Author’s preface: I should start off this piece explaining what it is and isn’t. What this isn’t is a complete history of bluegrass. That’s just not something you can do for a blog post. What this is is a study of the bluegrass genre and a slight history of its roots, formation, troubles and finally, Gothic qualities and what actually makes bluegrass “bluegrass.” This piece is also my attempt at uncovering some of bluegrass’ unknown secrets (or at the very least, things that people don’t think much about) and show how it has a cloud of darkness surrounding it.
I had originally planned this to be much different. At first, I did want to write about the complete history of bluegrass after reading about it in so many country music history books. Once I got to typing and actually got my hands on a bluegrass history book, I spent more time soaking that all in and realizing I couldn’t do that. Instead, I pulled from various sources to discuss some elements of the genre. This piece has been a long time coming and has been revised and torn apart several times. It is a long post (anything filed under “Essays” is for the record), so I don’t recommend reading it all in one sitting. Still, if you do read this entire piece, I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart. For the first time ever (and this may be something I do for all future essay posts), you can listen to the “audiobook” version below (it’s literally me reading the piece). Just scroll down to the bottom.
The Beginning – Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys
While earning a reputation as music that’s “as old as the hills,” bluegrass music was actually a fairly “modern” invention, first emanating in 1939 and growing beyond that. Its foundations are conservative, but it’s a melting pot of styles from blues, jazz, old-time music and gospel (making it closer to rock ‘n’ roll than hillbilly music). Unlike those aforementioned genres with roots that are nearly impossible to trace back 100 percent, bluegrass originated with one man – Mr. Bill Monroe.
Bluegrass’ actual birth as a genre is a little bit of a complex tale to tell, but its roots arguably began on September 13, 1911 when Monroe was born in Rosine, Ohio County in Western Kentucky. Born into a musical family, Monroe joined his brother, Birch on fiddle, Charlie on guitar and sister Bertha on guitar also. He had very poor vision, making him feel left out and lonely at his age. Because he couldn’t participate in sports, music acted as an escape for Monroe.
He had two teachers. One was a local African-American man by the name of Arnold Schultz who worked in the coalmines by day and played fiddle and country dances by night. Monroe played guitar alongside him. Before this however, Monroe had started performing publicly after the death of his mother when he was 10 years old. He would provide guitar accompaniment for his Uncle Pen (his full name was Pendleton Vandiver). Years later, Monroe would pen a classic dedicated to his uncle as well as record an album of fiddle tunes in his honor. At the age of 18, Monroe moved north to Chicago and went to work at an oil refinery. On the side, he played music with his brothers, Charlie and Birch on small radio stations in Indiana and joined a square dance team with them at WLS in Chicago. Their exact history during this time is hard to piece together since all three brothers had different accounts of what went on.
Regardless, during their time at WLS, Charlie and Birch were in and out of refinery jobs while Bill worked at Sinclair full-time, something that fell by the wayside as his tour dates increased. In 1934, the chance to pursue music full-time presented itself when Charlie was approached by Texas Crystals (a cathartic product) to work as a solo performer. During this time, hillbilly music was sponsored on the radio by patent medicines. Charlie didn’t want to go it alone so he invited Bill to come along. Birch on the other hand got a better job at the refinery and remained there. And thus, the Monroe Brothers were born.
They moved to South Caroline in 1935 where they became immensely popular. In April 1936, they recorded for the first time in Charlotte, North Carolina. Overall, they cut sixty songs during their tenure with RCA Victor’s Bluebird label.
The duo was shortlived however. In 1938, they split, with Bill attributing it all as follows:
“If we’d had a manager, you know, no telling how far we could have gone. But so many times brothers can’t get along good … one wants to be the boss and the other one’s mad because he does and so it was just better that we split up.”
You see, their success was fine, but their ultimate rivalry split them apart.
And so the competition began. Bill was at a bigger disadvantage compared to Charlie. You see, Charlie was the lead singer when they were together, meaning he could carry on with the old songs just fine. Bill on the other hand placed an ad in the newspaper in August (the same year) asking for a guitarist and singer. Eventually, Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys (named after his home state of Kentucky).
The list of musicians who have been and out the door with Monroe is way too extensive to get into detail here (besides, this piece is already going to run incredibly long). For now, if you’re at all interested in the history of who was hired and when, check this list.
