Music, American Style
From the November 10, 2003 issue: Why bluegrass has never died.
Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By BILL CROKE
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE from West Virginia to notice that America is having a bluegrass renaissance. Call it rural renewal. It's made bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, at age seventy-six, a bona fide superstar, thanks to the overwhelming success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and its bestselling, Grammy-award-winning soundtrack. Major country-western artists such as Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, and Dolly Parton have abandoned the slick, commercial Nashville sound for what used to be called hillbilly music. Established bluegrass acts are thriving--including Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Del McCoury Band, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
Rare is the college town nowadays--especially in the West and the South--where you can't find live bluegrass on a Saturday night. Regional bluegrass festivals have multiplied to become a summertime staple. And while America's urban airwaves may suffer the yoke of Clear Channel tyranny, with its bland, digitally perfected pop, regional public radio serves up generous mounds of dirty acoustic music.
Bluegrass derived its sound from the Celtic-based "Old Time" string music of the southern Appalachians and the black gospel tradition in the South, both dating from the eighteenth century. It's possible, however, to be more precise and say bluegrass was born in rural Kentucky, around 1920 or so, as the brothers Bill and Charlie Monroe learned fiddle tunes from their Uncle Pen Vandiver (with Bill on the mandolin, Charlie on the guitar). On Sundays, the boys were hustled off to the local Baptist church by a pious mother who insisted they participate in singing hymns. These dueling influences led the brothers to discover bluegrass's original formula of gospel singing plus acoustic picking. The combination reflected the deep influence of the church in the everyday life of Appalachia and, of course, proved enduring. For this contribution, Bill and Charlie Monroe--especially Bill--are honored as the first true proponents of bluegrass. Although other early figures--in particular the brothers Ralph and Carter Stanley, contemporaries of the Monroes--deserve honorable mention, the conventional wisdom is correct in designating Bill Monroe the inventor of bluegrass. He towers above all other figures who have contributed to the form, as dominant as Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Elvis Presley were in their genres.
The Monroes started up their first band, the Blue Grass Boys, in Hammond, Indiana, in 1932, and were soon touring the Midwest and South, making bluegrass's foundational recordings and playing live on local radio shows (a promotional tool used by many Depression-era musicians). The sibling relationship, however, became strained, and the brothers parted professional company in 1938. On his own, brother Bill thrived, using constant experimentation and personnel changes to develop his new music. By 1940, the Blue Grass Boys were Nashville radio stalwarts, had recorded such classics as "Muleskinner Blues" and "John Henry," and were regulars at the Grand Ole Opry.
While individual hits marked the band's progress, the progress of bluegrass could be marked by the band's changing roster of musicians. Earl Scruggs was not the Blue Grass Boys' first banjoist, but he certainly became its most famous. Monroe had worked with a number of banjo sidemen in the late thirties and early forties, the talented David "Stringbean" Akeman among them. But Scruggs was in a class by himself. His virtuoso three-finger picking demanded that Monroe feature the banjo for solos rather than just for rhythmic backup, as he had previously done. Before Scruggs, the five-string banjo was played primarily in the Appalachian "claw hammer" style by strumming and picking with two fingers.
Hailing from a large North Carolina family where everybody played an instrument or sang, Scruggs easily mastered claw hammer techniques while still a teenager. He honed his influential, rolling three-finger style (using a plastic thumbpick and steel picks on the index and middle fingers), while playing barn dances and church socials in local bands. In 1945, he arrived in Nashville and auditioned for the famously dismissive Monroe, who, after hearing Scruggs play a couple of tunes, immediately put him to work on tour dates and soon hired him as a full band member.