Resources: Genres and Performers: BluegrassBluegrass is a mixture of old-time fiddle music, shape-note gospel singing, blues, and "Hillbilly" music in the imagination of a young man, William Smith Monroe (pictured at left).
Born in Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911, Bill was the youngest of eight children. His family, like many rural families who made their own entertainment, were musicians. Much younger than his siblings, with poor eyesight, and strongly attatched to his fiddle-playing Uncle Pen Vandiver (with whom he lived after his parents' deaths), Bill was introverted and even more focused on music than others in the family. Influenced by blues guitarist and fiddle player, Arnold Schultz, Bill added bluesy flavor to his music. Records and radio exposed Bill to 'Hillbilly' artists like the Carter Family.
Bill and his brothers Birch and Charlie began to play as a band, and eventually started to perform semi-porfessionally on Radio Station WLS in Chicago. In the mid-30s Bill and Charlie accepted an offer from WLS for full-time jobs. They continued as a team until differences led them to separate in the late 30s. Bill formed the Kentuckians and moved to Radio KARK in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1939, Bill formed the Bluegrass Boys with Cleo Davis, Art Wooten, and Amos Garen. Bill signed with the Grand Old Opry and exhibited more assertive singing and mandolin styles. When Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys, Scruggs made the three-finger style of picking the banjo an earmark of Bluegrass music. They remained together until almost 1950 when Bill signed with Decca Records (with Jimmy Martin). Bill was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1970, and died on August 13, 1996, almost 85 years old, the father of Bluegrass.
Bluegrass lyrics focus on family, the land, and the simple pleasures of life. The chord progressions are relatively simple, consisting mostly of I, IV, and V, sometimes II, VII, and VIm. Instrumental breaks, however are intricate and fast, and require a high level of dexterity and knowledge of the fingerboard to play well. While breaks are based on traditional tunes and standard licks, improvisation in bluegrass is as expected and demanding as it is in jazz. Proficient bluegrass players are generally accomplished musicians--either formally trained and highly literate or self-trained and intuitive.