Bill Monroe at a festival in Franklin, Ohio, September 1968. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer; used with permission.
Bluegrass music is a tradition-based modern style of string band music. Typically a bluegrass band consists of four to seven performers who sing while accompanying themselves on acoustic string instruments such as the guitar, double bass, fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, and Dobro. Bluegrass combines elements of old-time mountain music, square dance fiddling, blues, gospel, jazz, and popular music. Like jazz, bluegrass allows performers to improvise and take turns playing lead. Its distinctive timing surges slightly ahead of or anticipates the main beat, creating an energized effect. Its vocal range is rather high, forcing vocalists into their upper ranges and creating a tight, almost austere , sometimes called "high lonesome" sound. Bluegrass makes frequent use of close-harmony duets, trios, and quartets.
The bluegrass style first became popular in the 1940s, largely through the efforts of Bill Monroe (1911-1996) and his Blue Grass Boys (Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Joel Price). Previously, as one-half of the Monroe Brothers act, Bill had starred as mandolinist, fiddler, radio performer and recording artist with his brother Charlie. In 1938 he formed the Blue Grass Boys, naming the band after the nickname for his home state of Kentucky. Deeply rooted in country sounds, the group combined elements of swing with a surging fiddle and syncopated banjo picking to create a wholly new genre. As instrumentalists, each member of the band is regarded by performers today as a model of all that's best in bluegrass playing, and as singers, the group created a unique sound. Today the recordings of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys are landmarks in country gospel, both critically and popularly acclaimed. The band members may have changed over the years, but the band's sound and the quality of its compositions remained strong throughout.
As with other popular music of the time, bluegrass developed regional shadings. Honky tonk sold well in the Midwest, southern influences crept northward up the Atlantic coast, in Nashville it was definitely infused with mainstream country, and the West Coast seemed to encompass all shadings. Many in the audience considered the music "country" or "hillbilly," but purists recognized bluegrass as a separate entity.
In the 1950s rock and roll took over the country while bluegrass performers faded in popularity. However, by the 1960s country and bluegrass music had become infused with new energy as part of a folk music revival. In 1965 singer-promoter Carlton Haney and folklorist Ralph Rinzler produced the first genuine bluegrass festival at Fincastle, Virginia. Bluegrass moved from the bars and tour buses, to which it had been relegated in the 1950s, to the open air and the airwaves. When younger performers started adding elements of jazz, pop, and rock to the traditional country base, bluegrass somehow mutated into "newgrass." Bluegrass music has never truly left the musical stage; it has merely adapted to meet new challenges. Since Bill Monroe's first time on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, pickers and singers have been keeping his style alive even as they have added new elements to it, just as Bill did when he created bluegrass in the 1940s.