From Sound to Style: The Emergence of Bluegrass
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
January 1969, Volume 3, Number 7
This article came about largely as a result of my efforts to clarify some points raised by L. Mayne Smith in his article “An Introduction to Bluegrass” (reprinted in BU Volume 1, Numbers 3-6; JEMF Reprint Series number 6). BU readers will find many of the details presented in the article familiar to them — the article was written for readers not acquainted with bluegrass and its leading personalities. I attempted to be as accurate as possible, but I was not an eyewitness to the events described and different sources sometimes gave different “facts”. I welcome any information readers may be able to offer on any of the points discussed. —Neil V. Rosenberg
In recent years, folklorists have noted the frequency of traditional song in phonograph recordings by Bluegrass bands. Bluegrass, with its close ties to traditional performance styles, is an important commercial genre for the student of folk music.1 In addition to the usual body of publicity and fan literature, good popular articles have appeared on Bluegrass musicians Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.2
L. Mayne Smith’s master’s thesis and subsequent articles in the Journal of American Folklore (“An Introduction to Bluegrass,” LXXVII, 245-256) described the musical characteristics and cultural context of the style.3 In such writings, a lack of agreement about the immediate origins of bluegrass is evident. The basic question raised concerns the relative importance of mandolinist Bill Monroe, who put together the famous “original” band (Lester Flatt, guitar; Earl Scruggs, banjo; Chubby Wise, fiddle; and Cedric Rainwater, bass) of 1945-1948, and the other members of his band, especially Scruggs. Did, as Smith suggests, Scruggs’s virtuoso innovations on the banjo provide the spark which made Monroe’s band so popular and widely imitated, or was Monroe’s leadership and tutelage a more significant factor? There are good arguments for both viewpoints, but the debate obscures the more important facts of the music’s popularity and imitation. The innovations of Monroe and his band are important culturally only because they were accepted. How and when did the acceptance of Monroe’s music take place? This paper seeks to describe and evaluate the emergence of bluegrass as a distinctive type of commercial Country music.
An understanding of the beginnings of bluegrass as a style necessitates a brief discussion of the Country music business in the period 1946-1949. During World War II the recording industry marked time, as the armed forces absorbed and isolated much of the potential market. An exception to this trend, experiencing tremendous growth throughout the war years, was the Country music or “hillbilly” field, that segment of the recording industry which catered to rural whites most notably in the South. Hillbilly music’s unusual growth was attributed to the great migration of consumers from the traditional Southern marketing area to urban factory centers throughout the nation, and to the popularity of Country music in the armed forces, where many never before exposed to the music found it to their liking.4 The popularity of hillbilly records during and after World War II placed increasing emphasis on the importance of record sales. In 1944, the entertainment business weekly, Billboard, began listing hillbilly “hits” in a separate section; during this period the country music industry adapted many of the operating methods and much of the jargon of Tin Pan Alley.5
Prewar hillbilly music professionals considered recordings secondary to personal appearances and live radio shows. Record companies, still suffering from the effects of the depression, could not afford to pay performers attractive sums for recording.6 For example, the Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie, twice refused recording contract offers from RCA Victor, thinking it not worth the time or bother.7 Generally a band was employed by a Southern radio station and might have a weekly series of live shows in addition to their appearance on the station’s Saturday night Jamboree. WSM Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the best known of these shows, by no means predominated in the prewar period. Typical entertainers at these radio shows were hillbilly bands and duet acts; the Tin Pan Alley-Hollywood emphasis on the single “star” was not pronounced during this period.
