When you think of bluegrass, maybe you think of old-timey, hillbilly music. For decades bluegrass was largely confined to the Blue Ridge Mountains and their surrounding area, a geographic region including parts of the Virginias, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia. In more recent years, the genre has spread from this and to others and is changing in the process. Some fans react better to these changes than others.
So is bluegrass evolving or going extinct? You decide.
Different types of fans will tell you differently whether bluegrass is dying or not. It comes down to how traditional they are. As bluegrass has reached new audiences, the genre has shifted away from its roots. Some fans welcome these adaptations to the genre while others see the shift as a corruption of bluegrass itself.
As bluegrass has grown a broader and more diverse fan base, many modern bluegrass bands have adopted and incorporated elements of other genres. Whether this means that bluegrass music is growing or dying is a matter of debate, but there’s no doubt that bluegrass is changing and that a more traditional approach to the genre is becoming harder and harder to find.
Is Bluegrass Music Dying?
From the outside looking in bluegrass is doing better than it ever has. The genre is experiencing an unprecedented revival. Movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, Deliverance, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs have pulled in new fans. Carried over the internet and discovered by hipsters in their never-ending search for more and more “authentic” forms of creative expression—Bluegrass has found a new home, not in the rolling wilderness of Appalachia, but in the trendy bars of New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
In 2019, Punch Brothers, a bluegrass band, won a Grammy. Bluegrass musicians are so historically underrepresented at the awards, that their frontman didn’t even bother to show up. Bluegrass, once strongly associated with southern redneck culture, has suddenly found itself in vogue, trendy, and popular.
So, what’s the problem? If more people than ever before are appreciating, enjoying, and recognizing bluegrass music, then how could it possibly be “dying”? Well, with growth has come growing pains. As bluegrass spread outward from the Southeast, those new fans began to combine elements from rock, folk, country, pop, and even electronica into their bluegrass songs.
Additionally, many of bluegrass’ new fans are different demographically, geographically, and politically from the older, southern mainstays. These differences musically and otherwise have led to a culture clash between the old and new guard of bluegrass. To give some perspective on this, that band that won the Grammy, Punch Brothers—they were formed in Brooklyn, and their number one song is a protest anthem about Donald Trump Jr. You can imagine that that doesn’t play well with the blue-collar laborers of rural Tennessee.
While there are many fans who embrace the big tent approach and welcome innovations on a beloved style, others feel that the bluegrass they know and love is being consumed—eaten, chewed up, and swallowed—by forms of music that only vaguely resemble bluegrass.
A Brief History of Bluegrass Music
Bluegrass, as a community is no stranger to controversy. The genre has been fighting for survival almost since its inception. Going through waves of popularity now is far from the first time that bluegrass has struggled to define itself. Let’s take a deeper look at the history of bluegrass music and the ways that the current disagreement fits into a bigger picture.
Pre 1940s: Setting the Stage
Bluegrass formed as a combination of musical styles from Scottish and Irish settlers blended with elements of African music found in black gospel and laborer work songs. This blending of musical traditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the hills of Appalachia created a fertile breeding ground for bluegrass’s development in the 1940s.
These early American immigrants wrote songs of daily rural life or pined for the loved ones and sweethearts they’d left behind in their native lands. Sentimentality, nostalgia, and rusticism flowed through their ballads. Many of these tunes survived through generations to be performed by the early adopters and inventors of bluegrass.
In addition to the lyrics and themes provided by Scot-Irish immigrants, many of the instruments and musical techniques of traditional folk music from these regions came with the travelers. String band motifs, traditional tunes, and unique fiddle playing techniques formed the basis of the music that would grow into bluegrass.
The origins of the string band date back much earlier than the 1800s. The first primitive versions of the banjo (an essential staple of bluegrass bands) were constructed not in Kentucky, America, or even Europe—but in Africa. Africans stretched animal hide over a split gourd and called it a “banjer” or “banza.” When Americans brought Africans to America, they brought with them their culture, traditions, and music. Eventually, these gourd and skin instruments would be adapted into the banjo we know today, while elements of African music such as a dominant offbeat formed into the fabric of bluegrass itself.