The Bluegrass Boys’ Formative Years and the Roots of Tension (1939-1949)
Bluegrass’ formative years lasted from 1939 when the Blue Grass Boys first began to 1946. Eventually, Monroe began singing for the group. Their hit “Mule Skinner Blues” went on to become the essence of what they’d later call bluegrass music. It’s important to note that despite these being bluegrass’ formative years, nobody was calling it that during this time. Back then, it was just another form of hillbilly music.
As for “Mule Skinner Blues,” it was originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers under the name of “Blue Yodel Number 8.” Rodgers had originally composed the song from elements of black blues. Monroe took it further by adding an up-tempo rhythm aided by the fiddle. Monroe always expected to bring out the heart and soul of old-time southern music while also finding new ways to push it forward. With “Blues,” he got it. As author Neil Rosenberg says “the fiddle echoed Monroe’s sharp tenor voice and also played a riff on the lower strings, which, in turn, was echoed by the guitar.
The Blue Grass Boys’ music flourished during the postwar years . Their tours sold well, and their songs were being covered by the likes of Pee Wee King, the Golden West Cowboys and Bradley Kincaid. Their lineup during this time was so strong that by 1948, other groups would try and copy it.
One key figure during this time was Lester Flatt who joined on as a guitarist sometime either in 1944 or 1945 (exact figures are debatable). He sang solo lead on more Monroe recordings than any other guitarist before or after him, and his play style, while comparable to Monroe’s brother, Charlie, was also unique.
In September 1945, Dave Akeman (better known as “Stringbean”) left the band and was replaced by a banjo player by the name of Earl Scruggs. Flatt was not impressed with this at first because he didn’t think a new banjo player (especially someone as young as 21) could keep up with the band’s faster tempos. Scruggs however was a mad man on the banjo, eventually leading Flatt to tell Monroe, “if you can hire him, get him whatever it costs.”
The Split Of 1948
Throughout the next three years, the Blue Grass Boys’ star continued to shine brightly. In 1948 however, Monroe was left with almost nothing. Chubby Wise, the fiddler for the band, was the first to leave. He had gotten a job working for Washington D.C. At Gay’s radio station WARL in Arlington, Virginia. Benny Martin, a 19-year-old took his place as a fiddler. Martin had only worked a few weeks with the band before he gave Monroe his notice.
As for Flatt and Scruggs, there’s really no written reports as to why or what led up to their split from Monroe. It’s safe to say it was one of the most significant moments in bluegrass history. Monroe was surely angered though.
It wasn’t until in later reports that Scruggs admitted to leaving because he “wanted to return home, find a job and look after his aging mother.” What Scruggs didn’t mention was that the “job” he was after still pertained to music. The day he left, Flatt gave his two weeks notice.
Jake Lambert, Flatt’s long-time friend and biographer gave an explanation later on helping to explain everything going on during this time.
“Flatt and Scruggs, as well as the rest of the boys, were making about sixty dollars a week, and that wasn’t bad money, with the exception of the long hours. Lester Flatt did the MC work on all the shows, while Earl took care of the money. Earl was the only one in the group that had a high school education. Earl told me that on many Saturdays, when the Blue Grass Boys rolled into Nashville, he would be carrying from five to seven thousand dollars. So, both Flatt and Scruggs could see where the money was. They knew it would never be made as “side men” but as the “star,” or leader. Monroe was making all the money, yet he was doing less work than the side men.”
Flatt and Scruggs had met together during a few days that previous year during the few days Monroe have given them off for Christmas. It was then they decided to go out on their own. Cedric Rainwater wanted in on this. Monroe was left with only his fiddler, the aforementioned Martin once those two left, and as mentioned before, we know how that turned out.
Scruggs’ place was taken by Don Reno, Flatt’s by Jackie Phelps and Rainwater’s by Joel Price. Fiddler Jim Shumate would soon join Flatt, Scruggs and Rainwater. Guitarist and tenor singer Mac Wiseman joined them soon after to officially become Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
More Competition On The Horizon – The Stanley Brothers
The Stanley Brothers, comprised of real brothers Ralph and Carter, from Dickerson County, Virginia were young war veterans embarking on a country music career when they came onto the scene. They joined with Darrell (“Pee Wee”) Lambert. Lambert played the mandolin, Ralph played the banjo and Carter was “learning Lester Flatt strokes.” Lambert sang tenor, Ralph sang baritone and Carter sang lead. They hit the road to perform on radio stations and quickly gained populairty, eventually signing to the Rich-R-Tone record label.