As hillbilly record sales grew, the role of the disc jockey increased, and emphasis shifted slowly from the live show by the local radio station’s staff musicians to the record “hits” as sung by the “stars.” The growth of the hit-star system in country music put pressure on local radio stations; there were not enough stars to go around, and the live daily shows and weekend jamborees lost listeners to the disc jockey shows. Only a few stations were able to overcome the trend, notably WSM of Nashville, whose Grand Ole Opry enjoyed the benefits of national network broadcast. Understanding the importance of the hit-star concept, the management of this station initiated a policy of hiring singers with hit records.8 Prior station policy was that of hiring enough personnel to afford a well-balanced show. Now more attention was paid to drawing power, and WSM’s James R. Denny organized a booking agency and set up tours for its stars.9 Nashville’s rise to dominance in country music and prominence in popular music took place in the period directly after World War II.10
Bill Monroe, with his band, the Blue Grass Boys, joined the staff of WSM Nashville in 1939. In the 1930’s he and his brother Charlie had been one of the most important groups in hillbilly music, and their recordings had, according to B. C. Malone, “tremendous impact upon modern country music.”11 In 1938 the brothers separated, each forming his own group. Bill and the Blue Grass Boys made some recordings in 1940 and 1941 and although Bill was a popular performer on the Grand Ole Opry, he did not have any hit records during his first years at WSM. Monroe did not record again until 1945, and not until 1946 and 1947 did “Kentucky Waltz” and “Footprints in the Snow,” the two hits which established his stardom, appear.12
Recorded on February 13, 1945, by a band which included an accordion, these songs featured Monroe’s solo voice.13 They had little of the complex instrumental interplay for which bluegrass is noted; they resembled most hits of the era. In the months prior to the market release of these songs, Monroe had hired the “original” band (Flatt, Scruggs, Wise, and Rainwater). For Monroe’s, as for most hillbilly groups, fluctuating pay, the strain of constant travel to show dates throughout the South, and personality clashes between band members caused a high turnover of musicians. Because of the time lag between the recording and marketing of a record, Monroe’s latest record release often featured musicians no longer with his band. This was the case with his first hits. Firmly established as a star, he made an increasing number of personal appearances, bringing with him the influential “original” band, with its new sound.
By the end of World War II, hillbilly bands reflected a multitude of influences. Fiddlers’ conventions, rural tent shows, river boats, home social dances, and churches had provided the ingredients for a wide range of instrumental and vocal styles. Feedback of popular styles— ragtime, vaudeville, urban blues, and jazz—into the rural Southern area added to the diversity of musical elements known to the hillbilly musicians by 1945. The new bluegrass sound of the “original” band shared much with the sound of earlier hillbilly bands. In the opinion of Monroe, who was constantly seeking more capable musicians, this band differed little from his earlier bands; but its differences were striking to contemporary musicians.14 All the instrumentalists in the band took solos at various times, while the rest of the band provided rhythmic and melodic background. The presence of three or four “lead” or solo instruments, coupled with the vocal combinations of Flatt, Monroe, and other band members, gave the group an uncommon versatility. Within this framework of soloist and band, Monroe’s virtuoso musicians performed a variety of songs: slow and medium tempo blues, fast breakdowns, religious pieces, medium to fast tempo love songs, and waltzes.15 Monroe sang duets with his guitarist, Lester Flatt, and Flatt’s name was listed on the labels of the band’s Columbia recordings. Scruggs, with his unique style, received as much publicity as did Flatt.
Following the success of “Kentucky Waltz” and “Footprints in the Snow,” Monroe was in constant demand. The Blue Grass Boys traveled extensively, and Monroe’s technique of presenting shows added to his popularity; he carried a large circus tent, which was set up in small towns and drew tremendous crowds. In addition, for several seasons, the band was joined by a baseball team, often consisting of professional players, which would take on local semi-pro teams. The opulent tent show-cum-baseball team was a prime attraction in the late forties, and through it the 1945-1948 (“original”) band became well known.16 Although this “original” band did not record Monroe’s first, biggest selling records, it did record twenty-eight songs (fourteen records) in 1946 and 1947.17 The last of these was released in September, 1949.18 During the period preceding the release of these recordings, the band performed many of the songs in personal appearances and on the Grand Ole Opry.19 This meant that the sound and repertory were heard by country music audiences for a period of over four years—first in well-attended personal appearances, then through records. This was the period in which the hit-star system had shifted emphasis in country music from bands to soloists. Because of Monroe’s hits and stardom as a member of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, he was able to popularize the unique sound of his band.
