Primer: Bluegrass

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Just that tell me about crazy banjo music please.

Ed (dali), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 13:06 (seventeen years ago) link

start with the stanley brothers (oh death, I am a man of Constant Sorrow, Rank Strangers) and the carter family, don't even bother with much post-1950

rkl (rkl), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:09 (seventeen years ago) link

do you really want CRAZY?
then s: Bad Livers and D.Rangers.

Horace Mann (Horace Mann), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:12 (seventeen years ago) link

Sons of Ralph!

Jeff-PTTL (Jeff), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:15 (seventeen years ago) link

The Carter Family has nothing to do with bluegrass. There's plenty of good stuff post-1950 (haha if you only listened to bluegrass pre-1950 that would give you about 5 years of bluegrass!). Avoid the Bad Livers. I'll post more later today.

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:22 (seventeen years ago) link

Avoid the Bad Livers only if you don't like adventure.

Horace Mann (Horace Mann), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:24 (seventeen years ago) link

Some of what I'm going to list isn't blugrass (more mountain music than anything), but it's good stuff that can be loosely associated.

Bill Monroe -- the father of bluegrass. His lilting voice takes some getting used to, but the music is gorgeous.

Bob Wills -- Not bluegrass, but Western Swing. A more lively sound than the other artists mentioned here, it's kinda like Rodgers & Hammerstein meets Bill Monroe. Beautiful and fun.

Carter Family -- Music doesn't get sadder than this. What I love about the Carter Family is how depressing their lyrics are, yet the songs are sung in a near-monotone. Makes it that much more affecting. It's not bluegrass, it's mountain music. But I'm guessing that this is pretty close to the sound you are looking for.

Louvin Brothers -- Beautiful beautiful gospel bluegrass. Amazing harmonies, great rhythms.

Merle Travis -- Maybe the best musician I've ever heard. His finger picking style is unbelievable, and thankfully he couples it with fantastic songwriting. Really stunning stuff.

Doc Watson -- Not really part of the bluegrass genre (more folk or old-timey country), but he plays (he's still alive and still performs) many of the songs that the people above have written. A great guitarist with a voice like molasses over sandpaper. Try to find some of the stuff he did with his late son, Merle Watson. The way their picking weaves in and out of each other leaves me breathless.

There are many more artists I would recommend, but these are my favorites, and I think they might satisfy your curiosity.

(nb: avoid the bad livers at all costs)

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:27 (seventeen years ago) link

Shit! I forgot one of my absolute favorites: The Dillards.

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:30 (seventeen years ago) link

For that "high lonesome sound", search: Bill Monroe. A fucking gorgeous tenor (methinks) singing voice with a wonderful Appalachian twang, plus he shreds his mandolin into, well, er...shreds.

(Aw damn Yancey cross-post! Whatevah, Bill Monroe's voice is FABULOUS! Like, hillbilly-ghetto-fabulous!)

nickalicious (nickalicious), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:30 (seventeen years ago) link

I love his voice, nick. Just saying that it puts some people off.

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:31 (seventeen years ago) link

what's wrong with the Bad Livers?

Horace Mann (Horace Mann), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:45 (seventeen years ago) link

just not a fan of shticky blu-metal, horace.

(hahaha! i just made up blu-metal. i'm gonna try to use that as much as i can now)

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:51 (seventeen years ago) link

I grew up with bluegrass and old country music being played around the house. Outside of The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, here are a few other bluegrass artists to check:

Flatt & Scruggs -- Earl Scruggs is the Charlie Parker of the banjo.
The Osbourne Brothers -- These guys are my parents favorites.
Del McCoury & The McCoury Brothers -- Del is a decade or two younger than most of the artists mentioned, but he is a great musician and still actively tours.

earlnash, Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:51 (seventeen years ago) link

Earl Scruggs is the Charlie Parker of the banjo.

ha! totally!

nickalicious (nickalicious), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:52 (seventeen years ago) link

i was about to say Flatt and Scruggs; i've got their Carnegie Hall concert

* Buck Owens

There's some new-ish band that does an absolutely stomping version of "Ruby" ("honey are you mad at your man?") but i have no idea who; i heard it on the radio

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:55 (seventeen years ago) link

And don't forget Vassar Clements...