Of course, they’d always just copy Monroe’s style according to reports, and Flatt and Scruggs did as well (likely because they had played with Monroe before). Monroe quickly found out. In 1947, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper working for WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia heard the Blue Grass Quartet sing “Wicked Path Of Sin.” Monroe had written and recorded the song in 1946, but it was never released until October 1948. Thinking the song was already on record, Lee copied it, recorded it for Rich-R-Tone and released it for the Stanley Brothers.
Monroe’s reaction? Cooper describes a night where Monroe watched their performance on a Saturday night at the Opry. He asked Monroe, “Bill, sure do like that “Wicked Path Of Sin. We recorded it.” Monroe said “Yeah I know. Don’t it seem to you a little when you sing other people’s songs, after awhile you sort of get yourself patterned like them?”
Translation? Monroe didn’t like being copied by the Stanley Brothers. Keep in mind there was no umbrella for this kind of music yet. Bluegrass as a genre had not be conceieved. It was just another (unique) style in country music that was being copied in every way.
These weren’t the only culprits however. Lesser known artists of the time such as the Briarhoppers and the Blue River Boys among others also tried to copy the style. They added five-string banjoists and fiddlers to copy Monroe. The Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs were the ones who did it best, hence why they mostly drew Monroe’s ire. In fact, Monroe refused to speak to Flatt and Scruggs until after they split in 1969. He used his influence at WSM to keep them off the cast of the Grand Ole Opry for several years. This also symbolized a change for Monroe’s business practices, as he never again would let his lead singer’s name be identified on his record labels and would avoid hiring close friends. He’d also make sure no more “teams” formed within. Sure, others had left Monroe before – Clyde Moody, Cousin Wilbur, Pete Pyle and the aforementioned Akeman (“Stringbean”), but they hadn’t taken “the Monroe sound” with them.
Flatt and Scruggs attempted to further themselves from Monroe by writing new songs and adding new touches to their music such as Scrugg’s lead guitar on gospel quartets. It should be noted that Monroe’s bad feelings for both the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs disappeared eventually (the Stanley Brothers had even become Monroe’s proteges by the mid-’50s), but it was this feud that helped inspire the name of the genre we know today as bluegrass.
Inventing The Actual Word
Like Al Hopkins had done before when he named his band the Hill Billies, Bill Monroe had unintentionally helped to launch an entire genre of music when he called his band the Blue Grass Boys. What had merely been a trademark for Monroe turned into something for everyone. The first instance of Monroe acknowledging the term as a widespread genre was in 1956 when, at New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland, he praised the operator of that country music park as a “wonderful booster of the bluegrass type of music.”
As mentioned before, Flatt and Scruggs wished to not be associated with Monroe in the slightest, but fans who had followed them since their days with the Blue Grass Boys still couldn’t help but make the connection. Everett Lilly who played mandolin and sang tenor with Flatt and Scruggs recalls the following:
“I remember when I went to Lester and Earl the first time in 1950, around 1950, somewhere there. When we would come out on the stage and open our show up, Lester would MC the first half, I would MC the last half of it, usually. Lester would say ‘Howdy, friends, we got a little clean country sober show here we hope you’ll enjoy.’ We’d do our show. They didn’t call it bluegrass. But I do recall people saying this to us, they would ask Lester and Earl to do a Bill Monroe tune. Lester and Earl didn’t want to hear that name, or I don’t believe they did, and I believe the public could feel that. The public began to say, ‘Boys, would you please do us one of them old Blue Grass tunes like you used to do?’ They knew me and Lester could sing them duets like him and Bill. They’d say ‘would you please do an old bluegrass tune?’ The public named bluegrass music through the fear to speak Bill’s name to ’em.”
Country music fans addressed these same requests not only to disc jockeys and performers, but also to country music park operators, and the rest they say is history. Bluegrass originated as a feud word. In fact, on that note, this straightforward history is going to split off in different directions, as now I’d like to focus on elements of bluegrass that bode well for the spirit of the piece.
