The Bluegrass Experience: What is Bluegrass Music?
For many of us Bluegrass enthusiasts, passionate pickers, and intense grinners this seems like a question with a very obvious answer. And why would I be telling a group of fervent Bluegrass readers or potentially fervent bluegrass aficionados what Bluegrass music is? I mean you feel the music don’t you?
When you hear the acoustic guitar’s incessant boom chucka boom chucka of alternating bass lines layered over wonderfully harmonious strings or the delightful slide of a resonating guitar – that’s Bluegrass. When you hear the fiddle’s sweet beckoning drones tug at your heart strings conjuring up visions of faded love – that’s Bluegrass. When you hear the rapid string tickling and chopping strum of the mandolin and you feel the deep resonating thumping of a doghouse bass – that’s Bluegrass. When you hear the banjo picker’s fingers dance melodiously across the strings and make your ears smile – that’s Bluegrass. And of course when you hear the blissful vocal harmonies that tell such wonderful humanistic stories, you have entered the Bluegrass dominion. Bluegrass – it’s an experience.
But how do you explain the Bluegrass experience to the curious yet seemingly uncultured ear? Some describe Bluegrass music as folk music on adrenaline or folk music on steroids. Though this is perhaps an appropriate assessment of many of the spirited breakdowns, hornpipes, jigs, and reels it would not apply to the softer side of Bluegrass as evident in the numerous waltzes, ballads, and gospel tunes.
Is it Appalachian, Hillbilly, Old-time, or Mountain Music? Maybe - there are certainly influences from these cultural forms, but Bluegrass is not exclusive to any of these genres. There are those who would argue that Bluegrass music has its roots more in the western portion of Kentucky (Bill Monroe territory) rather than in the eastern Appalachian regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and beyond. Appalachia was certainly a rich resource for Bill Monroe to mine from and enliven.
Some would call it Hillbilly music; a term reinforced by the incessant media coverage (pictures of what they called Hillbillies) of theHatfield-McCoy feuds near the Kentucky-West Virginia border between 1863 and 1891 and popularized by Al Capp’s Li’l Abner cartoon series in 1934. It was also a term used by early recording companies to promote early Bluegrass styles of music to the annoyance of Bill Monroe who today is considered the Father of Bluegrass; Bill did not consider himself a Hillbilly. He felt so strongly about this that he mandated that all his musicians dress in Western suits; including Western hats – far removed from the Hillbilly image.
Well, is it Old-time music? Many of the tunes are unarguably old. However staunch Old-time music traditionalists would beg to differ in that traditional old-time music is less complex than Bluegrass music and characteristically there are few if any intense instrumental virtuosos in old-time music. You may find an occasional simple instrumental but don’t hold your breath for a spirited breakdown. Generally Mountain music is considered Old-time music and often includes old folk music. For example you would find an Appalachian or Mountain dulcimer common to these genres but not commonly played in Bluegrass music.
Bluegrass is spirited music played exclusively on acoustic instruments such as the flat-top six-string guitar, resonator guitar (Dobro), 5-string banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass fiddle. One predominant characteristic of Bluegrass is the traditional passing the break in which each person has the opportunity to perform an instrumental solo. Another defining attribute is that high pitched tenor singing popularized by the “high lonesome sound” of Bill Monroe. And my favorite, vocal harmony, considered one of the most striking distinctions of Bluegrass music. Each singer takes a specific harmony part either above or below the lead singer. The results are incredibly pleasant. Some of the best three-part and four-part Bluegrass vocal harmonies (and Bluegrass gospel) that I have experienced were acapella – no instruments.
Believe me, I could go on describing Bluegrass music but to satisfactorily answer the question – What is Bluegrass music? – you must take several field trips. You must attend Bluegrass festivals, Bluegrass concerts, and local Bluegrass jam sessions and experience it. It is not as significant as to define Bluegrass Music but that through the joy it brings into your life - it define you.