I'm looking over the list I posted above and I'm realizing it's really not a good primer for bluegrass, so I thought I might explain why I listed those folks. When my father was teaching me to play guitar (primarily in the finger-picking, bluegrass style), he would play me loads of records so that I could learn to play different styles and songs. All of those people I listed above are artists I spent a lot of time with when I was first learning to play bluegrass, so even though some of them (like the Carter Family and Bob Wills) have nothing to do with the genre, in my monkey brain they are closely associated. And really Ed, I don't think you could go wrong with any of them. It's great music!

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 14:57 (seventeen years ago) link

I like the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

jel -- (jel), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:04 (seventeen years ago) link

"Bluegrass" as a genre wasn't really identified until the late 1950s when urban intellectuals like Alan Lomax turn their attentions to it. Before that it was just a peculiar subgenre within country music, one associated with Appalachia but actually being played all over the country. Bill Monroe was not from the mountains, for example, and there were bluegrass bands everywhere from California to Boston--although many of the people in these bands were either from the mountain diaspora or were directly influenced by people who were. Anyway most people (retroactvely) identify the birth of bluegrass with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and their appearances on the Grand Old Opry. For a lot of people the pivotal moment is their performance of Jimmie Rodgers's "Muleskinner Blue" on the Opry--which is really a radical reworking of what was already something of a canonical country tune. Punk rock!

Monroe formed the band in 1939 I believe, after he left the Monroe Brothers (an act with Charlie Monroe, who together were extremely successful). The Bluegrass Boys sort of codified the instrumental lineup of bluegrass and much of its sound. Numerous major figures from bluegrass history passed through this band, sort of a rough equivalent of James Brown for funk (and Monroe was an equal taskmaster). What I'd consider the archetypal bluegrass sound is that of the Bluegrass Boys with Flatt and Scruggs--the mid-late '40s. Flatt and Scruggs went out on their own in the late '40s and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys; later they would go on to perform the theme tune to The Beverley Hillbillies and generally become the most visible bluegrass performers. The other band in the Great Bluegrass Triumverate is The Stanley Brothers--Carter and Ralph--who were from the mountains and sound it. The Stanleys were directly influenced by Monroe and indeed both played in his band for a spell.

That's the Official Version, or at least some version of it. In reality there was a whole subset of country music moving in the direction of what we now know as bluegrass. Monroe can be compared to D. W. Griffith here. Some orthodox film histories have Griffith credited with "creating" modern film language. When in reality he was just one of many innovators who were learning from each other. Someone like Wade Mainer, who had been leading bands with and then without his brother J.E. since the mid-'30s, had a band whose solos and instrumentation and speed sound an awful lot like bluegrass. Unfortunately because of the power of the Official Version, it's a lot easier to find Monroe/Flatt and Scruggs/Stanley Brothers reissues than anything by Wade Mainer, the Bailey Brothers, etc. etc.

Some of my favorite LPs in the world are from a series of 10 records on Rounder entitled The Early Days of Bluegrass. The material on these records dates from the mid-'40s through the mid-late '50s. There is a wide variance in style and some of it would not even be identified as "bluegrass" by some, but it illustrates the more traditional end of country music of that decade. The performers on these records were often taking Monroe's cue, but they were also his contemporaries, making their own contributions to the emerging genre.
I find all of it at least as exciting as the canonized stuff, probably moreso.

So those LPs are out of print. Where can you find great bluegrass on CD? Here's some leads:

- A box set on Proper called Bluegrass Bonanza can be had for about $20. It features a disc of 1930s country that set the stage for bluegrass; a disc of material by the Monroe Brothers and then Bill and Charlie solo; a disc split between the Stanley Brothers, the Bailey Brothers, Coon Creek Girls, and other mountain acts; and then a bunch of stuff by the Bluegrass Boys and Flatt and Scruggs. It's not the ideal overview at all, but it's the best available on CD I think.
- A double-CD on Rounder (the major roots music label of the last 30 years) called Hand Picked: 25 Years of Bluegrass on Rounder Records has a lot of material recorded by bluegrass greats later in their careers, as well as glimpses at many of the directions bluegrass took in the 60s and 70s, from socially conscious stuff like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard to the more traditionalist end of "newgrass" e.g. J.D. Crowe.
- Bill Monroe's 16 Gems covers the major hits of the Bluegrass Boys from their classic period.
- The Stanley Brothers have a number of great reissues. Earliest Recordings on Revenant has their sides from the tiny Rich-R-Tone label; Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers is the stuff they recorded immediately after, and is probably the place to start; and Angel Band is the next step, their stuff from Mercury. But you can't go wrong with most of their LPs and collections on King (their next label), especially the gospel LPs.