Traditions In Bluegrass – The Gothic and Beyond
This section will largely be a re-telling of Teresa Goddu’s wonderful essay on the Gothic elements of bluegrass titled Bloody Daggers and Lonesome Graveyards (which appears in Reading Country Music – Amazon link below). It’s one of my favorite chapters I’ve ever read in any single book and is truly a story I think I needs to be retold (and please track down the chapter somehow if you’re at all interested in bluegrass!).
I chose to highlight this chapter not only for my personal love for it, but also because as evidenced above, bluegrass didn’t form as a “friendly genre.” Tensions between Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs are a part of the genre’s history, and that’s not the only cloud of darkness that hangs overhead.
As Goddu says, the Gothic and country music are rarely intertwined. We think of home, drinking, heartache and other things when we think of country music (although we’ve certainly seen our fair share of murder ballads too). She does address this, citing how the outlaw movement, songs from Tanya Tucker such as “Delta Dawn” and “Would You Lay With Me In A Field Of Stone” and the movie Deliverance helped offer a more ragged, rough look for the genre as a whole (since Deliverance is tied more toward the rural aspects of the genre than the music).
Bluegrass on the other hand has been rooted with the Gothic due to British ballad and broadside traditions. When brought over to North America, hillbilly music built its own selection of traditional ballads, sometimes by simply putting a new spin on old British ballads. “The Oxford Girl” from those traditions turned into “The Knoxville Girl” over in North America.
Beyond that, the bluegrass sound itself is rooted in Gothic culture. “Hauntingly beautiful” music that’s brought out by “high energies and powerful tensions” – that’s it in a nutshell. Of course, the proof is in the songs themselves.
The Louvin Brothers’ “In The Pines” for example sees a man moan for his lost love while “The Brown Mountain Light” sees a slave come back from the grave to search for his master. As Goddu says, “bluegrass depicts a fallen world of darkness and doom.” She further notes that the bluegrass song is often fixated on death and destruction. Ralph Stanley’s “Old Man Death” is about a fear of the Grim Reaper while A.P. Carter’s “Answer to Weeping Willow” sees a man yearning to join his lover in death.
Even the love songs revolve around death. Elsewhere, another typical plot involves a man killing his lover or fiancee for no apparent reason before confessing and going to prison. The aforementioned “Knoxville Girl” is a clear cut example of this, showing a man beating his lover to death with a stick. The consequence? The man has visions of hell and being imprisoned down there for killing the girl “he loved so well.” Blind remorse reappears in “Banks of the Ohio,” which is essentially the same song only revolving around killing her with a knife and pushing her in the river to drown. Crazed hatred, murder, punishment … even misogyny is debatable, but again, that’s it in a nutshell for more than a few of these songs.
Of course, as Goddu also fairly says, bluegrass is also home to hymns and gospel songs (which take up around 30 percent of the genre … as of 1998 at least). Still though, how does bluegrass get away with its more sinister side?
First of all, bluegrass’ marginal status (in comparison with other genres that is) allows it to tap into a broader range of themes. Simply put, it doesn’t need to follow the “rules” of mainstream country music. In addition, bluegrass is allowed to have its more Gothic tropes because its a genre securely located in the distant past. Of course, this link to the past is more rooted in the image than reality, because certainly the genre has evolved during its history.
Goddu also notes how the Gothic has (or had) seeped its way into mainstream country music (of the time). With songs such as Garth Brooks’ “We Bury The Hatchet,” Randy Travis’ “Before You Kill Us All” and Marty Brown’s “She’s Gone” (which ends with a shotgun blast to denote the narrator committing suicide), the Gothic has found its way into the mainstream (even if in some cases its cleaned up and polished compared to aforementioned examples). Thus, the dark and troubling side of country and bluegrass comes to fruition and continues to “haunt” the genre to this day.
Bluegrass In The Movies
To continue on with the conversation of Southern hauntings and violence, let’s turn now to the film, Deliverance, a film that was one of the first mainstream releases to feature a country music soundtrack. Both Teresa Goddu and Neil Rosenberg discuss this movie as a part of bluegrass history, but even more interesting is its connections to this everlasting conversation of bluegrass as a darker, violent, outside genre. The infamous “Dueling Banjo” scene at first underplays and foreshadows the dangerous nature of this film. The little competition is just a fun gesture between Atlanta businessman, Drew and a banjo picking idiot savant (which the idiot wins). While the scene is entrenched in bluegrass tradition, the movie itself ultimately set up dual contrast between city and country people, civilized people and wild people and most importantly, the beautiful, yet grotesque nature of the South. By the end of the men’s journey, the horror is depicted as unforgettable, with Ed still being haunted by nightmares. Ultimately, that banjo from before the idiot savant carried was a class marker, something that symbolizes how class interacts with region.
