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The Season 6 Premiere of Theoretically Speaking: S6:E1 – What Makes Bluegrass, Bluegrass? – Part 1

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Kentucky Bluegrass (poa pratensis)…

Is green.

The name “bluegrass” is derived from the blueish-green tint the grass takes on when it produces seedheads in the spring.

The seedheads contain tiny flowers.

And their blue hue only becomes noticeable when they catch the sunlight, just so. 

That is, if no one mows it.

The grass is where Kentucky gets its nickname of The Bluegrass State, and it’s indirectly where the Bluegrass genre gets its name.

It was invented by a Kentuckian, after all. And a lot more recently than you might think.

The general assumption is that Bluegrass is old, probably because its predecessor was known as Old Time Music.

It was also called ‘Mountain Music,’ or ‘Hillbilly Music.’

Some people from the mountains simply called it “music,” because it was just the music they made. Like in Mexico: Mexican food is just called “food.”

  • Old Time Music was made almost exclusively by amateurs. These were people living off the land in Appalachia. It was hard work but they took time to party.
  • Old Time Music was mostly for dancing. Picture yourself living in those mountains around 1900 and going to a barn dance on a Saturday night:

You may have spent the week working with your neighbor, planting crops or hanging tobacco leaves to dry. But on Saturdays, he played fiddle with a couple guys from down the valley, who played banjo and guitar. They played sitting down to conserve their energy because people wanted to dance late into the night.

That combination of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and almost always high tenor vocals is what we call ‘Old Time Music.’

It’s the blending of the traditional songs of the Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants, with characteristics of African music brought over by the enslaved.

Old Time Music incorporated the African use of syncopation, as well as the use of Blues scales and Gospel vocal phrasing. Having said that, the “high lonesome” vocal sound is more directly related to the British Isles, as are close harmonies. And while the British have a history of storytelling ballads, their upbeat reels and jigs were good for dancing.

The banjo is a major African contribution to, not just Old Time Music, but American music in general. It was originally a fretless instrument with an open back, like some drums have no head on the bottom. Frets and a closed back came along later.

In the 1930s, radio became popular. And as we’ve already seen with Country, Swing, Western Swing, and more: radio made all the difference. It could make talented amateurs into professionals.

That’s what happened with Bill Monroe.

A native Kentuckian, he was the youngest of eight children in a musical family. His siblings played guitar and fiddle and such, so that meant he was left with the least desirable instrument:

The mandolin is a member of the lute family and came to North America with Italian immigrants. It’s smaller than a guitar and has four pairs of strings. Each pair is tuned to the same note, and those notes are G, D, A, and E. This is the same tuning as the violin, and many mandolin players double on fiddle as well.

Another similarity is the violin family has the viola, cello, and double bass, and the mandolin family has the mandola, mandocello, mandobass, and more.

Vivaldi and others wrote for the mandolin during the Baroque. Other Classical pieces were later arranged for mandolin orchestras.

Mandolin orchestras were bands of 20 or so musicians playing mostly instruments in the mandolin family, from mandobass all the way up. They were pretty popular around the start of the 20th Century, playing Popular songs and Classical orchestral pieces arranged for mandolins.

Their popularity continued through the 30s but waned as Jazz began to flourish.

Some groups added Jazz tunes to their repertoire, but the Big Bands before WWII and later genres like Rock & Roll became the mainstream.

There’s been renewed interest in mandolin orchestras recently, though such groups are unlikely to have hit singles.

Bill Monroe took to the mandolin. And got pretty good at it. By the time he was 16, in 1927, both his parents had passed away and he was shuffled between family members. He stayed with his uncle Pendleton Vandiver, a fiddle player who had Bill accompany him playing dance gigs.

Bill would later have a hit with a song he wrote for his “Uncle Pen.”

At 18, he joined his brothers Birch and Charlie in Indiana where all three worked in the oil industry. The brothers and their friend Larry Moore started a band to play at dances.

A pharmaceutical company called Texas Crystals offered them a radio show. Birch and Larry declined – but Bill and Charlie took the job as The Monroe Brothers.

They were successful enough that they were on stations from Nebraska to South Carolina, and RCA Victor signed them in 1936. They had a hit with their first single “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul?” and had several more over the next two years.

However, they were both headstrong and brothers, and headstrong brothers will argue. They went their separate ways in 1938.

Charlie formed a band called Charlie Monroe’s Boys, and then one called The Kentucky Pardners. He had a fair amount of success touring and playing radio shows.

After record deals with RCA Victor and Decca, he retired from the music business in 1957, as Rock & Roll came along, and worked on his farm. 

In 1969, Charlie, Bill, and Birch reunited for a festival put on by the Smithsonian. Charlie played another festival in 1972.

