Here is some material that I use for my Bluegrass History class.
Ken Torke helped me put together the Bluegrass Timeline. It gives a really good, concise perspective on historical developments through the years.
You can read the background on Bluegrass’ Seminal Bands from the earliest days.
You can also pick up some historical perspective just by reading my Recommended Bluegrass Albums list below.
- 1911 Bill Monroe is born September 13 near Rosine, Kentucky. Youngest of 8 Children.
- 1920s Radio and Records bring music to rural America
- 1922 First “Country” recording featuring fiddler Eck Robertson.
- 1925 Radio Station WSM (We Shield Millions) is formed and includes a “barn dance”.
- 1927 Grand Ole Opry grows from the WSM barn dance.
- 1927 Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family record the first “hillbilly” records.
- 1930s Barn Dance Radio Programs and Record sales grow for “rural” musicians
- 1935 Monroe Brothers are a huge success with high vocals, fast tunes, and fiery mandolin.
- 1936 Monroe Brothers Record February 17th, biggest hit: What Would You Give in Exchange and This World Is Not My Home.
- 1938 Monroe Brothers Split.
- 1939 Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys join the Grand Ole Opry in October. His first song is Mule Skinner Blues. (This is NOT a “bluegrass” band).
- 1940s Elements of Bluegrass come together
- 1943 Bill buys his 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolin (#73987) in a barber shop in Florida for $150.
- 1944 Lester Flatt joined Bill’s band.
- 1945 In September, Stringbean leaves and Earl Scruggs joins in Dec. His first song on the Grand Ole Opry is Whitehouse Blues.
- 1946 First recording of bluegrass by Bill’s band with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts.
- 1947 Stanley Brothers start their career.
- 1948 Flatt & Scruggs leave Bill Monroe. Stanley Brothers release Molly and Tenbrooks, the first recorded copy of Bill’s style.
- 1950s “Bluegrass” becomes a genre with a name, rock causes problems, bluegrass dabbles in rock.
- 1951 Reno & Smiley. Tons of songs and tunes. Reno has a new banjo style and flatpicks the guitar.
- 1952 Jim & Jesse. Jesse crosspicks the mandolin. Their harmonies inspire the Everly Brothers and Beatles.
- 1954 Jimmy Martin forms band with the Osborne Brothers.
- 1954 Elvis records and plays Blue Moon of Kentucky on the Grand Old Opry.
- 1955 Flatt & Scruggs add Josh Graves on Dobro.
- 1957 Country Gentlemen. Seeds of Newgrass.
- 1960s Beginning of the Folk Scene.
- 1960 Doc Watson “discovered” by Ralph Rinzler. The start of fiddle tunes on the guitar.
- Osborne Brothers perform at Antioch College in Ohio, first ever bluegrass concert for college audience.
- 1961 Bluegrass Day at Luray, VA. (a one day festival).
- 1962 Ralph Rinzler becomes Monroe’s manager. Markets him as the “Father of Bluegrass”.
- 1962 Beverly Hillbillies brings Flatt & Scruggs back to TV.
- 1963 “High Lonesome” coined.
- 1963 Bill Keith becomes the first “Yankee revivalist” in Bill’s band. Melodic banjo licks.
- 1963 The Dillards play the Darlings on the Andy Griffith show.
- 1964 Clarence White with the Kentucky Colonels. Clarence advances on Doc Watson’s guitar.
- 1965 Carlton Haney’s holds first bluegrass festival near Roanoke, Virginia,
- 1965 Jerry Garcia of Palo Alto gives up bluegrass to do other things, electric folk passes up acoustic folk.
- 1966 Bluegrass Unlimited begins publishing.
- 1966 Carter Stanley dies. Ralph Stanley continues on.
- 1966 Osborne Brothers add an electric bass.
- 1967 Bonnie and Clyde brings Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Flatt & Scruggs mainstream.
- 1969 Flatt & Scruggs split.
- 1970s Beginning of the Festivals, Newgrass takes off
- 1972 Deliverance brings Dueling Banjos and “Squeal Like a Pig” into American culture.
- 1973 Clarence White dies. Tony Rice takes Clarence’s guitar to the next level.
- 1973 Festivals get big. Mademoiselle included bluegrass festivals in a list of ideas for fashionable vacations.
- 1980s Beginning of Nashville New Traditionalists: Skaggs, Stuart, Whitley, Gill
- 1982 Skaggs & Rice album brings the brother duet to the next level.
- 1985 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) forms.
- 1990s Beginning of Alternative Country and Americana Radio
- 1994 Doyle Lawson brings back the single mike.
- 1995 Allison Kraus makes millions doing crossover bluegrass/country/pop.
- 1996 Bill Monroe dies on September 9, 1996.
- 2000s Internet fuels bluegrass discussions and web site info
- 2000 Brother Where Art Thou send bluegrass/old-time to new commercial heights.
- 2006 California legend Vern Williams passes away on 6/6/06.