Oh that's one thing I should add: bluegrass, in its original incarnation and to a small extent now, has a lot of religion in it. Unlike more "modern" country music, which banished overt religiosity for the most part or at least segregated it from popular chart hits by various means, most bluegrass bands had many Christian songs in their repertoire and many performed religious material exclusively. This is particularly evident in the pre-1950 period. This ties bluegrass to country past (prewar country wasn't afraid of Victorian religious-moralistic sentiment, only the moralistic part of which really survived into postwar country in a big way) and really distinguishes it from country present.

The Carter Family, Bob Wills, Louvins are of course great but have nothing to do with bluegrass. We can start a prewar country thread if you like. Wills was the main figure behind Western Swing which really couldn't be more different from bluegrass (although some people managed to bridge the gap). Carter Family were a major recording act in the '30s and '40s whose instrumentation is much more sparse and arrangements much less severe than bluegrass; also the harmonies are much different. Although I've no doubt they influenced many a bluegrass outfit. The Louvins have much affinity with bluegrass but their production/arrangements tie them in as much with modern country (drums, electric guitars, etc.) as does their choice of material, excepting their "traditionalist" records. Really they are the inheritors of the brother team tradition (Blue Sky Boys, Karl and Harty, etc.) rather than a bluegrass tradition.

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:06 (seventeen years ago) link

Sorry that last graf was incoherent. The Louvins are of course post-war. Both they and the Blue Sky Boys and the Delmore Brothers (three of my favorite acts of all time) were adamantly not bluegrass also all had some affinities with that genre. If you're interested in the Cater Family as they've been mentioned over and over here, check out two box sets on JSP, both about $25. The first contains their earliest material to 1935 or so, the second volume the next five or six years (the second volume is better, even if the records it reissues were perhaps a little less influential).

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:11 (seventeen years ago) link

That's a pretty good narrative, Amateurist. I might try to add to it later on, if I get a chance.

(most exciting thing I've heard in ages: my dad's best friend just got hired to run the promotions department at rounder. my pop said to make a list of what i might want!!!)

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:14 (seventeen years ago) link

Oh right, some basic info: Bluegrass is a major feature of (western I think?) Kentucky where Bill Monroe was form, hence the name of his band. The name of the genre took its cue from that band. So you can see why Monroe looms large in most accounts. I don't want to diminish his greatness really, but I think he looms a bit too large. = my general antipathy toward the "great man" theory of artistic or political development.

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:18 (seventeen years ago) link

Excellent posts, Amateurist. Yanc3y I would like something with Ralph Rinzler on it! (I had the privilege, though I didn't appreciate it at the time, of playing guitar with Ralph one night at the Highlander Center in Tennessee; he played mandolin.)

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:18 (seventeen years ago) link

Why does Monroe leave you cold, Amateurist?

I'll request Rinzler when I talk to my pop this weekend!

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:23 (seventeen years ago) link

The greatest "bluegrass" LP I know:

Also, Ed, you should check out two CDs I totally forgot to mention, the first of which was arguably the very first bluegrass LP:

(both on Smithsonian Folkways).

Really there's a ton of stuff (although as I suggested above there's a lot of music not represented on CD) so just dig in.

Ha Tracer I worked at the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Archives for a summer! (He died way too young.) He started out playing with the Greenbriar Boys, a number of CDs on Vanguard have that material.

For CDs produced by Rinzler and featuring Bill Monroe and Doc Watson (who was mentioned upthread I think), see Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980 on Smithsonian Folkways.

Monroe doesn't leave me cold at all! I just think his role in the formation of this music needs to be reassessed!

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:25 (seventeen years ago) link

Oh, and "pretty good" was an understatement above, Amateurist. That was an excellent post. I should read a book above the history of bluegrass. Is there one you recommend? (all that I know comes from my father and his friends)

Yanc3y (ystrickler), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:27 (seventeen years ago) link

Amateurist = OTM. Bluegrass didn't gel as a full-fledged genre until after WWII.