It was such a success that he continued doing one-off shows for the next couple years. He stopped performing when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1974. He died the following year.

Charlie’s commercial and artistic success was outshined by his baby brother’s. Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys, the band he formed after splitting with Charlie, were a hit from the beginning. In 1939, Monroe auditioned for and was accepted into the Grand Ole Opry, and made a record for RCA Victor.

Monroe’s approach to the mandolin was unlike previous players.

He developed the “chop” technique of playing rhythm by striking the strings and immediately muting them. It creates a percussive sound, which is important in a band without a drummer.

His solos were flurries of precisely plucked notes. They were expressive and emotional, and included Blues and Jazz with traditional Old Time melodies.

His singing voice was high. The phrase “high, lonesome sound” was coined by folklorist John Cohen. He was describing the voice of Appalachian folk musician Roscoe Holcomb.

Holcomb predates Bluegrass and it’s been speculated that high vocals were necessary to be heard, without amplification, at a barn dance. It’s possible Holcomb inspired Monroe and others to sing that way.

Whatever the origin, that vocal sound is a very important part of Bluegrass.

It’s Bill’s combination of his innovative mandolin playing, his high vocals, and his excellent taste in hiring talented band members, that makes him the “Father of Bluegrass.”

But it wasn’t called Bluegrass yet.

The people he hired were very important because they worked out precise arrangements. Old Time Music was mostly improvised, but Monroe and company worked out their parts and played them exactly. 

One player he hired was David Akeman, better known as Stringbean, on banjo.

Monroe and Stringbean met, not playing music, but at a semi-professional basketball game. At 6’5”, Stringbean was suited for the sport.

He also had a great sense of humor and added comedy to his musical performances, accentuating his height by wearing long shirts tucked into pants belted at his knees. He became close friends with Grandpa Jones, another banjo playing comedian. They lived near each other just north of Nashville and would go hunting together.

Both he and his wife, Estell, had lived through the Depression and didn’t trust banks. A rumor got around that they kept large amounts of cash at their house. On November 10, 1973, they returned home from his performance at the Opry. A pair of 23-year-old cousins had already ransacked the house looking for money. They didn’t find any. But they did find guns.

The following morning, Grandpa Jones arrived to pick up Stringbean to go hunting. He found Estell’s body outside and Stringbean’s in the house.

The cousins were convicted of murder in the deaths of both Estell and Stringbean, as well as stealing the $5700 in cash Stringbean had on him. One cousin died in prison. The other was paroled in 2014 after serving 41 years. Three decades after the killings, $20,000 in cash was found hidden in the brickwork of the house’s chimney.

Stringbean used a traditional strumming technique called the clawhammer.

It’s called that because the right hand is held in a curved shape like a hammer’s claw. The player brushes the strings in a downward motion with the back of a finger. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that’s its gist.

After Stringbean left The Blue Grass Boys, Monroe hired Lester Flatt on guitar and mandolin, and Earl Scruggs on banjo in 1945.

Scruggs had a much different style from the clawhammer. He had developed a fingerpicking technique using the thumb and first two fingers.

It’s similar to the technique Classical guitarists use, but we now sometimes call it “Scruggs style” on banjo. Previously, the banjo was seen as a rhythm instrument. With this new technique, it became a lead instrument.

It was with this lineup of musicians and instruments:

  • Monroe on mandolin
  • Scruggs on banjo
  • Flatt on guitar
  • Chubby Wise on fiddle
  • And Howard Watts on upright bass

– that we can see the transition from Old Time Music to Bluegrass.

Old Time Music was Folk music anyone could play:

But The Blue Grass Boys were a band of virtuosos, gradually honing a new genre. It was traditional like Old Time but lightning fast like Jazz and technical like Classical. This is when Bluegrass truly began.

It was a slow evolution into existence, however, and we can’t really put an exact date on its birth. What we do know is it was sometime after WWII: Bluegrass is younger than the atomic bomb.

Despite its reputation as “hillbilly” music, Bluegrass requires expert musicianship on the same level as Classical players.

Excellence was in demand. And that lineup of The Blue Grass Boys wouldn’t last. Monroe kept the band recording and touring for years, though rarely with the same players. Musicians, like everyone else, follow the money, and having The Blue Grass Boys on your resume increased your asking price.

Flatt and Scruggs formed their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys, and had a massive hit with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Chubby Wise, who was replaced by Vassar Clements, left to play with Flatt and Scruggs, Hank Snow, and many others. 

Clements also joined Flatt and Scruggs, and you can hear him on their theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies.

After beating an alcohol problem, he became an in-demand session player, and was hired by everyone from Norman Blake, to Linda Ronstadt, to Woody Herman, to Jerry Garcia, to Paul McCartney. In 2005, he won the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Monroe replaced Flatt with Mac Wiseman who, as a child, had had polio that left him unable to do manual labor as an adult. He instead spent his time learning how to play music.