Major Bluegrass Bands of the 40s and 50s
Father of Bluegrass and one of America’s greatest musicians. Prodigious songwriter and innovative mandolin player, his high pitched vocals formed the basis for bluegrass singing. Always carried top level players and was a veritable training ground for countless bluegrass musicians. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Carter Stanley, Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Sonny Osborne, Chubby Wise and Vassar Clements are among the former Blue Grass Boys.
Flatt & Scruggs
Left Bill Monroe and formed their own band. By the 1960’s they were more well-known than Bill Monroe. Earlier material is best (pre-1960’s). Some consider Flatt & Scruggs of the 50’s the greatest bluegrass band ever. Very tight rhythm, innovative tasteful banjo playing and smooth vocals. Little mandolin playing in the band, they added Josh Graves on dobro in 1955.
Celebrated for the haunting mountain old-time style of singing duets and trios. Carter Stanley wrote many mournful songs, which he sang with an understated, poignant feel. Ralph’s banjo playing was stellar, though less adventurous than Scruggs, and his high tenor voice blended perfectly with his brother’s. Like Flatt & Scruggs, they de-emphasized the mandolin. They added some lead guitar playing.
Very strong singer and forceful rhythm guitar player. Jimmy’s voice was on the country end of the bluegrass spectrum. Always had very tight vocals and top banjo players like J.D. Crowe and Bill Emerson, but on some recordings electric bass and drums were added. Jimmy passed away in 2005.
Jim & Jesse
Smooth vocals featuring Jim’s ability to sing very high without straining and Jesse’s polished lead singing. Brought in lots of older brother-duet songs, especially the Louvin Brothers. Always carried top musicians, although they tried the country sound for awhile. Jesse developed a unique cross-picking style of mandolin playing.
Reno & Smiley
Don Reno was a very talented banjo player who played very complicated solos, way ahead of his time, but also at times outside the bluegrass norm. He also flat-picked guitar, sung tenor and wrote hundreds of songs. Smiley was a decent singer who blended well with Reno, more in the style of some of the older brother-duets.
Known for stacking the harmonies underneath the lead, this enabled Bobby Osborne to sing lead at the top of his range during verses, and stay on the high lead in the chorus. Very smooth harmonies, but without the lonesome quality. Sonny Osborne plays banjo very much in the Scruggs style with a few of his own ideas thrown in. Also added drums to their recordings for awhile.
Recommended Bluegrass Albums
These are band-oriented CDs. For instrument specific recommendations go here.
The three most influential 1st generation bands:
Bill Monroe: As the “Father of Bluegrass” any Bill Monroe recordings are worth hearing. A 2 CD set called Bill Monroe Anthology ($22.50) on MCA that includes some of his best material from his entire career. Also recommended is 16 Gems on Columbia, which includes the first true bluegrass with Flatt & Scruggs in the band. For those who want a large dose of Bill Monroe, the Bear Family label has everything you could want, check them out at County Sales.
Stanley Brothers: The two disc CD set on Bear Family called The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys 1953-58 & 1959, is my favorite set. Most any Stanley Brothers recording will be good though, with lots of lonesome “mountain-style” singing.
Flatt & Scruggs: The Complete Mercury Sessions is a must have, as well as Foggy Mountain Banjo, the very influential banjo album. An interesting album is Live At Carnegie Hall on Koch. The more expensive ($65) Bear Family 4 CD set Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs 1948-1959 is highly recommended for those wanting all of the best of their prime years. It includes all of the Mercury Sessions CD, a book with tons of info, but doesn’t include the banjo album. Stay away from any of their recordings made after the mid-60’s.
Other popular bands from the 1950’s:
Reno & Smiley: The 4 CD set on King called Reno & Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-ups, 1951 – 1959 ($45) and it includes much of their best material and a very informative book. When you factor in all around skills, Don Reno must be considered one of the greatest musicians bluegrass has ever seen; he wrote over 500 songs, was a huge innovator on the banjo, a flatpicker on the guitar and a great tenor singer. The vocal blend between him and Red Smiley is very compelling.
Jimmy Martin: A great vocal talent who passed away in 2005, Jimmy comes from the country end of the bluegrass vocal spectrum, but with so much emotional grit, he can grab you like no other. You Don’t Know My Mind, 1956-66 or The King Of Bluegrass are two of his best compilations from his best years. If you really get into Jimmy, you’ll need his 5 CD Bear Family collection, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys ($100), that spans about twenty years including all his earliest years.
Jim & Jesse: This brothers duet had very smooth, refined harmonies but not as gritty as some. Jesse’s mandolin playing features lots of cross-picking breaks and they always carried top-flight banjo players. There is a very nice 4 CD box ($45) set called The Old Dominion Masters that has their recordings from the 60’s and 70’s. One of my favorite of their newer CDs is In The Tradition on Rounder.
