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Bluegrass is a hybrid music genre with American backbone, a mashup between old-time, blues, folk, and country music, with some elements of jazz and pop. Although bluegrass has widespread roots, its namesake is often attributed to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. They were active from 1938 to 1996, earning a Grammy Hall of Fame and record labels with BMG, RCA Records, Columbia Records, Decca Records, and Geffen Records among others, a testament to the success of the genre. That said, the genre reaches back to the 1600s when colonists in Appalachia from England, Ireland, and Scotland brought their native sounds over to America. To learn more about what bluegrass is and why you should experience it in person, keep reading.
One of the most distinct and appealing characteristics of bluegrass is that the genre is one of the most stable, unchanged out there. Its origins are tried and true, and the very specific type of sound the genre was known for decades ago is still being created today. Many genres are both praised and critiqued for their adoption of more popularized sounds—more agreeable harmonies, common themes, technological modifications, and so on and so forth. However, bluegrass has held onto its crying pitches, improvisation, and unrestrained rhythms. Bluegrass concerts highlight these elements beautifully. In a genre where performers are praised for the emotiveness and expressiveness, live performance is the best of what they have to offer. Seeing singers and instrumentalists open up about hardships and joys in such an unrestrained way is sure to move listeners. Amazingly, the same types of instruments, harmonies, lyrics, and techniques used when the genre was started can still be heard on stages today.
For those new to bluegrass, at first listen, you may be wondering what bluegrass sounds like. You may think that it sounds very similar to country. They share many of the same instruments, such as the banjo, fiddle, and harmonica. In addition, some of the themes in bluegrass and country overlap, such as love, hardship, and rural life. Harmonies play a major role in both genres, too. However, bluegrass is arguably more closely related to folk music. Both folk and bluegrass genres share a use of unamplified instruments, making a rawer, more rustic sound. The instruments and voices are bare and exposed relative to many other genres. And, although country also relies on harmonies, folk and bluegrass share a closer kinship in this sense, often creating conflicting, tense emotions with higher pitches, called “high lonesome sound.”
If you like songs like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs, you ought to go out and hear a bluegrass concert. Bluegrass has a long, winding history and has stayed impressively close to its roots. For an immersive exploration of history, culture, and human nature, bluegrass is the way to go. Grab some tickets to a show down in the South for a full-on experience, or seek out some spots to a show near you.