Also, I'm pretty sure Dock Boggs recorded "Oh Death" before the Stanley Brothers. I could be wrong though.

cprek (cprek), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:30 (seventeen years ago) link

I think Boggs didn't record "Oh Death" until his rediscovery in the '60s, but then again I'm not sure the Stanley Bros recorded it until they were on King, also in the '60s. The Carter Family recorded it back in the '30s and it's a pretty common song all around.

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:44 (seventeen years ago) link

You know I still haven't seen Oh Brother nor heard the soundtrack so I'm entirely oblivious to that phenomenon. I'd sort of like to keep it that way. [/snobbery]

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 15:44 (seventeen years ago) link

Don't forget Reno and Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, and Mac Wiseman. They're not quite Monroe/Stanleys/Flatt and Scruggs, but they all put out some damn fine music.

Lee G (Lee G), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 20:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Also search Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe which is just astounding (Monroe's on it himself).

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 20:04 (seventeen years ago) link

You know I still haven't seen Oh Brother

Quite apart from the supposed qualities or demerits of the soundtrack (and IMHO, it's pretty good), this is a good Coen Brothers movie. If you liked Big Liebowski, you'll probably like this one too.

o. nate (onate), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 20:19 (seventeen years ago) link

What if I can't remember a thing from The Big Lebowski?

Amateurist (amateurist), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 20:28 (seventeen years ago) link

Well, that's not necessarily bad. I don't remember much from it either, except that I laughed a lot.

o. nate (onate), Wednesday, 16 April 2003 20:32 (seventeen years ago) link

nine years pass...

hey there - for those not aware, I am going through some weird shit right now where the most soothing music is bluegrass, particularly well-produced stuff from the mid-60s onwards. unfortunately, there is not a lot of this stuff on filesharing sites (afaict). If anyone has some shit they can share with me I would really appreciate it thx

If I was a carpenter, and you were a douchebag (Shakey Mo Collier), Tuesday, 18 December 2012 17:43 (eight years ago) link

do you listen to records?
i have some records i can send you, if you are not particular about what you receive. lots of obscure-but-good seventies bluegrass records taking up room in my house.

i guess i'd just rather listen to canned heat? (ian), Tuesday, 18 December 2012 22:30 (eight years ago) link

I do!
that is exceptionally generous of you to offer

If I was a carpenter, and you were a douchebag (Shakey Mo Collier), Tuesday, 18 December 2012 22:34 (eight years ago) link

you can send me your address -- dr.carl.sagan at gmail
and i will get some stuff out to you probably tomorrow!

anything to help a man in his time of need, besides it helps me get stuff out of the house.

i guess i'd just rather listen to canned heat? (ian), Tuesday, 18 December 2012 22:39 (eight years ago) link

try this: Bill's Blog
This website hasn't been updated in a while, but I found some good stuff on it.

banjoboy, Thursday, 20 December 2012 06:51 (eight years ago) link

whoops. didn't do it right. here's a second try: Bill's Blog

banjoboy, Thursday, 20 December 2012 06:54 (eight years ago) link

here, let me just type it: sorry for all these mistakes.

banjoboy, Thursday, 20 December 2012 06:55 (eight years ago) link

Don't think he's mentioned on this thread, but check out John Duffy and his Country Gentlemen. Not mindblowing or trailblazing, but so good...

m0stlyClean, Friday, 21 December 2012 00:01 (eight years ago) link

many thx banjoboy!!!

If I was a carpenter, and you were a douchebag (Shakey Mo Collier), Friday, 21 December 2012 00:05 (eight years ago) link

broken links tho :(

If I was a carpenter, and you were a douchebag (Shakey Mo Collier), Friday, 21 December 2012 00:07 (eight years ago) link

one month passes...

got ian's records, quite a goldmine. I'd never heard of a single one of these people.

Welcome to my world of proses (Shakey Mo Collier), Monday, 28 January 2013 22:40 (eight years ago) link

one month passes...

this is awesome

Donkamole Marvin (Shakey Mo Collier), Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:34 (seven years ago) link

I don't really know where mountain/hillbilly music ends and bluegrass begins, but how great is this clip of the Dillards with Maggie Peterson on Andy Griffith?

Everything You Like Sucks, Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:41 (seven years ago) link

wow. what an eerie sounding tune to choose

Donkamole Marvin (Shakey Mo Collier), Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:48 (seven years ago) link

"We need a fire against the cold" is some dark shit given this was such a meat and potatoes American sitcom.