Osborne Brothers: From the Country side of bluegrass, this band is famous for Bobby Osborne’s high lead voice with the harmonies stacked underneath. The material tends to be on the “hokey” side. Try Once More Vol 1 & 2, a fairly recent re-recording of many of their classics.
Post 1960’s bluegrass in no particular order
Bluegrass Album Band: These albums are, to my knowledge, the first all-star band (led by Tony Rice) recordings of traditional bluegrass and it created quite a stir when the first vinyl came out in 1981. All of their albums are very good and I use them to demonstrate how a bluegrass ensemble should sound. I’d go for the 1st two compilation CDs The Bluegrass Album Compact Disc (Rounder 11502) and Volume 2 of the same. (Rounder 11516)
Ralph Stanley: Ralph has continued on to this day without his brother Carter, who passed away in 1966. His album Cry From The Cross is a classic and his Clinch Mountain Country features many guest stars from the bluegrass and country fields and exemplary fiddling from James Price. (Rebel)
Hazel Dickens: The first great female bluegrass singer, with a hard-edged old-school voice that blends old country and mountain singing. A Few Old Memories on Rounder is a good starting place.
Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass: One of the most powerful bands in all of bluegrass, this band seems to have a small but loyal following like no other. Considered by many bluegrass insiders to be the best ultra-traditional band going, this band plays music like a freight train going down the tracks. Formerly under the name Bob Paisley, but since Bob passed away in 2005, the band continues with his son Dan at the helm and amazingly they are just as good as ever. Steeped in the Tradition or Back to the Blue Ridge are my choices, but any of their recordings will do.
Country Gentlemen: The first progressive “Urban bluegrass” band from DC features occasional repertoire from outside the Bluegrass world. A live recording on Smithsonian Folkways called On The Move is a good display of the classic early 1960’s sound and humor.
Seldom Scene: This band is noted for the same progressive approach as the Country Gentlemen, but even more modern. Live At The Cellar Door on Rebel is a good intro to their sound.
Del McCoury: A great family band, Del has two sons in the band and they are one of the hottest acts going today. Straight bluegrass with a few different twists. High singing and burning instrumental breaks are served up on the last several albums. Try The Family. (Ceili Music)
Rice & Skaggs: This duet album isn’t really a bluegrass album, but a throwback to the brothers duet sound common in the 1930’s and 40’s. Excellent harmony singing and tasteful, understated guitar and mandolin. (Rounder)
Longview: This all-star band features the greatest singers and players in the business. About as close to perfection as traditional bluegrass has gotten, this band is most noted for the ethereal vocals of four great singers. Try either of their first two albums on Rounder, one simply titled Longview and the other, High Lonesome.
Ricky Skaggs: As with Longview, this is virtually perfect bluegrass, both vocally (Ricky Skaggs is as good as they get) and instrumentally. Incredible guitar solos by Bryan Sutton, some Stuart Duncan fiddling (in addition to Bobby Hicks) and Jim Mills on banjo. Bluegrass Rules (Rounder) and Ancient Tones (SKFR- 1001)
Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis: There’s a shortage of great female bluegrass singers, but the Bay Area certainly has two of the best. They team up here with some of the best duet singing you’ll ever hear on Together. (Kaleidoscope) Check out their solo albums too.
Lynn Morris: Another strong female bluegrass singer originally from Texas, with a very clear voice and a strong band. My favorite album is The Bramble and the Rose (Rounder).
True Life Blues: This is an all-star cast that pays tribute to the songs of Bill Monroe. Varying, but stellar musicians throughout the album. Very good album at every level. (Sugar Hill)
J.D.Crowe: His 1974 self-titled album on Rounder is a classic and featured one of the greatest bands of all time. Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas were all just youngsters who have had a huge impact on the bluegrass world.
Hot Rize: This Colorado-based band of the 80’s featured singing and songwriting of Tim O’Brien. Very tight band. Any of their albums are good but I’d put Traditional Ties and Radio Boogie at the top.
Johnson Mountain Boys: One of the best hard-driving ultra-traditional bands of all time. Very consistent albums. Live at the Old School House and Blue Diamond are my picks. (Rounder)
Rhonda Vincent: One of the most successful acts in bluegrass today, Rhonda has a powerhouse band and the ability to play hard-driving bluegrass as well as her more Country-influenced torch songs. Her bands have only gotten better over time, so try her latest offerings, like Ragin’ Live or The Storm Still Rages.
Tony Rice: Probably the most influential guitarist ever, and a good singer too. I’d recommend his self-titled Tony Rice as well as the somewhat more progressive Manzanita. (Rounder)
David Grisman: Known for his pioneering “Dawg music” this mandolinist put out a double CD of traditional bluegrass called Home Is Where The Heart Is with many great singers and players. (Rounder)
Vern Williams: California’s claim to raw-edged traditional bluegrass, Vern is a litmus test for how serious you are about the high-powered, unrefined end of the bluegrass spectrum. Bluegrass From The Gold Country is his only studio album, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Traditional Bluegrass (Arhoolie) is a fabulous collection of Vern Williams Band live recordings from the early ’80s.
