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Is it Bluegrass?

At The Denver Folklore Center, we often have the opportunity to talk about music with folks who may be relatively new to acoustic music, some of whom are dazzled by the many varieties of stringband music and a bit confused by the different genres. One frequent question that we hear is “what exactly makes music (or a band) bluegrass”? 

At its inception in 1939 bluegrass music was named by its founder, mandolinist Bill Monroe, who called his band The Bluegrass Boys after his home state of Kentucky. The new sound was unique for its “high lonesome” vocal harmonies, the percussive dimension of Monroe’s playing, and most particularly the driving banjo style invented by the great Earl Scruggs. Scruggs introduced a way of using metal fingerpicks and three-finger picking rolls that created a chiming metallic sound that rang out over all the other instrument tones. While successive generations of pickers have honed Earl’s approach and added new melodic dimensions, that tonal quality remains a defining characteristic of today’s bluegrass.

New bands formed through the 40’s, 50’s and into the 1960’s, mostly hewing closely to the original formula: four to six acoustic instruments (always including the banjo), simple three- or four-chord song structures, and instrumental breaks that hew closely to the melody. 

A few new influences crept in, mostly carried by young musicians who had been influenced by rock music like guitarist Clarence White who brought the use of the guitar as a melody instrument to the mix. By the mid 1970’s bluegrass bands were recording rock and pop songs using bluegrass style, sometimes including drums or even electric instruments. The Osborne Brothers, bluegrass royalty as early as the 50’s, underwent some serious pushback in this era for taking this approach on their recordings. Still, the bluegrass of that era was easily identifiable and typically adhered to the song structure and chord progressions of the pioneers and the central role of three-finger banjo in the Scruggs style. Even the Osbornes observed these traditions in their stage shows.

At the end of the 1970’s a real stylistic shift could be noted, as guitar phenomenon Tony Rice and third-generation mandolinist David Grisman released albums of jazz-inspired melodic pieces played by bluegrass musicians using all of the usual instruments with the notable exception of the banjo. These were more free-form tonal explorations with more complex chord progressions and extended virtuosic instrumental improvisations. Not bluegrass, for sure, but these records have been hugely influential on successive generations of acoustic players who also love traditional bluegrass. Notable examples include Manzanita by The Tony Rice Unit and Dawg Jazz/Dawg Grass by Grisman’s ensemble. 

Soon the banjo eclecticist Bela Fleck was driving ensembles that included keyboard, harmonica, horns and even Indian percussion, stepping up with wildly inventive banjo leads that used the techniques of Earl Scruggs to play music that seemed to come from a different universe. Not bluegrass, definitely–but Bela still occasionally drops a very pure interlude of solo Scruggs-style playing into his live sets. Bluegrass!

Most recently The Punch Brothers, a traditional-looking bluegrass ensemble whose members all evolved out of the classic bluegrass tradition, have come to prominence with a series of recordings including pensive melodies, layered vocal harmony lines and enigmatic lyrics. Like so many of today’s best acoustic artists, the Brothers can also launch into straight-ahead bluegrass that would satisfy any purist, but their shows focus more on their own original stylings.

A fascinating dimension of all of this stylistic exploration is the remarkable degree of overlap in musical interests. Somewhat unlike genre shifts in classical, rock and jazz music over the years, crossover between styles by individual players and bands has become almost the rule. So it’s not uncommon to hear your favorite bluegrass players in different ensemble configurations stretching out with jazzy arrangements, tone poems or even electric blues or rock.

Many would still hold that we can define bluegrass by the presence of a driving banjo sound, and anything else is another form of acoustic music. But with all of the exceptional younger players breaking boundaries, others would say that perhaps it’s time to let go of any hardened attitudes about style and open up to the rich and varied tapestry of acoustic music being spread out for our pleasure. - Claude Brachfeld, Co-Owner Denver Folklore Center