Early in 1948, Earl Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys and returned to his home in North Carolina. A month later, Lester Flatt left the band, going to his home in eastern Tennessee. The two visited frequently in the following months, and by spring, 1948, they had decided to form their own band. Their first job was with radio station WCYB in Bristol, Virginia.20 Also employed by WCYB at that time was another newly formed band, the Stanley Brothers. The Stanleys had previously recorded several songs for Rich-R-Tone, a small company in Johnson City, Tennessee; their band included, like Monroe’s, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass. The Stanley Brothers most recent recording at the time Flatt and Scruggs joined WCYB was “Little Maggie” (released April 17, 1948), an old banjo and fiddle song related to “Darling Corey.”21 On this recording Ralph Stanley played the banjo in a traditional two-finger style. Between the time “Little Maggie” was recorded and the next Stanley Brothers recording session, Ralph Stanley learned to play banjo in the smooth three-finger style used by Earl Scruggs. There is some confusion about the way in which Stanley learned the style. Some musicians assert that he learned directly from Scruggs during their joint tenure at WCYB.22 Ralph Stanley, however, insists that he learned directly from the playing of Snuffy Jenkins, the North Carolina banjoist who was responsible for much of Scruggs’ style.23
In September, 1948, the Stanleys’ recording of “Molly and Tenbrooks” (Laws H 27) appeared.24 This song came to the Stanleys through the singing of Bill Monroe.25 It did not, however, come from Monroe’s Columbia recording; Monroe’s song, although recorded in October, 1947, was not released until September, 1949. The Stanley Brothers learned the song from one of Monroe’s live performances.26 The Stanleys’ performance of “Molly and Tenbrooks” was unmistakably patterned after that of the “original” Monroe band. As in Monroe’s version, the banjo and fiddle, but not the mandolin, took instrumental solos. Because in both bands the mandolin usually took solos, the absence of one in the Stanleys’ “Molly and Tenbrooks” can be interpreted as copying of Monroe’s. Ralph Stanley’s banjo playing closely resembled that of Scruggs. Still another aspect of resemblance between the two performances lay in the fact that in both the song was sung by the mandolinist. In the case of Monroe, this was logical, since he was the leader of the group and sang either lead or tenor on all the songs in the band’s repertory. Although Pee Wee Lambert, the singer on the Stanleys’ “Molly and Tenbrooks,” was not the bandleader, he did sing tenor on a number of the songs in their repertory. Lambert was an enthusiastic Monroe fan, and performed several other solo vocals with the band in Monroe’s style.27
The Stanley Brothers’ “Molly and Tenbrooks” record is the first direct evidence that the “sound” of Monroe’s band was being imitated by other bands. Whether or not this was in fact the first example of copying is conjectural; other instances followed which fit the same description. This imitation, whenever it did occur, is important because it marks the transition from the sound of Monroe’s band to the style known as bluegrass.
By the beginning of 1949, Flatt and Scruggs’ first recordings, on Mercury, had been released; in April of that year, the Stanley Brothers switched from the obscure Rich-R-Tone to Columbia, the same company for which Monroe recorded.28 For the first time, three bands playing the style which would later be named bluegrass (a name presumably deriving from the title of Monroe’s band, although a careful study of the term’s precise etymology is needed) were heard on major labels, two, in fact, on the same label. In November, 1949, Bill Monroe signed a recording contract with Decca records; his main reason for leaving Columbia was “their inking of the Stanley Brothers, a combo which he felt sounded too much like his own work.”29 In this negative way Monroe acknowledged the fact that his sound had spawned a style.
It is significant that Monroe’s recognition was negative; bands such as Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers were economic threats. Imitation could not be seen as flattery when record sales were at stake, especially in an era when the hit-star concept placed increasing stress on special “sound” as a factor in big sales. Not until the early sixties did Monroe begin to accept the bluegrass fans’ idea that he had created a style, that the emulation he had deplored was a compliment.
The rivalry between professional musicians found throughout show business was present in bluegrass from its beginning. The Stanleys’ recording of a song from Monroe’s repertory before Monroe’s disc appeared started a pattern that has been repeated with variations by many bands since that time. Occasionally certain bands have refused to appear in the same show with another band, because of bad feelings about the “stealing” of material. But more than rivalry is involved, for the turnover in band personnel has led to constant recombination of musicians in a limited number of bands. With this exchange of personnel comes an exchange of repertory and musical techniques which constitutes a kind of oral tradition within the style. The enjoyment of and need for exchange with other musicians conflict with the need for original material for commercial success, creating an ambivalence which tempers relations among the various bands.