Nashville Bluegrass Band: Two of the best singers in bluegrass (Alan O’Bryant and Pat Enright) along with the best fiddler of all (Stuart Duncan). My favorite album is The Boys Are Back In Town. (Sugar Hill)
Lonesome River Band: This influential band is on the modern side of bluegrass with an incredibly tight sound and top-level musicianship. Some of their material borders on sappy country, but their straight bluegrass is very dynamic, with well thought out arrangements. Try Carrying The Tradition (Rebel) and One Step Forward. ( Sugar Hill)
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver: Later years have seen a focus on elaborate 4-part gospel vocals and if you want to hear the state-of-the-art, get Gospel Radio Gems on Sugar Hill.
Alison Krauss: Too much toward the “pop” side for my tastes, nonetheless Krauss is the best selling bluegrass artist of the last 15 years. I actually like her album Every Time You Say Goodbye on Rounder.
1946: Named in honor of the year bluegrass as we now know it was first recorded, this band has two self-released CDs – one simply called 1946, and Howling Wind Blues. David Peterson vocally fronts this powerful band, and as you might imagine from their name, it’s rooted in the traditional side of bluegrass. But they have fresh creative approaches to old songs and a few new songs that sound like old songs, great singing and really great, tasteful soloing.
Recommended Fiddle Albums
For those wanting to hear fiddle solos in the context of of bluegrass vocals, almost any of the albums on my recommended bluegrass page would be worthwhile. If you’re looking for more fiddle-centric albums, try these below. The range of fiddling albums is diverse and lengthy so here is a very incomplete list of my favorite albums.
Kenny Baker, Plays Bill Monroe: Kenny Baker played with Bill Monroe in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Bill always introduced him as “the greatest fiddler in bluegrass music”. This album is his tribute to Bill Monroe. It displays his smooth, fluid fiddling over fiddle tunes, and features many need-to-know classics. County Records
Michael Cleveland, Flamekeeper: This album came out in 2001 and is a bluegrass fiddling album tour-de-force. A high energy mix of traditional fiddle tunes and vocals, with some of the best players on the bluegrass scene. Cleveland’s fiddling is the perfect mix of fresh ideas and a strong sense of tradition, impressive for such a young fiddler (early twenties). Maybe my favorite BG fiddle album of all. RounderRecords
Aubrey Haynie, Doin’ My Time: The first solo album from one of the super-hot new players. This is a mix of traditional tunes, original tunes and some bluegrass vocals. Fiddling at the highest level, Haynie is among the best of the young generation of creative, talented bluegrass fiddlers.
Stuart Duncan: Stuart gets my vote for the greatest bluegrass fiddler of the last 20 years. He is a member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, so you’ll get great fiddling on any of their albums, but he also plays on lots of studio recordings from bluegrass to country. Almost anything he’s on will have amazing fiddling – he is probably the greatest improvisor bluegrass has ever had – but I especially like his playing on the Jim Mills’ banjo album, Bound To Ride, on Sugar Hill.
Bobby Hicks: One of the historic greats, having played with Monroe in the 1950’s and then with Ricky Skaggs for about twenty years. His playing on the landmark Bluegrass Album Band recordings with Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe and others is quintessential bluegrass fiddling, especially as it relates to playing breaks over singing pieces. There are several of these albums on Rounder, but I’d start with vol 1, Rounder 11502.
Brittany Haas: Brittany was a long time student of mine but I’m not being biased when I say she is one of the most talented fiddlers to ever come upon the scene. This album was recorded at the age of 16, and shows more maturity than most musicians ever attain. It’s old-time tunes, played the old-time way, yet backed up in a very modern, Darol Anger arranged fashion. Available at County Sales or direct from Brittany’s web site.
Bruce Molsky, Lost Child: Bruce is the leading figure in the world of old-time fiddling today. Very rhythmic bowing and with a higher level of execution than typical old-time, Bruce has a compelling style that has become very influential. This album is mostly fiddle tunes, using various tunings, some old-time banjo tunes, and a few nicely sung pieces, but any of his albums are good. Rounder Records
Rayna Gellert, Ways of the World: A solid album of straight southeastern old-time fiddling, nicely done. Rayna is clean, accurate and very easy to listen to.
Echoes of the Ozarks, vol.1. A compilation of original recordings from the 30’s, this CD has a nice mix of tunes and styles. Some of these tunes have become classics. County
Dirk Powell, If I Go Ten Thousand Miles: Another of the top old-time players of today, this is an old-time album with a touch of a bluegrass feel. Some interesting tunes and songs and great backing musicians.