Everything You Like Sucks, Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:50 (seven years ago) link

both those clips are great!

i guess i'd just rather listen to canned heat? (ian), Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:53 (seven years ago) link

I have been watching a lot of Jimmy Martin youtubes...

Donkamole Marvin (Shakey Mo Collier), Tuesday, 5 March 2013 23:56 (seven years ago) link

three months pass...

great fifty-odd minute documentary full of killer jams and passionate hillbillies.

i guess i'd just rather listen to canned heat? (ian), Friday, 7 June 2013 18:43 (seven years ago) link


Bathory Tub Blues (Shakey Mo Collier), Friday, 7 June 2013 18:54 (seven years ago) link

love the dude tuning down his banjo during his solo

Bathory Tub Blues (Shakey Mo Collier), Friday, 7 June 2013 18:56 (seven years ago) link

Jimmy Martin just seems like the coolest chillest bro

Bathory Tub Blues (Shakey Mo Collier), Friday, 7 June 2013 19:08 (seven years ago) link

fun vid.

m0stlyClean, Friday, 7 June 2013 20:52 (seven years ago) link

Damn, been meaning forever to explore BG properly, or not properly considering the genre outliers mentioned above. Anyway, dumb question -- is proper bluegrass the stuff that would soundtrack a hillbilly chase scene, ie fast tempos, and slower paced stuff falls under old timey?

Ou sont les Sonneywolferines d'antan? (Leee), Saturday, 8 June 2013 01:28 (seven years ago) link

nah, there's plenty of bluegrass ballads....

m0stlyClean, Saturday, 8 June 2013 03:41 (seven years ago) link

I just listened to the bluegrass station on Pandora and loved it. Have there been any better anthologies since Amatuerist's post in 2003?

Gerald McBoing-Boing, Saturday, 8 June 2013 16:14 (seven years ago) link

bluegrass is (generally) post-war and focuses more on instrumental solos and highly-melodic breaks. old-time music is of an earlier vintage and the musicians tend to play the melody in unison. in bluegrass, the solos are often high-speed variations on the basic melody.

i guess i'd just rather listen to canned heat? (ian), Saturday, 8 June 2013 19:24 (seven years ago) link

two years pass...

I've been getting into Mac Wiseman lately, and his discography is...weird. he was possibly the first bluegrass star to stray from the formula and court a mainstream audience — for a brief and occasionally awkward period in the late '50s, his label marketed him as a pop-rock/pop-country singer, although a lot of those sides went unissued until decades later (on Bear Family's Teenage Hangout compilation). there's an interesting article on nodepression about that phase of his career and about how purists have effectively erased his pop-leaning material from history, memorializing him as a bluegrass traditionalist even though he never really was one to begin with. this is good stuff, imho:

rallizes mcguire (unregistered), Sunday, 14 June 2015 01:18 (five years ago) link

his first foray into gospel (on his 1959 LP Beside the Still Waters) is less surprising, but it contains some of his finest vocal performances, with a tasteful lack of the gloopy strings/organs/backup choirs that mar a lot of other country gospel records:

rallizes mcguire (unregistered), Sunday, 14 June 2015 01:31 (five years ago) link

Good streaming on Saturday night (and shows are archived for a while, I think): Tuscaloosa Public Radio's "Bama Bluegrass: and "Bluegrass Breakdown" (the second show originates in Nashville). Both got good range and deep stash.

dow, Sunday, 14 June 2015 01:59 (five years ago) link


rallizes mcguire (unregistered), Sunday, 14 June 2015 02:03 (five years ago) link

one year passes...

Bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley died Thursday night after a battle with skin cancer, according to a Facebook post by his grandson, Nathan Stanley.

Dr. Stanley was 89 years old and a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. After receiving an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976 (and another from Yale in 2014), he was known to fans worldwide as "Doctor Ralph."

Loud guitars shit all over "Bette Davis Eyes" (NYCNative), Friday, 24 June 2016 05:25 (four years ago) link

A Facebook friend posted this. Apropos.

Loud guitars shit all over "Bette Davis Eyes" (NYCNative), Friday, 24 June 2016 05:28 (four years ago) link

four years pass...

Got one of those 8 Classic Albums box-CDs of the Stanley Brothers for a great price. Excellent winter driving music. This one feels almost sinister.

clemenza, Thursday, 18 February 2021 22:10 (two weeks ago) link

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