In another way, the earliest period of bluegrass history has been constantly repeated, as musicians decide, like Flatt and Scruggs, to start their own groups. As Smith noted, most of the major bluegrass bands have some members who have played with Monroe.30 This is likewise true of many lesser groups. A band is formed and plays shows in a small area, perhaps making records or performing on a radio station; after a few years without great economic success, most of them retire.31 The style, however, continues to be popular; record sales of the established bands are not phenomenal but are long and steady. For example, Monroe’s first Decca recording, released in 1950 (46222: “New Mule Skinner Blues”/”My Little Georgia Rose”), is still available; most “singles” are not kept in print for more than a few years. The fact that some bands have been able to reach the plateau of steady bookings and record sales has stimulated the neophite bands. The continuing existence of these groups, on the border line between professionalism and amateurism, accounts in part for the unique status of bluegrass in the larger commercial category of Country-Western (the present term covering all the outgrowths of hillbilly), especially in relation to the hit-star system.
As Wilgus and Smith have noted, there is a tendency for most of the successful bluegrass bands to diverge from the stylistic norms (as represented by the sound of Monroe’s bands) on their recordings.32 Record companies demand fresh, copyrightable material and the groups strive for the big hit which can insure economic success—even if it means using drums or a second guitar in the recording studio. But in personal appearances—the bread and butter for all the bands—the audiences, largely composed of fans and other musicians, demand the standard songs and instrumentation with which they are familiar, as well as the most popular current hits. The musicians in the borderline groups constantly cater to and strengthen audience familiarity by performing the most popular tunes of the successful groups.
Through the conservatism of audiences and the imitativeness of the neophyte bands, bluegrass has come to stand for tradition—the authentic, old-time, country way. We must, however, be cautious in assessing the meaning of the words “traditional” and “old-time” in this context. The Country-Western music of which bluegrass is a part bases much of its appeal upon an affirmation of old rural values such as fundamentalist religion, a strong family life, and the other “old-time” aspects of the non-industrial South. These positive values are contrasted with the negative results of urban living such as marital infidelity and alcoholism. “Old-time” and “traditional” are used in part to consciously reaffirm these fixed rural values, but they are at the same time same time used to describe a constantly changing commercialized form of music. Bluegrass musicians and audiences thus have an ambivalent notion of these words, especially when they are used to describe performance or repertory. When Bill Monroe praises his fiddle player by calling him a “good old-time bluegrass fiddler,” he is using “old-time” to describe an ability to play traditional tunes properly, to play the right notes the right way. But he is also praising an ability to add something special to the traditional tunes, the innovations of bluegrass style fiddling. Likewise, the whole question of the importance of Earl Scruggs revolves around the ratio of tradition to innovation in his banjo style. In repertory a similar ambivalence is present. A successful bluegrass performance of a standard song or folksong not only maintains a traditional text and tune of the song; it contains a stylistic innovation attractive to the audience. Thus the Osborne Brothers’ popular recording of “Ruby,” a song related to the group of lyric songs known variously as “900 Miles,” “Train 45,” and “Reuben,” was popular not only because of its familiarity but because of its novel two-banjo accompaniment and the singer’s high-pitched, drawn-out notes.33 The same group was the first to record Flatt and Scruggs’ arrangement of the often-collected dance tune “Cripple Creek” which has become a favorite in bluegrass repertoires. To the fast-paced instrumental they added a slow introduction sung in three part harmony, an innovation which contrasted with and emphasized the speed and brilliance of the instrumental section.34 This kind of arrangement is typical of the re-creation wrought by the bluegrass community on its repertory.
Thus, from the time it emerged as a style, bluegrass music has been a classic example of the effects commercialism and tradition have upon each other. Both musicians and audience are caught between the conservatism which gives the style unity and the innovation which makes it exciting. This tension is, in some ways, a modern version of the folk performer’s eternal struggle to wed tradition and creativity. Because the style has been defined by its creators and performers rather than its students, it is a good example of the ways of tradition in mass culture.