Tommy and Fred, Best Fiddle-Banjo Duets: This is the real deal – not for the faint of heart. Tommy Jarrell is one of the old-time fiddling heroes. He was re-discovered in his retirement years of the 70’s and 80’s and became a favorite of the young revivalist fiddlers., before his passing away. Very punchy and complex bowing make for an interesting sound. As with many of the older generation fiddlers, the beauty in the playing of these tunes can be an acquired taste – but well worth acquiring.
The Best of Fiddle Fever: This album is a mix of styles, with three fiddlers Matt Glaser, Evan Stover and Jay Unger combining for a well thought-out ensemble sound, somewhere between northern and southern fiddling. Lots of energy and very easy to listen to. This also has the original version of Ashokan Farewell, the most celebrated fiddle tune of the last 20 years.
Mark O’Connor, Heroes: Mark O’Connor is one of the most remarkable fiddlers ever – once a child prodigy Texas-style fiddler, who now has the technical skills of the highest classical players. This album features him playing with many of his fiddling heroes, from Benny Thomason to Vassar Clements to Stephane Grapelli and others in styles more rooted in tradition than one hears from him these days.
Darol Anger, Diary of a Fiddler: More than anything else, Darol seems to like to play behind other fiddlers, and he is a master of creative backup. Here is a chance to sample a number of fiddlers, from Cape Breton to old-time to bluegrass and beyond trading ideas with Darol.
Johnny Gimble, The Texas Fiddle Collection: Probably the most celebrated western swing fiddler, this album has a very down-home, under-produced quality about it (in a good way). Johnny is still going strong, having put his time in with Bob Wills in the 50’s. A mix of traditional Texas fiddling (no contest fiddling here) and jazzy western swing, this is a great intro to the variety of the older Texas players’ repertoire.
Martin Hayes: When Martin put out his first Irish fiddle album in 1992, he received rave reviews, including the one I wrote for Fiddler Magazine. He is a master of nuance and subtlety, and seems to prefer playing simply with emphasis on tones and textures. His first album just titled Martin Hayes, is my choice but all of his albums are very similar. Green Linnet
Natalie MacMaster: Natalie has become one of the most popular fiddlers in the world, in part because of her on-stage presence, which includes high-kick dancing while playing intricate fiddle tunes. That doesn’t come across very well on a CD but you will hear Cape Breton fiddling at the highest level – then go check her out live. Try No Boundaries.
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Fire and Ice: Alasdair is one of the top Scottish fiddlers (though he now resides in California) and here he teams up with the amazing cello player Natalie Haas. Natalie recorded this as a student at Juillard, but make no mistake, she has spent the greater part of her musical life in the world of fiddling – see her sister Brittany’s recording in the old-time category. Even with just two players the result is a powerful rhythmic and melodic intertwining of two masters. Culburnie Reocords
Stephane Grappelli: For upscale jazz violin, almost any album made by Grappelli will do, but if you want to hear his early landmark playing, get one of the Hot Club of France albums, with Django Rienhardt. For later Grappelli, I like the Grappelli/Grisman live album, with the added bonus of Mark O’Connor playing fiddle on a couple numbers.
Recommended Banjo Albums
Probably the best albums for listening to banjo are nearly any of the albums from the recommended bluegrass bands, because most of the important recordings have been made in the context of a whole band. In order to understand banjo in a band context it is important to understand how a banjo interacts with vocals. I think all banjo students should start with the Complete Mercury Sessions of Flatt and Scruggs, the Bluegrass Album Band with J.D. Crowe, a Stanley Brothers Cd or two and some Bill Monroe. But here are some (mostly) instrumental albums put out by many of the greatest bluegrass banjo players in history.
Earl Scruggs: His instrumental album, Foggy Mountain Banjo, (Columbia) from the early 60’s was THE classic. Used to be, all aspiring banjo players would try to learn everything off of this. Earl set the standard in all things on the banjo, so don’t skip over Flatt & Scruggs Complete Mercury sessions CD, which displays his talents at lead and backup, and shows why he set most of the vocabulary for banjo playing as it’s still done today.
Bill Keith: Something Auld, Something Newgrass, Something Borrowed, Something Bluegrass (Rounder) Keith was one of the creators of melodic style banjo, which changed the face of banjo playing in the 1960’s. A former member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, this is his first solo effort from 1976. Rounder
Trishka, Keith, Fleck: Fiddle Tunes for Banjo (Rounder) Three of the melodic greats on a landmark album from 1981. Bill Keith pioneered the style, Tony Trishka took it to a more complex state, and Bela Fleck became the standard bearer for the current generation of banjo players.
Tom Adams: Right Hand Man (Rounder) Tom is one of the burnin’est banjo players going now, and this is his first banjo album. He plays a pretty conservative style most of the time, but he’s really got an amazing attack and execution, hence the title of this CD. Also check out the Johnson Mountain Boys, At the Schoolhouse, a live CD with some hard-edged bluegrass that probably showcases his all-around talents better than an instrumental album could.