He played upright bass with Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks, then joined Flatt and Scruggs as a guitarist. Then he joined The Blue Grass Boys for a few years, and later enjoyed a solo career.

After hearing that Wiseman was leaving the band, guitarist Jimmy Martin sneaked backstage at the Grand Ole Opry to try auditioning for Monroe. It worked. Monroe hired him on guitar and made him lead vocalist, with Monroe singing the high harmony.

The two sounded great together but had many personal disagreements. Still, when Monroe had a serious car accident in 1953, it was Martin who kept the band touring for the months it took Monroe to recover

So it was a never ending merry go round of players in and out of bands. They were all talented and each deserved their success, regardless of which outfit they were playing with at any given moment.

As with the mandolin orchestras, the popularity of Rock & Roll in the 1950s meant less work for Bluegrass players.

Work dried up until the renewed interest in Folk music in the 1960s put Bluegrass back in demand.

Monroe and others expanded their touring circuits outside the southern states and became popular on college campuses across the country. 

Bluegrass festivals, like the Smithsonian festival where Monroe reunited with his brothers, became popular.

Monroe even started one himself, and the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival has been running annually since 1967.

He continued playing until suffering a stroke in April 1996. He passed away later that year.

There’s now a life size statue of him outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.

His influence, however, continues.

And we’ll talk about that in the next installment.


Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

Galop infernal (The Can-Can)
Jacques Offenbach
1858

Sally Goodin
Eck Robertson
1922

Black Sheep
Charlie Monroe’s Boys
1939

Blue Moon Of Kentucky
Bill Monroe And His Blue Grass Boys
1945

Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
1949

Hillbilly Fever
Stringbean
1949

How Mountain Gals Can Love
The Stanley Brothers
1958

The Ballad Of Jed Clampett
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
1962

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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Phylum of Alexandria
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March 8, 2024 7:05 am

Here I thought it was some tortured metaphor about blues music mingling with Irish-derived folk. Turns out it was literally about grass. Lol.

Great stuff as always, Bill!

thegue
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thegue
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March 8, 2024 9:24 am

Great stuff as usual Bill! Not my style of music, but I’m looking forward to listening to the playlist and checking out the statue in Nashville.

lovethisconcept
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March 11, 2024 1:10 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I wanna come, too!

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 8, 2024 11:23 am

Good to have the series back. Its not my usual thing but I got more into listening to the playlist than I expected.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown doesn’t get much airtime over here, I was familiar with the title without having heard it. It’s impossible not to smile listening to it, a real party / hoedown starter. Especially liked the first comment that came up on youtube;

‘In the state of Kentucky if this song comes on the radio while you are in a motor vehicle you’re legally obligated to get into a car chase’

Summed it up perfectly for any location nevermind Kentucky. I’m pretty sure the tempo would induce me to put my foot down.

lovethisconcept
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March 8, 2024 12:11 pm

Love the comment about the car chase. Someone gets it.

lovethisconcept
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March 8, 2024 12:06 pm

Ooh, I’ve been waiting for this one. I spent a good bit of my childhood listening to my father play banjo in a bluegrass band with a few uncles and an occasional cousin or two.
I’ve even been to the Bean Blossom festival several times. I’ll admit, I was young enough that the big draw was the funnel cake booths, but I did listen to the music as well.
I get a bit misty-eyed listening to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, a tune that I have heard my father play at least a thousand times. Back it with “Orange Blossom Special” and I can’t be held responsible. Song begins at about :50 in the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imgPOUjLtZM

Last edited 1 month ago by lovethisconcept
lovethisconcept
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March 8, 2024 12:09 pm

I the Billy Joel/Elton John Piano Men tour in Nashville many years ago. Earl Scruggs was in the audience and Billy and Elton interrupted their show to introduce him. They were utterly respectful and seemed just a little bit awed to have him there.

cappiethedog
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March 8, 2024 3:57 pm

Alt-country doesn’t quite accurately describe Freakwater. Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin sound more like The Carter Family than Uncle Tupelo. Freakwater, for me, goes together with Lambchop. I discovered them around the same time after purchasing the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. The Carter Family stood out. I played “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” a lot. So when I read the CMJ retail review for Springtime, I knew I had to buy it. Bean is an Eleventh Dream Day co-founder. I can’t know this, not living anywhere near Kentucky. But is there skepticism from roots music fans if the musical artist started out as a rocker? Unlike Lambchop, Bean and Catherine Irwin seems to be playing old-time music without a trace of irony. Not to say, Kurt Wagner was cosplaying. In interview, he cites Billy Sherrill as an influence.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 8, 2024 7:30 pm

Great column, Bill — and I’m really looking forward to how it evolves. Yes, the early story of bluegrass the the story of Bill Monroe are inextricable.