Just as the hit-star system was responsible for the emergence of bluegrass, so subsequent developments in popular music have affected the style. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the many relations of bluegrass to the rest of commercial music, but three main points of contact and change are worth noting.
Rock’n’roll had a profound effect on country music in the period 1954-1960.35 As their record sales dropped, country musicians responded by rejecting country repertory and instrumentation in favor of that of rock’n’roll. Bluegrass musicians were unwilling to adapt to the electrified beat and teenage orientation, and consequently many bands lost recording contracts with big record companies. During these years the music’s popularity and economic success were at an ebb.
In the late 1950’s the folksong revival discovered and accepted bluegrass as folk music, for three reasons: it did not use the electric instruments then identified with the mass culture “pop” of rock’n’roll and popular country-western music; bluegrass recordings included a large number of traditional or tradition-based songs; and its instrumental styles, especially that of Earl Scruggs on the five-string banjo, were seen as exciting innovations based on folk styles which appealed to the revivalists.36 From 1959 on, many bands played at folk festivals, colleges, and coffee houses to a new and enthusiastic audience. This affected the repertory of most bands and the style of a few bands; in general it stimulated the popularity and salability of the music.
By the early 1960’s, Country music had weathered the rock’n’roll boom and returned to the country sound and repertory.37 Because of this, bluegrass and country-western performances have converged in style and repertory. Instruments hitherto associated only with bluegrass— the banjo and the dobro—now appear frequently on country-western recordings. The country “stars” such as George Jones and Porter Wagoner have recorded songs identified with bluegrass,38 and bluegrass bands such as Flatt and Scruggs have recorded current country-western hits.39 The Grand Ole Opry, a good indicator of trends in country music, added bluegrass bands to its staff in 1964 and 1965, making a total of four on that show. It appears that bluegrass is becoming a more integrated part of contemporary country-western music.40
This article was written in 1965-66 and is based on research conducted between 1961 and 1966. It was read at the 1966 meeting of the American Folklore Society and appeared in the Journal of American Folklore LXXX:3l6 (April-June, 1967), pp. 143-150. Reprinted as number 11 in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF) Reprint Series, it will be included in the second edition of E. Linnell Gentry’s A History and Encyclopedia of Country, Western, and Gospel Music.
This article is reprinted from the Journal of American Folklore. Volume 80 (1967) with the permission of The American Folklore Society, Inc. Copyright © 1967 by The American Folklore Society Inc. All rights reserved
- The first mention of the word Bluegrass in a scholarly journal was in D. K. Wilgus’ review of “American Banjo Scruggs Style”(Folkways FA 2314), in Kentucky Folklore Record. 111(1957), 174. Subsequent folklore record reviews have discussed bluegrass as a special type of Country music; for example see: D.K. Wilgus, “From the Record Review Editor,” Journal of American Folklore. LXXV (1962), 87-88, 183, 281; Ed Kahn, “Folk Song Discography,” Western Folklore. XXII (1963). 150-151.
- Pete Welding, “Earl Scruggs—and the Sound of Bluegrass,” Sing Out I XII, 2 (March, 1962), 4-7; Ralph Rinzler, “Bill Monroe—The Daddy of Blue Grass Music,” Sing Out I XIII, 1 (January, 1963), 5-8.
- L. Mayne Smith, “Bluegrass Music and Musicians,” unpublished M.A. thesis (Indiana University 1964).
- Billy Charles Malone, “A History of Commerical Country Music in the United States, 1920- 196h,” unpublished Ph.D dissertation (University of Texas, 1964), 249; The Billboard Music Year Book. 7th annual edition (1945-1946), 489.
- Malone, 244-246. See Billboard. The World of Country Music (November 2, 1963) for several articles on recording executives; especially the comments of RCA Victor’s Sholes (59).
- Malone, 85.
- Rinzler, 7.
- Malone, 281-283.
- George D. Hay, A Story of the Grand Ole Opry (1953) 41. In November 1946 Denny became manager of WSM’s Artists Service Department; later he started his own booking agency.
- See Hay, 44, for a list of Opry star tours in the late 1940’s.
- Malone, 157.