Jim Mills: Bound To Ride (Sugar Hill) This is somewhere between a band album and a banjo album, and very listenable. With an all-star supporting cast, Jim shows why he is one of the best in the business and the banjoist for Ricky Skaggs. Playing in a conservative style so in vogue now, the banjo is always at the forefront, driving the band with a machine gun cascade of notes.
Tony Ellis: Farewell My Home (Flying Fish) This is not your typical banjo album, but I’ve liked listening to this for years. I’ve even know folks who don’t like banjo (can you believe it?) that like this one. Tony played with Monroe in the 60’s for a short while, but resurfaced during a Masters of the Banjo tour in the 80’s. These are laid back, inventive originals tunes and 100% banjo – no trading off here. It’s good though.
Bela Fleck: The greatest banjo player in the world has ventured off into jazz/fusion with his Flecktones recordings, and though they’re not my cup of tea, they give insight into how far banjo playing has come since the dawn days of Scruggs in the late 40’s. For something closer to bluegrass home, try his album called Drive. (Rounder)
Recommended Mandolin Albums
There are not a lot of straight bluegrass instrumental mandolin albums, because it has been seen as an ensemble instrument and few mandolin players of old put out whole instrumental albums. Thus it’s important to listen to players like Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Adam Steffey, in their band ensembles. Check out my Bluegrass Album recommendations for bluegrass mandolin in the context of a full band. However, both Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers de-emphasized the mandolin so you won’t find very many mandolin solos in their material.
Here are some Cds put out by mandolin players as solo projects:
John Reischman: This is the guy I want my students to listen to for tone, taste and timing. Up in the Woods (Corvus) or North of the Border (Rounder) are good choices. I especially like how John stands out on slower numbers, where it takes more than speed to impress. Of course he can burn when he needs to. Also of note, his playing on Good Ol’ Persons’ Albums from the 1980’s.
Butch Baldesari: Butch has a few albums out, but I like Old Town (Rounder) the best. It has mostly traditional bluegrass instrumentals mixed with a few originals, with stellar players throughout. Butch is a top-flight player with very good tone and a strong sense of tradition. This album is very listenable, with a good mix of fast, slow, major and minor – never trying too hard to impress.
Sam Bush: Late As Usual (Rounder). Sam is the rock n roller’s mandolin player – a fireball on stage, as apt to do a reggae tune as bluegrass. This is his first solo album, and it offers a smattering of his eclectic skills.
David Grisman: David is one of the most influential players since Bill Monroe and was one of the first progressive players. His landmark album The David Grisman Quintet from 1976, mixed bluegrass virtuosity with jazz elements and had a huge impact on many in the bluegrass crowd that were looking for a more progressive tilt. The first time I heard it I was floored – at that time it was a whole new sound. Now these elements have made their way into many of today’s mandolin players, but it’s still worth a listen. To hear Grisman’s bluegrass playing, try his Home Is Where The Heart Is album on Rounder.
Adam Steffey: He finally put out his first solo album, Grateful, (Mountain Home) in 2002, but Adam has been known for years for his jazzy bluegrass mandolin breaks, showcased with Alison Krauss and Union Station. You might try her Every Time You Say Goodbye CD for some tasteful, yet progressive mandolin solos.
Chris Thile: The boy wonder of the mandolin, Chris can probably lay claim to being to world’s best even though he’s still in his early twenties. Check out anything he’s on, including his band Nickel Creek, but only his first solo album, Leading Off (Rounder) made when he was all of about 13, has much for the bluegrass crowd. If you want the progressive end of things, his mandolin duet album Into the Cauldron with Mike Marshall will show two of the top players going full force.
Mandolin Extravaganza (Acoustic Disc) is a mando centric instrumental album featuring eight great players, old and new. Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Frank Wakefield, Buck White, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs and Ronnie McCoury are featured on this double disc set. Maybe more mandolin playing than you can take in at one time, but you get a good perspective on a variety of styles.
Recommended Guitar Albums
Guitar solos were not a regular part of bluegrass during the first couple of decades. Although Don Reno had recorded some bluegrass guitar solos in the 50’s, it was in the early 60’s guitar players like Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Clarence White were beginning to find an audience for flatpicking fiddle tunes. If you’re looking for guitar solos in the context of bluegrass vocals, view Recommended Bluegrass Albums above. Best choices would be the band albums by Ricky Skaggs, the Lonesome River Band, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Alison Krauss and J.D. Crowe. Here are some of my favorite guitar-centric albums.
Doc Watson: Foundation: Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection, 1964-1998 Although not strictly speaking a bluegrass guitarist, Doc was one of the first to flatpick fiddle tunes on the guitar and bluegrass guitar players were heavily influenced by his versions. This compilation album features many of his classics.
Norman Blake: Whiskey Before Breakfast Norman was another of the earliest players of fiddle tunes on the guitar and he developed a richer, less linear style than Doc – one that works well for self accompanying. Recorded in 1976, Whiskey Before Breakfast features a number of the fiddle tune standards that made him one of most influential of the early flatpickers.
