Turn on your favorite guitar plucking, banjo strumming song and get ready to dive into the historical world of bluegrass music. Each bluegrass song is filled with a depth of sound and rhythm and a story that runs deep within the history of the United States. 

It’s possible you grew up listening to bluegrass with your family, but don’t know much about its origins. Or you might be someone who has just recently discovered the beauty of bluegrass and wants to know more about where it came from and what it means today. No matter what brought you to be more curious about bluegrass, it’s time to turn up the tunes and bop around what bluegrass really means. 

What is Bluegrass Music? 

To those outside of the bluegrass community, bluegrass music is compilation of boot tapping, string instruments, and the stray yodel tying it all together. Those who know more about this genre of string-band music know that bluegrass is a combination of old-time mountain music and fiddling that has elements of English and Scottish ballads, blues, jazz and gospel music.

Usually, a bluegrass band is made up of four to seven members who use their own voices and a variety of acoustic string instruments to make their energetic and emotional music. Their voices typically carry a whole range of notes, but they’re specifically known for the high, tight sounds that are very emotionally charged and sometimes referred to as “high lonesome” sounds.   

Bluegrass Music Origins

You might’ve noticed that bluegrass has been influenced by a lot of different genres, including English and Scottish ballads. This across-the-sea influence is because bluegrass roots can be traced all the way back to the Irish, English, and Scottish immigrants who made the hills, mountains, and farms of the Appalachian region their home in the 1600s. 

Looking to express the emotions that came with leaving their home country for a new one, they began singing about their daily lives. Eventually, the music was influenced by African American spirituals and what would become the blues and gospel music since there were also many people of African origin in the Appalachian region.  

Bluegrass would go on to be popularized by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys starting in the 1940s. This new group’s unique combination of the feisty fiddle, twangy banjo, and their improvised, high-energy beats created an entirely new genre that we know today as bluegrass. Their band name was specifically influenced by the fact that Bill Monroe was from Kentucky, which is known as the bluegrass state. 

The Instruments Used in Bluegrass

A man in a red and black gingham shirt plays the banjo. His left hand holds the banjo by its neck and his right hand has three fingers on its strings.
Still from Skillshare Class Beginner Banjo Course by Jody Hughes
The banjo plays an important musical and historical role in bluegrass music.

Each bluegrass instrument has some tie to its wide-spreading origins. The banjo, which was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants, speaks to the great influence African culture had on bluegrass music. One of Bill Monroe’s biggest influences and closest friends was Arnold Schultz, a popular black fiddler and guitarist known for his jazzy “thumb-style” way of playing the guitar. The fiddle on the other hand first appeared in Europe and plays a part in the influence that European culture had on bluegrass music. 

Learning to play the banjo and the fiddle through bluegrass can help you experience these instruments to their full potential. You can also discover bluegrass guitar or take on other stringed instruments such as the mandolin, double bass, Dobro and steel guitar.

Exploring Bluegrass Music Songs

Get ready to add some songs to your bluegrass playlist because there are a lot of treasured bluegrass music songs out there that you might love.

Early Bluegrass Songs

Starting with some of the early bluegrass songs, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are often some of the first you’ll come across. A few you might enjoy giving a listen as you continue expanding your bluegrass knowledge are:

  • “With Body and Soul” by Bill Monroe
  • “The Moon of Kentucky” by The Blue Grass Boys
  • “Tennessee Hound Dog” by The Osborne Brothers
  • “Whistlin’ Rufus” by Chubby Wise & The Rainbow Ranch Boys
  • “Nine Pound Hammer” by Tony Rice

Contemporary Bluegrass Music

While bluegrass music faded in popularity when rock n’ roll hit the music scene in the 1950s, bluegrass is still alive and well today with bluegrass music festivals and modern day artists. Today’s bluegrass artists add their own elements to the traditional music style. You might consider diving into some more modern songs like:

  • “Crooked Mind” by Tray Wellington
  • “City That Drowned” by Mile Twelve
  • “I Don’t Want to Get Married” by Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves
  • “Long Way To Go” by Railroad Earth
  • “Restless Wind” by The String Cheese Incident

Famous Bluegrass Artists

If you had some time to listen to some of those bluegrass songs, you’ve already started to uncover some of the most famous bluegrass artists. Since improvisation and bluegrass go hand-, each bluegrass artist has their own unique spin on the genre. You might’ve already noticed how speed, rhythm, and voice change the style of the songs between different artists. 

Bill Monroe

You already learned a little bit about Bill Monroe, but as the artist who is considered the founding father of bluegrass, there are a few more important things to know about him. Before Monroe joined up with The Blue Grass Boys, he was a part of a group called The Monroe Brothers that he played in with—you guessed it—his brother Charlie. 

With one playing the mandolin and the other playing the guitar, their instruments and harmonized voices lead them to be one of the most popular acts of the 1930s. Eventually, when they went their separate ways, Bill Monroe formed “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.” They went on to play at the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1939 and became one of the biggest touring acts of the decade. 

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs

Many of the Blue Grass Boys went on to have their own careers, but the most successful were Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Both part of the group from 1945 to 1948, they formed the Foggy Mountain Boys soon after. They came out with classic bluegrass hits like the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “Old Salty Dog Blues.” 

Alison Krauss

One of the most popular modern-day and female bluegrass singers, Alison Krauss has been on the bluegrass scene from a young age. Known for her silky vocals and fiddling skills, Krauss helped widen the bluegrass audience to the greater country and pop music scene. While popular from early on in her career, she went platinum in 1995 with her album “Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection.” 

Getting Into Different Types of Bluegrass Music

Even without deep diving into dozens of bluegrass songs, you likely already noticed a slight difference between the bluegrass artists you’ve already listened to. Through the years, bluegrass developed regional differences influenced by Honky Tonk moving up the midwest, gospel and blues impacting the southern states, and mainstream country music shaping bluegrass sounds in Nashville. 

Appalachian Bluegrass 

The Appalachian mountain region is the birthplace of bluegrass and continues to have its own unique elements and sound. Much of bluegrass music in this region dives into themes influenced by life in the Appalachian mountains themselves like nature, lost love, life in the coal mines, family, and community. Appalachian music has also been influenced by old-time, which is more focused on creating verses for dancing than singing. 

Kentucky Bluegrass

Since bluegrass music got its name from Kentucky bluegrass itself, there’s no talking about bluegrass without talking about the overall country influence the state and Nashville had on the music. Bill Monroe also had a big influence on bluegrass in Kentucky with his string band-, work song-, and blues-inspired tunes. 

Bluegrass Gospel

Gospel had a big impact on bluegrass as the two genres were born around the same regions and often spoke on overlapping topics and emotions. With themes like religion and love, both gospel and bluegrass are full of emotion. Where the two differ is in their instruments, rhythm, and voice. Gospel contains more piano, organ, and dominant vocals. Bluegrass gospel combines the two into a melding of instruments and voice. 

Where Will Bluegrass Take You Next? 

At this point, both your mind and your playlist should be overflowing with bluegrass inspiration. Bluegrass goes so much deeper than what you’ve learned today, but you already have a great foundation for wherever you’re looking to go next. 
If learning bluegrass music is next on your list, a beginner banjo course might be the next step in your journey. If you’re looking to continue discovering more about the history of music, you could dive into a class about understanding rock music to see how bluegrass influenced that influential music era. Either way, you’re at the start of an exciting new voyage based in the beautiful bluegrass.

Guitar Basics

Learn Guitar: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Written By

Calli Zarpas

  • Click here to share on Twitter
  • Click here to share on Facebook
  • Click here to share on LinkedIn
  • Click here to share on Pinterest