1939–1965: The Birth of Bluegrass
While string bands were a huge part of American culture throughout its early history, the term bluegrass was never used to describe anything until Bill Monroe formed his band “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys” and played the Grand Ole Opry in 1939. Bill Monroe was a native of Kentucky, and the band was so named because of Kentucky’s nickname of the Bluegrass State.
The band experimented with different combinations of instruments and vocalists but eventually settled on a core of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bass. This format inspired and defined the genre which formed around the band’s innovations.
Although Monroe provided the name and basic band composition of bluegrass, many fans don’t consider the genre to have become fully realized until Earl Scruggs joined the band in 1945 and introduced a never-before-seen three-finger picking style on the banjo. “Scruggs style” as it came to be known introduced an energy and vibrancy to bluegrass without losing its lonesome sentimentality. Audiences instantly reacted to added energy, and bluegrass was born.
When Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt left Monroe to create their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys, they decided to add the resophonic guitar, or Dobro, to the band. The Dobro is a slide bar instrument, invented and named after the Dopyera Brothers. The instrument was almost entirely obscure, even in the ’40s, but when Burkett Graves applied Scruggs’ three picking style to the instrument, it became a hit and a mainstay of the bluegrass format.
Even in these early years, the infant bluegrass movement was struggling to define itself. Bill Monroe passionately disapproved of the addition of the dobro to the bluegrass format. He famously responded to the addition by saying, “That ain’t no part of nothing.” A phrase that became something of a catchphrase for him as he became a respected bluegrass gatekeeper until his death in 1996.
The most enduring, characteristic elements of bluegrass that traditionalist bluegrass fans today hold onto so fiercely were developed and adopted during this early era of bluegrass tunes. The style quickly developed into a unique style, and American audiences had never heard anything like it. Radios were becoming more and more ubiquitous in American homes throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Bluegrass rode the airwaves and became increasingly popular across the country.
However, it would not be long before the burgeoning musical style faced its first existential threat. In 1954, Elvis Presley made his musical debut in Memphis, Tennessee—right in the middle of bluegrass country. Rock-n-Roll quickly eclipsed bluegrass in popularity and dominated the airwaves on both radio and television. Meanwhile, bluegrass struggled to compete with similar genres such as country, gospel, and old-time music for the ears not entirely captivated by the new Rock-n-Roll sound.
1965–2000: Adoption by the Counterculture
In 1965, Carlton Haney organized the first bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia. This was a multiday event that celebrated bluegrass’ (relatively short) history through workshops, contests, jam sessions, and performances. The festival was a hit, and the format was quickly copied in other events to follow. These events helped to assist in the dissemination of bluegrass to a more national audience.
The bluegrass industry quickly found unanticipated and unprecedented traction in urban and college markets. Bluegrass performers began traveling northward and cityward as they booked gigs on college campuses, coffee houses, and city music halls. Outdoor bluegrass music festivals became immensely popular with a new, younger audience.
In the wake of Woodstock, the outdoor, multiday format of the now established bluegrass festival filled a new craving for young audiences. With its regular outdoor festivals, prevalence on liberal college campuses, and folksy, authentic sound—bluegrass became a lightning rod for the counterculture movement.
Hippies, anti-war protesters, and social activists flocked to the bluegrass scene and brought with them new talent hailing from places like New York, California, and Colorado. While these new fans and musicians embraced bluegrass’s folksy stylings, they also blended it with what they knew. Rock, jazz, and psychedelia all influenced new artists to the genre. By the 70s, the term “newgrass” had risen to prominence as a way to describe these innovative takes on bluegrass’ classic sound.
However, the new talent weren’t the only ones changing bluegrass during this period. While many of bluegrass’ longtime fans were less than thrilled with the changes coming to the genre and the flood of younger, more liberal, city-dwelling fans—many older, more traditional artists embraced the increased attention and attendance, their new fans brought. Red Allen, a former member of the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, began wearing his hair long, dressing in bell bottoms and bragged about smoking marijuana at concerts.
Through the 70s, a stark split developed in the bluegrass community. Both fans and artists seemed to take sides. On the one hand, traditional bands held more strictly to the bluegrass structures and formats. They typically appeared clean-cut and dressed in matching formal wear. On the other hand, progressive bluegrass bands experimented with the style, incorporating new instruments, electric instruments, or unique techniques. They wore their hair long and dressed in the casual style of the counterculture of the era.