Clarence White: Kentucky Colonels, Appalachian Swing Clarence changed the face of bluegrass guitar in the 1960’s both as a lead and as a rhythm player. The album shows why he became the model for virtually all that followed. Complicated approach to playing melodies, syncopated rhythms and excellent tone all are in abundance here. Unfortunately he was killed in a tragic accident in 1973, so his stellar bluegrass recordings are scarce.
Tony Rice: The man who followed in Clarence’s footsteps really made lead guitar part of mainstream bluegrass. Heavily influenced by Clarence’s ideas, Tony has become the most influential bluegrass guitarist ever. With numerous high quality albums it’s hard to narrow things down, but eponymously titled Tony Rice as well as Manzanita are two of his landmark albums on Rounder.
David Grier: The son of a well-known banjo player, David is one of first of the new generation of bluegrass guitarists who have managed to escape from the shadow of Tony Rice. I’ve Got the House to Myself showcases Grier as a solo guitarist, playing many fiddle classics and taking them to far reaching places, all without the benefit of any backup musicians. Pretty impressive.
Scott Nygaard No Hurry: Not strickly a bluegrass guitarist, Scott is one of the most impressive all-around guitarists going. Although he may not burn at the level of a David Grier or Bryan Sutton, he has one of the most sophisticated melodic senses you’ll hear from a guitarist, probably reflecting his knowledge of jazz and other influences. He knows his way around the entire neck and has more ideas than you’ll get from most guitarists.
Bryan Sutton: When Bryan joined Ricky Skaggs’ band in the late 90’s, he appeared to have come out of nowhere to become the hottest bluegrass guitar player of all. Playing at speeds never before attempted, his solos on Skaggs’ Bluegrass Rules and Walls of Time are quite remarkable. His album simply called Bluegrass Guitar is considerably mellower but has lots of well played tunes.
Bluegrass Critical Listening
Here is some material that I use for my Critical Listening to Bluegrass class. The class focuses on how the voices and instruments stylistically play together to form the basis for professional sounding bluegrass, and is mostly about understanding bluegrass by listening, so these pages are merely supplemental. But many do find these a bit helpful.
Known for its machine gun like stream of notes that provides much of the “drive” in bluegrass, especially on fast pieces. Lots of open strings surround melody notes made up of hammers, slides and pull-offs. Syncopation is very common. Breaks are occasionally played up the neck. Sometimes duplicates the mandolin offbeat by vamping closed chords during backup, but often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive. Relentlessly puts fills in vocal holes. Earl Scruggs is God.
Lots of blues influences in solos. Sometimes leads are played in a closed chordal position. Often repetitive notes are played with movement on the offbeat. Tremolo is common on slow pieces. Mostly chops on the offbeat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the offbeat. Occasionally fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, but does it more often on slow songs. All essential ideas come from Bill Monroe.
Solos are optional – not regularly done until the 1960’s. Solos are often based less on a melody than the other instruments. Rhythm playing features bass runs and fills, especially G runs at every opportunity. Very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal strumming but very aggressive swells at the end of lines. Some players use highly syncopated bass runs. Tony Rice is the major influence since the 70’s.
Solos are a mix of double-stops, slides and very fast single noting. Traditionally it follows a melody of a song for the first three lines, yet with lots of blues imparted into it, and then departs from the melody on the last line. It fills actively in the vocal holes at times, and sometimes adds a texture right along with vocals. Frequently though, it is silent during backup, or perhaps vamps percussively on the offbeats. No one fiddler has been able to dominate historically, but Stuart Duncan does now.
Good groove for bluegrass usually requires fairly simple bass lines – root, 5th alternating on downbeats. Bass runs connect one chord to another. In the early days, bassists tried way too hard to walk. Now, walking is left for bouncy numbers with a swing feel. Solos are rare but do happen, and usually involve some slapping. There has been some acceptance of electric bass in bluegrass. Rock steady timing is the key for good bass playing. Cedric Rainwater has been anointed “the great one” but this in reality has much to do with his being in the original 1945 bluegrass band with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise.
The least common bluegrass instrument. Generally uses lots of slides, hammers-ons and banjo like rolls. On slow songs it tends to play lots of chordal movements. Fills more actively on slow songs and often vamps on the off-beat or is silent. Josh Graves was the only guy for awhile, but in the 1970’s Jerry Douglas became the man.
Tempos for bluegrass range from slow waltzes to very fast 2/4 time. The slowest speed would be quarter note = 85 bpm and the fastest I’ve ever measured (2/4) would be quarter note = 195 bpm, but this is unusual and extreme.
Backup Methods for Instruments
Often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive but sometimes plays a vamping pattern using closed chords with a percussive chop on the 2nd and 4th beats of a measure. Relentlessly puts fills at the end of vocal lines where there is space (known as a “fill”) and also plays a lots of up-the-neck licks, usually based on those by Earl Scruggs. Banjo is the most active backup instrument and in that respect has a unique role in bluegrass as an almost ever-present instrument from a backup perspective. Even when it is playing a passive, quieter back-up, one can usually hear fill licks.
