What is Bluegrass Music
by Bryan McBride, Adult Services Librarian
Defining a musical style can be difficult, no matter the type, and bluegrass is no different. What is bluegrass music? How did it get its name? Who started it and when? Are bluegrass songs always in the key of G? Unlike most musical genres, it does have a definitive beginning date and a singular creator. July of 1938, Bill Monroe broke with his older brother Charlie, left the Monroe Brothers group, assembled a group of musicians of his own choosing and called them the Kentucky Blue Grass Boys.
There are three questions answered right there. “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing is exhaustive in its biography of Monroe, who is known as the Father of Bluegrass. The unanswered question remains: Are most bluegrass songs in the key of G? If anyone alive would know, it’s Ewing, who was a long-time guitarist in Monroe’s group. The key of G became a staple for a couple of reasons. For one, it was a good singing key for Monroe, who along with being the namesake of the genre, gave name to his singing style: the “high, lonesome sound,” named for his high tenor singing above a lower-pitched singer. For another, the most common way to play a banjo is to tune it so when the strings are strummed in an “open” position, it plays a G chord. Banjo and fiddle were the essential instruments in the music of Bill’s youth, and his mandolin didn’t fit very well in the traditions that existed before his talent and vision sparked a new kind of music. He was hard-headed, and determined to chase his vision.
Not only does Ewing’s book cover the life of Bill Monroe, it includes the history of those who played in the Blue Grass Boys, as well as other musical influences going on during the run of the Blue Grass Boys. History is one of the things I love about bluegrass. Maybe it was Monroe’s singing background and love of God from attending church, or living with his uncle from age ten following the death of his parents. One of Monroe’s best-known songs is “Uncle Pen,” a song about Bill’s uncle who was known for his fiddling at barn dances. If you wanted to host a square dance you needed two things: a caller and a fiddler, and Uncle Pen was the man you called on to do the fiddling. Bill grew into Uncle Pen’s sideman for these dances. Region was an important part of a musician’s character as well. Monroe included Kentucky in the name of his group so people would know where his group was from without asking. It is a bit foreign in this day of occupational mobility and the breakdown of family, but in the rural areas of the mid-to-late 1900s, roots were important and it shows in the music.
One of the fascinating aspects of bluegrass is its genealogy, and Ewing covers that in depth. He includes countless, noteworthy musicians who either started their careers with Monroe, or joined up with him mid-career as Monroe became a regular performer at the Grand Old Opry. These include Ralph and Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Stringbean, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt. Stringbean was Bill’s first banjo picker, and Monroe claims he hired Stringbean for what his entertaining, comedic skills brought to the group. Earl Scruggs played banjo sometime after Stringbean left the group. Scruggs became legendary himself for a whole new way to play the banjo. The “Scruggs Style” uses finger picks to pick the strings rather than the old-time clawhammer style of playing the banjo with mostly downward strokes. Monroe’s lightning-fast playing, Scruggs’ style, and the high, lonesome singing created an energy level in string band music that had never been seen before.
Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass and his legacy holds an amazing place in history. Ewing writes that in Monroe’s span of more than fifty years of Blue Grass Boys, 149 musicians had played in his band. Ewing’s book shows us a history of people, a history of place, a history of music. A musical heritage that lives today in young string-band musicians, around campfires at music festivals worldwide. Monroe’s musical influence cannot be overstated and his impact is well-documented in “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing.