others in the 1960s and 1970s helped introduce rock music listeners to progressive and traditional bluegrass. Bush, Grisman, and Clements developed strong jazz elements in most of their playing — Clements liked to refer to his music as “hillbilly jazz” — but each owes much to traditional bluegrass.
In the early 1960s, Bluegrass found a new audience thanks to television. The Andy Griffith Show (a TV series aired between 1960 and 1968) was the story of a widower Sheriff and his son Opie living in Mayberry NC with Andy’s Aunt Bee. Most of Andy’s time was spent dealing small-town wisdom and core American values while calming down his cousin and Deputy Barney. Griffith was (in real life) a guitar player and singer with a Gospel background. He had a good ear for great music and helped the producers book ‘The Country Boys’ for two episodes of the first season of the wildly popular sitcom. Both episodes aired in 1961 (February & May).
The Country Boys were made up of founders Brothers Clarence, Roland & Eric White (guitar, mandolin & bass respectively), Leroy Mack (guitar), and Billy Ray Latham on Banjo. The music was so well received that the Country Boys were booked for a second episode and featured even more. The portrayal was of Southern hillbilly music, but the music got through to the audience on its own merits. In late 1961 the Country Boys changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels — A tip of the hat to the Bluegrass Boys — especially considering that the White brothers were born in Maine.
Other TV producers saw the potential of weaving the energetic music into their entertainment offerings. Other TV shows included the ‘new’ country music:
Hootenanny (ABC 1963-1964): A musical variety show broadcast on ABC. In 2007 a set of three DVDs called “The Best of Hootenanny” was issued. It contained clips of performances by The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limeliters and The New Christy Minstrels, and even Woody Allen as a stand-up comedian.
The Hoot’nanny Show (BBC 1963-1964) recorded in Edinburgh. Two albums with the same title have been released, with contributions from Archie Fisher, Barney McKenna (before he joined The Dubliners), and The Corries.
The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS 1962-1971) was a situation comedy starring Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer, Jr. The series was about a poor backwoods family transplanted to Beverly Hills, CA after striking oil on their country farm. Created by writer Paul Henning, it is the first in a genre of “fish out of water” themed television shows. The theme song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” provided the back story for the series. The song was written and composed by Paul Henning and sung by Jerry Scoggins. The accompaniment was provided by bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The song spent 20 weeks on the Billboard country singles charts, reaching a peak of number 1 for 3 weeks and reaching number 44 on the music charts in 1962. It is one of the better-known defining 5 string banjo bluegrass songs of the 1960s.
Petticoat Junction (CBS 1963-1970) followed the success of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Green Acres (CBS 1965-1971) was a sister show to Petticoat Junction starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as a couple who move from New York City to a country farm.
3rd-generation Bluegrass was developed in the mid-1980s. The original radio broadcasts of Bluegrass bands worked around a single microphone. As each member soloed or sang, they would approach the mic and perform, then withdraw when their turn was through. The guitarist, for example, would approach the mic and hold his instrument up high to address the microphone to be clearly heard. By the 1980s, this tradition was abandoned by some as utterly unnecessary. High-quality sound reinforcement techniques allowed each band member to be miked separately; exemplified by Tony Rice Unit and The Bluegrass Album Band. Tony Rice showcased his elaborate lead guitar solos, and other bands followed. The electric bass became an alternative to the traditional stand-up 3/4 acoustic bass. Nontraditional chords also became more widely accepted as Jazz progressions and new interpretations of familiar Jazz tunes were reinterpreted into Bluegrass (NewGrass). On the other hand, this generation also saw a renaissance of more traditional songs, played in the newer style.
David Grisman emerged as a force of both the traditional art form of Bluegrass and new waves of similar instrumentation but to new forms of music. He called his adventures ‘Dawg’ music and played with many of the old guard as well as many of the new players. Older Masters of the fiddle like Stephan Grapelli and Vassar Clements, guitar Masters like Tony Rice and Jerry Garcia, Country players, Jazz players, Bluegrass players, Folk players — all in an effort to expand the reach of the traditional genre as well as a new appreciation of the musical flexibility of the mandolin, banjo and fiddle.
On November 13th 1985 one of Bill Monroe’s paramours, in a fit of rage, smashed his Gibson F-5 mandolin into splinters with a fireplace poker. Gibson craftsman Charles Derrington was able to repair the instrument by gluing the 500 or so fragments together. The mandolin now resides at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
1990s and Beyond
In recent decades some mainstream country music performers have recorded bluegrass albums including Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless. Since the late 1990s, Ricky Skaggs, who began as a bluegrass musician and crossed over to mainstream country in the 1980s, returned to bluegrass with his band Kentucky Thunder. The Coen Brothers’ released the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ in 2000, with an old-time and bluegrass soundtrack, and the Down from the Mountain music tour and resulting documentary.
Bluegrass Festivals have maintained popularity, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky-Grass in Lyons, Colorado and the Nederland, Colorado based Yonder Mountain String Band in the United States, and Druhá Tráva in the Czech Republic attract large audiences while expanding the range of progressive bluegrass in the college-jam band atmospheres, often called “jamgrass.” Bluegrass fused with jazz in the music of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka and Skyline, Sam Bush, Doc Watson, multiple Grammy Award-winning bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, and many others.
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Compiled from various sources including Wikipedia and primary sources.