I have to share this anecdote, which I had heard before in the excellent documentary High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, but which I just cut-and-pasted from the SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) website:

The moving of the Blue Grass Boys from one area to another ceased when Bill took them to Nashville, Tennessee to audition for the Grand Ole Opry in October 1939. Bill recalls, “I went in to audition and Harry Stone, Manager of the Opry, and George D. Hay, The Solemn Old Judge, were going out to lunch, but they told me they would be right back. When they came back, we played some tunes for them, and they hired me right there. They told me, ‘if you ever leave the Opry, you’ll have to fire yourself.’ Bill was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for almost fifty eight years.

I love that quote, ‘If you ever leave, you’ll have to fire yourself.’ That’s a bold assessment of talent! And Bill Monroe lived up to it.

Bluegrass music really had a moment until this little thing called rock-and-roll took off in the 50’s. Elvis covered Bill’s song “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Bill was asked what he thought about a rock singer totally taking his song in a different direction. Bill supposed responded multiple times, “Them was powerful checks.” (referring to the royalty checks he got from Elvis’ sales)

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 9, 2024 2:48 pm

There were a bunch of bonus tracks I was planning to upload, but the entire High Lonesome soundtrack is essential. A few of the later tracks probably align with V-dog’s upcoming column but it mostly leans into the early stuff… Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman (the voice with a heart). I’ll post the entire soundtrack playlist here for anyone who wants to dig deeper into bluegrass’ foundations.

https://youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_mIOm-tzGRzPkfCthZaDjkIVNjH7lcMj1g&si=U3GHBNkgrKEWGl4G

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 9, 2024 3:07 pm

One final thing I wanted to mention from bluegrass’ early days.

Bill Monroe had a very clear vision of what bluegrass should be and he made some clear rules:
1. It was to be high pitched — the high Lonesome sound.
2. It had to have a fast rhythm, well suited to mandolin and banjo but hard work for the guitar and fiddle.
3. Performers had to dress and comport themselves respectably. He hated the hayseed stereotype and insisted bluegrass musicians wear suits and ties and keep a respectable demeanor. Everyone else in the Grand Old Opry may wear blue jeans and straw hats, but when a bluegrass musician came on, it took on a kind of solemnity. Even if it was a raucous tune to make you want to dance, the musicians were dead serious, per Bill’s rules. Only much later did some newer artists somewhat deviate from that model, but most traditional bluegrass adhere to those rules to this day.

cstolliver
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March 9, 2024 7:59 pm

Whoa! That periodic table of music, mt! Has this been around for awhile and I’m just noticing it? Or is it an mt original for this season of V-dog’s series? Either way, it’s awesome!

I’m reading “Oh, Didn’t They Ramble,” the latest from my former N&O colleague David Menconi, about the history of Rounder Records and roots music. I’m the first to admit it’s not really my area of expertise — my familiarity ends with Alison Krauss. But I’ve found the book fascinating and it’s likely to get me listening to genres I hadn’t given a try. Your suggested listening in this installment will likely dovetail with that.

Looking forward to more in this season, Bill.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chuck Small
LinkCrawford
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March 10, 2024 1:21 pm

“I’d play ‘Sally Goodin’ all day if I could,
But the Lord and my wife wouldn’t think it very good,
So I fiddle when I can and I work when I should….”

Can you finish that line? 🙂

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 10, 2024 2:21 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

“I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this.
Yeah, that John Denver’s full of shit”

(Not trying to dis John Denver, just laying down a clue and stanning for Dumb and Dumber in one fell swoop…)

lovethisconcept
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March 11, 2024 1:08 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

A bit late, but “Thank God, I’m a country boy!”

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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March 11, 2024 1:17 pm

We have a winner!

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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March 10, 2024 1:25 pm

I have a lot of respect for bluegrass, but I’ve learned over the years that for me bluegrass is best served in relatively small doses. I prefer a few songs and then move on. I’ve always thought that bluegrass festivals would be fun, but figured that I’d get tired of the music after part of a day.
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That being said, I’m delighted when elements of bluegrass are interspersed with pop and country music.
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The public radio station local to me (which has a big band show in need of a DJ…I so want to do that), is mainly an old country, gospel, and bluegrass station. We aren’t quite Nashville, but that music is pretty popular down here in southern Ohio.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 10, 2024 2:18 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I thought you were in Indiana, Link. Did my wires get crossed again?

LinkCrawford
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March 10, 2024 2:38 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Born and raised north of Indy. Living east of Cincy for (most of) the last 24 years.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 10, 2024 3:51 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Ok I wasn’t that far off…

Cincy is practically Kentucky, so you’re bluegrass adjacent.

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