Older fans would frequently pack up their folding chairs and head back to their tents or campers when they saw long-haired bands setting up electric equipment on the stage at festivals. Younger fans were often less enthusiastic about more classic performances. Bluegrass festivals seemed to consist of two separate events sharing the same space at the same time.
Interestingly, as the 70s rolled into the 80s, the lines between the groups began to fade. The entire industry moved towards the more casual style of dress exemplified by the “hair boys.” Many “newgrass” acts were eventually embraced and accepted as part of the bluegrass mainstream. Artists such as Sam Bush or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are now widely regarded as bluegrass canon and representative of the genre.
The 80s and 90s presented a cyclical repeating of history in many respects. Bluegrass would slowly fade back into obscurity only to be thrust into the limelight again by a new cultural touchpoint—movies, events, or music. These resurgences in popularity brought in younger audiences. The new audiences were frequently heavily invested in social issues of their day, and young, experimental bluegrass bands used their music to protest America’s wars. Some of these musicians became mainstays and changed the direction of the genre as a whole.
2000–Today: The Sound of Change
In many ways, the modern era of bluegrass is just another example of bluegrass’ ebbs and flows in popularity and the conflicts that arise between the old guard and the younger newcomers. The emergence of the internet has served to amplify these conflicts, however. Bluegrass is changing faster than it ever has.
The internet has brought bluegrass to a wider and more nicely targeted audience than ever before. Innovation in bluegrass is happening, not just in a few directions, but in dozens of ways. Bluegrass is being blended with everything from rap to electronica. While some of these combinations are taken more seriously than others—they are all viewed as a threat to the core of the bluegrass by its most diehard fans.
And once again, the composition of bluegrass’ fans began becoming more diverse. Women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ people are all fighting for a seat at the table with varying levels of resistance. Bluegrass is once again being used as protest music for the young, progressive wing of American politics.
The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), an organization that gives out Bluegrass music awards and nominates inductees to the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor, once acted as a gatekeeper for what was and what was not bluegrass. However, in the mid-2000s, the IBMA decided to take a big tent approach and not attempt to control the direction bluegrass moved in so much as respond to the movement. This has proven quite controversial.
The executive director of the IBMA has since justified this decision by arguing that all bluegrass is connected and that newer, more innovative bluegrass inevitably leads new fans back to more traditional tunes.
“You never know who’s going to hear Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers and end up tracing Chris’s influences back to Bill Monroe. Or somebody who is going to go to the festival and hear Yonder Mountain String Band and they’ll discover that one of their favorite bands is the Seldom Scene — one of our Hall of Fame inductees this year. It’s all related. You can think of it as a tree with different roots and branches, but we’re all organically part of the same family.”
What is Bluegrass?
The debate over whether or not bluegrass is dying or not boils down to a more philosophical question of what bluegrass is. Bluegrass is in the middle of an identity crisis, and a battle is raging over what should get to call itself bluegrass and what shouldn’t. This debate is nothing new, and members of the bluegrass community have been arguing over how to define it since the beginning.
Traditionalists hold that for bluegrass to be bluegrass, it must meet the following criteria.
- Played by an acoustic ensemble with some combination of only fiddle, mandolin, guitar, resophonic guitar, bass, and Scruggs-style banjo
- Sung with two to four-part harmony
- Include semi-improvisational instrumental solos, often by each instrument in turn
- Use a “boom chick” or “boom chick chick” rhythm
The difficulty is that examples of songs which break these rules abound among bluegrass’ most traditional and revered musicians. The rules were only made after the fact, as a way of pinning down what exactly made bluegrass, bluegrass.
Bluegrass has always been improvisational, experimental, and revolutionary. It perhaps should come as no surprise that the genre continues to adapt and change. Bluegrass also has a long history of clinging to and romanticizing the past. Just as Scot/Irish settlers once used bluegrass to reach towards the homes they left behind, traditional bluegrass fans today use the music to hold onto an earlier era.
Is bluegrass dying? It’s changing, but maybe it always has been.