Answers to “what is Bluegrass questionnaire”
—published in Dec 2021–
Anne Werbitsky Dobro and steel guitar player from Big Tobacco & the Pickers, Toronto, ON Canada
I got hooked on the melodies and harmonies and the drive of the music. You want to learn all the songs so you can play with your friends,
Bluegrass is a high lonesome acoustic sound you get when you mx and match musicians with soulful singing, an upright bass, guitar, fiddle, banjo, dobro, mandolin…..
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special?” Bluegrass brings people together, ‘cause it’s all about ‘the jam’.
Rich Schaefer, A former WBFO bluegrass show DJ and a founding member of the Buffalo Bluegrass All Stars and Creek Bend
I was involved in the folk scene of which “bluegrass” was a component. Much of folk music can “put you to sleep”. I fell in with a bluegrass banjo player (Ted Lambert) and enjoyed the punch (drive) that bluegrass provided.
Instrumentally speaking, …banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, guitar, dobro…..many instrumental breaks. Although the addition of other instruments does not negate the “bluegrass” nature of the music. Vocals with lead singing and 2, 3 or 4 part harmony…..often stylistically specific to bluegrass/country. Although the occasional departure from the “style” does not negate the “bluegrass” nature of the music. In terms of themes of the music (ex. moonshine, mountain life, love, tragedy, murder, railroads, gospel). Although the addition of other themes does not negate the “bluegrass” nature of the music. In terms of music theory, a music built on major, minor and modal scales with a constant stream of 1/8 noter being prevalent….often in 4/4, 2/4 and 3/4although the addition of other scales or the departure from 1/8 notes or different time signatures does not negate the “bluegrass” nature of the music
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special? “Bluegrass is special because of the aforementioned instrumentation/vocals and the aforementioned punch (drive) of the music.
Keith Zehr Bluegrass festival and concert promoter and former WBFO Bluegrass Show DJ
I got hooked on bluegrass music through the fiddle. Whenever someone would shuffle the bow or make that dancing sound on the fiddle, I stopped what I was doing to listen. I bought my first record album by Flatt and Scruggs at the old Twin Fair department store when I saw the picture on the front with the band holding their instruments. I didn’t know it was called bluegrass, but soon learned and there were many more records to come!
Bluegrass music is generally played on acoustic stringed instruments with a hard rhythm and boundless energy, aiming straight for the heart. Harmony singing with extra energy to hit the high notes is often a trademark. If you have an uncontrollable urge to tap your foot or bop your head up and down, you may be listening to bluegrass music.
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special? “There is not a lot of money to be made playing bluegrass music, which means musicians that devote time to it are doing so because they love the music and the energy they get from it. Bluegrass musicians, no matter how well known, are generally very approachable and will hang around after a concert to talk to their fans. Fans are much the same as musicians, listening to it because they love it. This shared passion is very special as the music is quite eclectic and not always easy to find. You can’t really teach yourself to love bluegrass music. It generally comes straight from the heart. Bluegrass presents the most authentic of music experiences.
Ellen Carlson Bluegrass fiddler, band leader and veteran fiddle educator from New Hampshire.
Bluegrass is the music developed by Bill Monroe combining different styles from his musical history — including old time fiddle tunes, Irish/Celtic, country and blues
I went to the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival when I was 14 and never looked back. Loved the fact that I could jam with other people standing out in a field. Loved the music that was happening on stage — the harmonies, the instrumentation, the energy, the soul, the fun, the exceptional musicianship, the approachable “star” performers. Loved that people were so nice and welcoming.
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special? “ The community of people playing bluegrass. This music can be played by novices along with professionals but also allow every level the chance to find challenges and comfort. It’s a growing and developing genre — not stagnant — but deeply rooted in it’s tradition. It’s a music for all ages to participate together.
Richard Cataldi Fiddle and banjo player from the Rochester NY area. Member of the bluegrass band, Gone Fishin’.
Bluegrass music is an acoustic music played with guitars, a bass, banjo and mandolin at it’s core. A fiddle and resophonic guitar are also common. The songs are folk in nature and include two or three part harmonies. Song structure for bluegrass songs almost always include instrumental solos by various instruments.
In 1973 The Earl Scruggs Review was a warm-up act for an Arlo Guthrie concert while I was in college. (Clarkson College). After the concert I had the fortune of having Pizza with Earl and his sons along with my roommate at 1:30 am after the show. The next morning I bought a banjo.
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special?” Bluegrass music is a very open music, meaning that amateurs are encouraged to play and so many do. This creates a great camaraderie which is also supported by the professionals in the music.
Tyler Westcott Buffalo based banjoist and promoter, plays in Folkfaces, Banjo Juice Jazz Band, the Paper Roses and the Observers
To me bluegrass is souped up stringband music inflected with the blues, high & lonesome harmonies, with lots of improvised solos. It can be plodding and slow waltz or a blistering fast number. Often with dark and heartbreaking, great storytelling, and/or jubilant fast paced lyrics.
I first heard Bluegrass and bluegrass adjacent style groups at music festivals, also at party’s my family took me to. I got my first banjo at 16 and looked into it a bit. I crashed some bluegrass/oldtime jams that were way above my ability. So I kept listening and practicing. But jamming with people and knowing the same tunes made me love it.
“In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special?” I love that you can meet people from across the country or world and pick up and have a successful jam session and know the same songs and artists.
–published Jan 2022–
Tim Stafford Award winning songwriter and bluegrass performer, guitar player for Blue Highway and with Alison Krauss and Union Station in the past, author and bluegrass historian. From Tennessee now based in North Carolina but has performed throughout the world.
Bluegrass is a sound, a community, an attitude, a process of relationships, and a lifestyle.
As a freshman in high school, I saw some friends playing and learned about Doyle Lawson’s mother living below the school. When the Country Gentlemen bus parked there, I met them. Before then, an English teacher’s band performed at the school and I loved being in the middle of this SOUND.
It’s a niche music, informal and participatory so that people can interact directly with artists, and play themselves. It also requires a high degree of skill to play well and is becoming more diverse all the time, with participation by women, people of color and all viewpoints and lifestyles. It’s a soulful, powerful art form that has captured people around the world as well as top-tier artists like Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, and Alison Krauss.
Murphy Henry from Winchester VA. Banjo player, writer of the General Store articles in the national magazine, Bluegrass Unlimited and founder and CEO of the Murphy Method instructional materials for learning bluegrass instruments by ear.
In years past, I would have said the five-string banjo played in the Earl Scruggs style was the defining element of bluegrass music. (In fact, I said just that in my book Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass!) And bands that didn’t have a banjo played this way or didn’t have a banjo at all weren’t bluegrass. But now that bluegrass has expanded so much, I think the definition has broadened and there are some bands playing “bluegrass” without a banjo at all. The band Della Mae comes to mind. And while I know there will be exceptions to any definition, I still think bluegrass is played primarily on acoustic instruments: guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro (!), bass. And it features harmony singing–from 2 parts to 4 parts! But bluegrass is also all about the RHYTHM. The precision of the rhythm. Putting the beat in exactly the right place. Bluegrass has a particular rhythm–it doesn’t have to be fast–but I don’t know how to explain in words what that rhythm is! (Holy Cow, what a hard question!)
I came into bluegrass through singing. It was and is still all about the songs and the harmony singing for me. Not so much the instrumentals. And the songs that led me to bluegrass were those I sang in the Baptist Church and the folks songs I learned at various summer camps. I sang with my four sisters–we were always singing in the car and I would take my uke along to accompany us. Specifically, I found bluegrass because the folk singer Gamble Rogers, who was playing a folk club in Athens, Ga., where I was at the U of Ga, told the audience we should all go over to nearby Lavonia, Ga, the next day (Sunday) to the bluegrass festival there. He was going. So, I went. And not only heard my first live bluegrass (Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Lewis Family, the Country Gentlemen–what a lineup!) but I also met my future husband, Red Henry, who was a friend of Gamble’s. Shortly after that started playing bass with Betty Fisher and the Dixie Bluegrass Band, and shortly after that I bought a banjo. And, yes, I was hooked!!!
The harmony singing and being able to sing many of the same songs with other bluegrass lovers. Knowing the same body of songs. The connection with other musicians–professional and non-professional–or even fans who love this same music. And the fact that PLAYING bluegrass is accessible to almost anyone who wants to give it a good solid try. Three chords and a capo and a love for the music. While is some ways bluegrass is a very sophisticated music, in other ways it is welcoming to amateur musicians and novices at many levels.
Published Feb 2022
Fred Bartenstein broadcaster, musician, festival MC and talent director, composer and record producer. Fred teaches country and bluegrass music history at the University of Dayton and is the chair/president of the IBMA Foundation.
Bluegrass music is a souped-up stringband style that took the form of a genre in the 1940s, thanks to a score of Southern musicians. They put its pieces together from earlier banjo tunes, fiddle tunes, ballads, the blues, jazz, old-time stringbands, Victorian parlor music/Tin Pan Alley, black and white gospel music, brother duets, and commercially popular country music. Since then, thousands of bands and millions of people have come to enjoy the form and its roots and branches—from which the genre continues to evolve as a living art form.
I heard it on the radio while living with relatives in Virginia in the mid-1950s, before the term “bluegrass” came into widespread use. I fell in love with what was then called “mountain music,” continued to follow it, and eventually—as a young teenager—began to play it. Eventually my involvement expanded to radio broadcasting, emceeing and talent direction at early festivals and concerts, journalism and scholarship.
Two things stand out to me. 1) The amazing musicianship with which virtuoso instrumentalists and vocalists blend their efforts to create a rhythmic and emotionally compelling sound. 2) Bluegrass uniquely carries into the present earlier song material and performance techniques that would otherwise have been forgotten. I compare it to prehistoric insects in amber jewelry or the changing shades of a chameleon. It began with the ten original influences but the process continues, incorporating sounds from rockabilly, folk music, modern commercial country music, pop, rock, hip-hop . . . and beyond.
Ira Gitlin instrumentalist, music teacher, and writer from the Washington DC area and a National Bluegrass Banjo Championship. Bluegrass Week co-coordinator Augusta Heritage Center
Bluegrass is a genre of American country music that initially developed in the 1940s, using acoustic stringed instruments.
I got “hooked on it” after seeing the movie Deliverance, with the famous “Dueling Banjos” scene. In retrospect, that scene illustrates the vast chasm between urban, middle-class people and the culture that gave rise to the music, but also shows music’s potential to bridge that chasm. Plus, I really liked the sound of the banjo.
In my opinion, there are a couple of special things about bluegrass. Musically, the variegated instrumental and vocal textures are especially appealing to me. Culturally, it’s an expression of the “agrarian myth”–the idealization of rural life–and a sort of impressionistic portrait of a segment of America in the mid-20th century.
Aldo D’Orrico Bluegrass guitar player and songwriter from Cosenza, Italy. Plays in the Muleskinner Boys and the Flying D’Oricco’s
in a few sentences or less, What is Bluegrass music?
Bluegrass was born in a land far away from me, but I felt it so close since the first time. Irish and Scottish music mixed with jazz and blues, it’s a young musical genre claiming to be old that changed my life as a musician.
How did you get hooked on Bluegrass?
I was studying some country guitar licks with my telecaster when I accidentally heard about Tony Rice. Then I saw the light.
In your opinion what makes bluegrass music special?
The sound. There’s tons of great songs, stories and musical ideas in bluegrass, but the sound is something that astonishes me every time. That crispy natural woody sound seems to be there from forever.
Mary Burdette Assistant Dir., Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Bluegrass Week co-coordinator Augusta Heritage Center and Bass player originlly from Hammondsport NY and the Washinton DC area but now living on the west coast.
Bluegrass Music is an American art form attributed to the great Kentucky mandolin player and bandleader, Bill Monroe. In 1946 he coined the name for his band, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Instrumentation in bluegrass bands can include acoustic fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, and upright bass, though the genre has evolved quite a bit since the late 40s. Vocally, bluegrass songs often tell stories of rural life, loss, and heartache with tight harmony vocals including duets, trios, and quartets. While the music may sound happy, the lyrics can tell a very different story. Bluegrass has grown into a popular genre that has spawned many bluegrass music festivals in the US and around the world.
I went to the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, NY and was completely bitten by the bluegrass bug. At some point after that, I learned how to play bass, and have never “looked back.”
Bluegrass music is a “social music” that builds a sense of community. You can go to a festival, meet people for the first time, and jam into the wee hours with them. Also, most top bluegrass artists are very accessible to their fans. It’s like a big family. And great bluegrass music is right up there with the best jazz, rock’n’roll, and classical music anywhere.
Nate Grower Fiddle player originally from WNY, now a member of the David Bromberg Band and the current Delaware State Fiddle Champion.
To me Bluegrass is music rooted in traditions of Appalachia. String bands that fit like a puzzle to emphasize a keen sense of rhythmic push. For me, it’s exciting music!
Discovering improvisation while learning fiddle tunes and going to concerts like Rhonda Vincent and Nickel Creek got me hooked on Bluegrass.
I think bluegrass music is special because of how well it melds with community. I’m always called back to wanting to experience bluegrass the way I did as a kid in a jam. You don’t have to look far to experience bluegrass in this way at every level of musicianship.
Edward Travis Croft Acclaimed jazz and roots bass player formerly of the bands, Town Pants and the Jacob’s Ferry Straggler. Four times named Best Acoustic Bass Player in Buffalo and a walking encyclopedia of early country music.
Bluegrass music is the interpretation of both the canonical American folk tradition and other song forms as divergent as classical and top 40 pop, with an emphasis placed on “Scruggs” style banjo playing and closely stacked harmonies. The rest of the ensemble can take on many forms, but to my ear, this approach to the 5 string banjo is crucial to delineating Bluegrass music from Old-Time, which prominently features clawhammer banjo. Ralph Stanley would often feature a clawhammer cut on his albums to show his roots. Another delineating characteristic of Bluegrass from Old-Time is an emphasis on individual improvisation as opposed to slight variations on a melodic motive, usually repeated ad nauseum by a large group.
I was first exposed to Bluegrass through albums my dad had featuring Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. My mom listened to a Bluegrass show on one of the local college radio stations. I became more immersed in the style by tracing the roots of some of my honk tonk heroes like Hank Williams and Roy Acuff.
Bluegrass music has created a niche following for itself through many small independent festivals that are family friendly and usually take place at beautiful scenic destinations. Musically it showcases instrumental and vocal virtuosity in the context of an accessible and emotionally driven music form that appeals to musicians and non-musicians alike.
Diane Johnson a musician/fan who grew up in Western New York with close ties to the country scene through her dad, country radio DJ on WHLD, Bob Williams. Diane plays with several bands and regularly attends the many bluegrass jams in Western New York and along the east coast.
Bluegrass music, for me, is a lifesaver. At a time in southwest Florida, when I did not know anyone and suffering from homesickness, a group of bluegrassers took me under their wing and invited me to join their circle. Alas a common bond with complete strangers that got me through the toughest of times.
How did I get hooked on bluegrass…
Learning how to jam in Southern Fl, bluegrass was in abundant supply.
I liked country but bluegrass was not something I sought until a group of jammers dragged me to a jam 5days a week… the laughter and the inclusive nature of the circle was exactly what this shy one needed to find my music.
What makes bluegrass special?
I am particularly into the percussive nature of the chop in bluegrass without having to play over a set of drums. The Celtic, old time, mountain music mix is unique and allows for a wide range of styles and choices but still remain bluegrass.