- “Billboard Cavalcade of Juke Box Hits,” Billboard (January 22, 19^9), lists both “Kentucky Waltz” and “Footprints in the Snow” as “folk” (a then-current euphemism for hillbilly)hits in 1946, and “Footprints in the Snow” in the same category again for 19^7. These were Columbia records 20013 (and 36907) and 20080 (and 37151). They were reissued in 1961 on a Harmony long-playing record, HL 7290.
- Pete Kuykendall, “Bill Monroe,” Disc Collector. 13 (n.d.), 29-33.
- L. Mayne Smith, “First Bluegrass Festival Honors Bill Monroe,” Sing Out I XV, 6 (January, 1966), 69.
- Almost the entire recorded repertory of the band can be heard on three Harmony long- playing records, HL 7290, 7315, and 7338.
- Billboard (April 30, 1949), 36; Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Country Songs (New York, 1950), inside cover notes; interview with 0. “Shorty” Sheehan, Franklin, Indiana (August, 196I); interview with Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Chicago, Illinois (February 5, 1966).
- Pete Kuykendall, “Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys,” Disc Collector. 14 (n.d.), 37-38.
- Billboard (September 10, 1949), 32.
- I wish to thank Charles R. Crawford, Scott Hambly, and Pete Kuykendall for furnishing me tape recordings of Opry performances of the 1946-1948 period.
- Interview with William B. Keith, Bloomington, Indiana (June, 1965); Kuykendall, “Flatt and Scruggs,” 37.
- Pete Kuykendall, “The Stanley Brothers,” Disc Collector. 16 (ca. January, 1961), 22. The Stanley Brothers’ Rich-R-Tone recordings were reissued recently on Melodeon MLP 7322.
- Interview of Carter Stanley by Eric Jacobsen, Oberlin, Ohio (March 17, 1962); interview with William B. Keith, Bloomington, Indiana (June, 1965).
- Malone, 412; interview with Ralph Stanley, Bloomington, Indiana (February 19, 1966).
- Kuykendall, “Stanley Brothers,” 22.
- D.K. Wilgus, “Ten Broeck and Mollie: A Race and a Ballad,” Kentucky Folklore Record. II (1956), 77-89.
- Interview with Carter Stanley, Bloomington, Indiana (February 19, 1966)
- I am indebted to Norman Carlson and Bill C. Malone for clarifying to me the role of Pee Wee Lambert in the early Stanley Brothers band.
- Billboard (January 29, 1949); Kuykendall “Stanley Brothers,” 23.
- Billboard (November 12, 1949), 35.
- Smith, “An Introduction,” 253.
- Mike Seeger, notes to “Mountain Music Bluegrass Style” (Folkways FA 2318), 2.
- Smith, “An Introduction,” 246; D.K. Wilgus, “Current Hillbilly Recordings,” Journal of American Folklore. LXXVIII (1965), 285.
- “Ruby” was released in 1956 on MGM K 12308; later it was reissued on long-playing record MGM E 3734, “Country Pickin’ and Hillside Singing.”
- Some of the recordings of this arrangement are: Sonny Osborne, Gateway 3009 (1954); Stoney Mountain Boys, United Artists UAL 3049; Jimmy Martin, Decca DL 4016; and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Columbia CL 2134. Interview with Bobby Osborne, Berryville, Virginia, August 30, 1967.
- See Paul Ackerman’s “What Has Happened to Popular Music,” High Fidelity. VIII, 6 (June, 1958, 35-37, 107-108. Ackerman was music editor of Billboard at the time.)
- Two popular articles which reflect the particular interests of the folksong revivalists in bluegrass are: Roger Lass, “Bluegrass,” Caravan XII (August-September, 1958), 20-23; and Alan Lomax, “Bluegrass Background: Folk Music with Overdrive,” Esquire LII, 4 (October, 1959), 108 ff.
- Malone’s chapter on this period is quite useful.
- See George Jones and Melba Montgomery’s long-playing record “Bluegrass Hootenanny”(United Artists UAL 3352).
- See Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s long-playing record “Town and Country” (Columbia CL 2443).
- This paper was given in Boston at the November, 1966, meeting of the American Folklore Society. I wish to thank Archie Green, L. Mayne Smith, Dick Reuss, and Ann Rosenberg for reading and criticizing various aspects of the paper.