Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BLUEGRASS

Country music genre representing the earliest trad. style, that of 'hillbilly' string bands, themselves originating in the Appalachian mountains of southeastern USA. (See entries for Riley Puckett and Charlie Poole.) Trad. songs with high-harmony vocals were backed by basic instrumentation of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, five- string banjo and often a dobro. (The National Musical Instrument Company's National guitar had three vibrating metal plates behind the strings for mechanical amplification; former violin-maker John Dopyera -- b 1893; d 3 Jan. '88 -- left National with two of his brothers and made a guitar with only one larger plate of spun aluminium, yielding a deeper and less tinny sound. 'Dobro' stood for Dopyera Brothers, but was also a Slavic word for 'good'; their slogan was 'Dobro means good in any language.') Bill Monroe and Blue Grass Boys (after home state of Kentucky) joined Grand Ole Opry '39, added banjo for rhythm '42; Earl Scruggs joined '45 with astonishing banjo technique and the almost extinct North Carolina style was reborn, modified by improvisation and inventiveness, instrumental virtuosity infl. by jazz. Monroe was infl. by black music and experimented until he had an intricate jazz-infl. mandolin style, becoming one of the best and fastest mandolin players of all time; others such as Frank Wakefield and John Duffey have moved even closer to jazz. Monroe's music began to be called bluegrass around '50, but was considered old-fashioned by then, representing a minority interest. Scruggs made a solo appearance at first Newport Folk Festival '59, the following year as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, with fellow Monroe alumnus on guitar; many bluegrass festivals since the mid-'60s have established popularity for the roots of country music. The Dillards moved from Missouri to LA, continued developing bluegrass; other West Coast bands (Country Gazette, Kentucky Colonels) attracted fans from '70s rock audience; film Deliverance gave a shot in the arm to bluegrass, yielding hit single 'Duelling Banjos' (no. 2 '73 USA), played in soundtrack by multi- instrumentalist Eric Weissberg on banjo, guitarist Steve Mandel. Contemporary movement called newgrass won young fans (jokes about good grass), e.g. Newgrass Revival, led by Sam Bush (fiddle, guitar, mandolin), with guitarist Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson on banjo, Ebo Walker on bass, all singing except Walker (LPs on Flying Fish, Paradise, Ridge Runner). Duffey has managed and played in Seldom Scene for 16 years (LPs on Rebel, Sugar Hill; they've appeared at the White House three times). Ricky Skaggs had bluegrass-infl. country hits; several new young acts such as Alison Krauss and Union Station, Tasha Harris, Rhonda Vincent and Tim O'Brien, and bands such as the Nashville Bluegrass Band have attracted new fans and brought the music into the '90s. Other long- established bluegrass acts incl. Osborne Bros, Stanley Bros, Country Gentlemen, Greenbriar Boys, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, Bill Clifton, Mac Wiseman, Don Reno and Red Smiley. Reno (b 21 Feb. '27, Buffalo SC; d 16 Oct. '84) and Wiseman were also Monroe alumni; see also Vassar Clements. 35 Years Of The Best In Bluegrass '97 was a four-CD compilation from Rebel records, incl. Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Skaggs, Clements, Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, John Hartford, many more.