Common problem areas: Some banjo players often over play, playing too much or too loud, but beginners usually play too little, failing to impart the necessay drive.
Mostly chops on the 2nd and 4th beat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the beat. On waltzes the mandolin would usually chop on beats 2 and 3. It sometimes fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, and even occasionally it will play right over the singing. On slow numbers, the mandolin becomes a bit more prominent when actively backing up, filling vocal holes or playing tremolo behind the singer.
Common problem areas: Some mandolin players over play the rhythm, strumming too often. Also, some mandolin players fill too much.
Uses very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal (but solid) strumming, with aggressive swells at the ends of lines. Special emphasis is added by occasionally strumming on the downbeat instead of playing a single bass note. Bass runs are common, with G runs at every opportunity during fills. Some players use lots of bass runs while other are more sparing. Some use highly syncopated bass runs.
Common problem areas: Most common problem is over-strumming, resulting in a thick, thrashing sound that makes the other instruments and vocal sound muddy. Also, many beginners don’t use enough dynamics or enough variety in their strumming patterns. Often bass runs are not thick enough. BLuegrass guitar players use rest strokes the fatten up their bass runs.
Fills actively in the vocal spaces at times (see banjo above), usually playing blues based licks. Will also play right under the vocals adding a subtle texture, usually on the lower strings, but occasionally up high. Often a fiddle will vamp right with the mandolin, either while holding a double stop or sometimes just hitting muted strings with the bow for a percussive sound. Sometimes the fiddle will disappear entirely from the sound and that is totally appropriate.
Common problem areas: Playing too much or too loud or phrasing too much with the melody or playing the melody along with the singer, any of which can annoy the singer. Doing chops along with the mandolin can result in “flam” where the two instruments are slghtly out of sync with each other.
Good groove for bluegrass most often consists of a fairly simple bass line – root and 5th of the chord on the 1st and 3rd beats of a measure. Bass runs connect one chord to another and are used on successive beats. Walking bass lines, where the bass plays on each beat using mostly arpeggio, scale or chromatic passages, is used for bouncy numbers with a swing feel, or to change the feel of a song, often during instrumental breaks. On a waltz the bass normally would play just on the 1st beat of the measure, except during bass runs, but may play an additional offbeat note just ahead of that beat.
Common problem areas: Playing out of time, out of tune, or not getting good tone. It’s not usually a problem to play simple lines, but good bass runs are a plus.
When actively backing up, it plays bluesy fill licks on slow songs with lots of slides. On faster songs, it tends to play more punctuated lines. Often vamps on the off-beat in a mandolin style or can just be silent.
Common problem areas: Playing too many fills, thus squeezing out equal chances for other instruments to fill.
Bluegrass Song Structure
Songs generally begin with an instrumental kick-off. Usually it is played over the chord progression to the verse of the song. Pickup (or lead-in) notes are played ahead of the first measure by the kick-off instrument to cue the rest of the band as to the tempo and starting point. These notes would normally start on the 2nd beat of the lead-in measure, (counted: 2+3, 4) prior to the first full measure, or the 8th note before that (+2, 3, 4). All the instruments would join in on the first beat of the first full measure. The kick-off lasts for the 16 measures of the verse, but then additional measures (about 2) are inserted before the singing starts, as the soloing instrument finishes on a run or fill.
The lead singer would then sing the first verse, which consists of 4 vocal lines, (16 measures) in which the first and third lines frequently have the same melody. Then the verse would go into the chorus, without extra measures in between, and harmonies would be added, usually a tenor above the melody and perhaps a baritone part below the melody. Very often the last two lines of the chorus would have the same melody as the last two lines of the verse.
Another instrument would then play a verse break in the same fashion as the kick-off break, complete with extra measures, and the lead singer would now sing the second verse (all new words) and a second chorus (same old words) with harmonies.
Now a third break would be played by a third instrument and singing would continue as before, with the third and final verse and last chorus. The last line of the chorus is sometimes sung twice and one or more instruments would play a fill lick to end the song with all instruments ending on the 3rd beat of the last measure of the last line.
There are tons of exceptions to this structure and mental notes should be taken of the exceptions. For example:
Some songs play breaks over the chorus.
Lots of songs have the same melody for the verse and chorus.
Some songs have extra measures built into the melody.
Sometimes on slow songs, only the last line of a verse is played as a break, although that’s more common on recordings than in jams.
Another common option for slow songs is to split the break into two lines per instrument.
On some songs the chorus is sung first and then proceeds either to an instrumental break or the first vocal verse.
Sometimes an additional break is played which then leads into one extra chorus, usually to lengthen a short song.
The extra measures after the breaks can vary in length from zero to four.
Songs can have as few as two verses or as many as four or five.
Some songs have no choruses.
And so on….