“Dueling Banjos” itself derived ultimately from “Feuding Banjos,” a 1955 recording by Don Reno and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. Reno plays the five-string banjo while Smith plays tenor banjo.
Finally … What The Heck Even Is Bluegrass?
Throughout this piece, I’ve mentioned the big names associated with the genre as well as mention its rise. I’ve also discussed various traits associated with it. With that said, I never once really discussed what made bluegrass different from the hillbilly music of the time. Bluegrass has always been a commercial music, yet it is also closely associtated with Anglo-Irish rural and folk traditions, inflected with blues rhythms and sounds.
Culturally, it also presents quite the paradox of commercialism versus authenticity. It was developed within traditional Applachian culture, beginning with Bill Monroe and, later, Earl Scruggs and others. Today, bluegrass continues to flourish outside the structures of the mainstream music industry. This gives it its authenticity.
On the other hand, it’s still commercial music. It was developed by musicians who made their living from touring and being recording artists who were disseminated by radio broadcasts. Whether its the context of the country music industry in the ’40s or the bluegrass industry as we know it today, its distributed within an industrial context.
To go further with its sound, bluegrass has typically been described as a hybrid form of country music that combines elements from old-time string band music, the hillbilly sounds of early country music, and African-American blues. Kenny Baker, a member of Monroe’s band beginning in the late ’60s even described it one time as “nothing but a hillbilly form of jazz.”
Associated with bluegrass is the use of popular instruments such as guitar, five-string banjo, fiddle, mandolin, upright acoustic bass and the dobro (which wasn’t introduced into bluegrass until 1955). Also associated with the genre is the use of fast, driving tempos played in duple meter, a high-pitched singing style elborated in harmonies and songs that speak to “down-home” topics (family, faith, rural life and more).
Blood On The Bluegrass (Conclusion)
Notice what the previous sections had in common. “Bluegrass” itself was born as a feud word, and three of its original pioneers didn’t even get along at first. Beyond that, bluegrass carries on specific gothic lyrical traditions that speak to the fact that bluegrass can get away with material such as this. Deliverance furthers this by making the country music and bluegrass landscape a quintessential part to describing the backward South of this movie (likely because bluegrass is viewed as “old-time music,” even though it’s hopefully been proven by now that that’s not the case). It also carries its darkness around by facing that paradox of being a genre where authenticity can thrive while still operating as an industry.
During the ’50s, bluegrass itself thrived with its own identity. Folks escaped rural lifestyles during the ’30s and ’40s to find better jobs during the Depression, therefore bringing country music to cities such as Detroit, Boston and Washington D.C. (subsequently also developing strong bluegrass communities therefore). With the rise of records, radio DJs and the threat of rock ‘n’ roll looming over the country music industry, bluegrass found its own niche. The flip side of Elvis Presley’s first Sun Records single was a (much different) cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Country music was forced to trade its fiddle for strings and background vocalists (otherwise known as the Nashville Sound). Where did the fiddle go? It remained firmly in bluegrass, thus furthering its wrong legacy as music that was outdated or “uncool.”
The urban folk revival of the ’60s came from a group of young, college-educated music lovers who were turned off by the rock ‘n’ roll music their peers loved and instead, gravitated toward the pure sounds of folk styles, bluegrass included. It continues to progress.
Still, it’s a shame that country music garners the bad reputation for its backwardness. It’s even more of a shame that bluegrass is looked upon for somehow being more backward and outdated, when in fact it carries its own spirit in a multitude of ways. While I focused mostly on its darker elements, bluegrass as a genre is something that, as Bill Monroe put it, will never die so long as the people keep supporting it.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- “Bluegrass: A History” by Neil Rosenberg
“Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass” by Richard D. Smith
- “Country Music U.S.A.” by Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird
“Country: The Music and the Musicians : From the Beginnings to the ’90s” by the Country Music Foundation
“Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky Tonk Bars” by Cecelia Tichi (editor) and various writers.
“The Rough Guide to Country Music” by Kurt Wolff
“Will the Circle be Unbroken: Country Music in America” by the Country Music Hall of Fame. Edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash.