Suppose you decide to play a recording from Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, or the Stanley Brothers or Flatt and Scruggs. You’re about to listen to some Bluegrass music, right? After all, these are the bands that form the pillars of the genre we now call Bluegrass music. But I’m not sure this hypothetical question is all that simple. I submit to you that much of the time you play that tune from the founders, you will really be listening to what I would call Old Country. The classic “Bluegrass” tune you just selected might not have any three fingered banjo rolls. It may not even have banjo at all and yet most people listening today would call it Bluegrass just because of the artists who are being featured.
The originators of Bluegrass did not set out to create a brand new form of music, even though that’s what they eventually did. These bands were just trying to make a living back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. You can bet they listened to everything that was popular on the Grand Ole Opry or anywhere else, and they wanted to cash in any way they could.
The result for a lot of aspiring Bluegrass musicians of the day (even though they didn’t yet know that they were Bluegrass musicians) was a flood of tunes more in the style of a Patsy Cline or a Hank Williams. And if Elvis Presley changed the timing on Bill Monroe’s waltz, Blue Moon of Kentucky and sold a lot of records? Well that’s what you did too.
Old Country sounded great back then and it still sounds great now. Go to any modern Bluegrass festival and you’ll hear as much Old Country as you’ll hear straight ahead “hard core” Bluegrass, especially around the camp side jam sessions. For one thing, it’s hard to find good three finger banjo pickers. And for another, people still really love that traditional Old Country sound. Many lament how modern Country music has lost its soul in some respects by catering to the marketplace with amplified instruments and influences from Rock and Roll. Bluegrass by contrast, has held onto the traditional acoustic instruments including the fiddle, which like the steel guitar seems to be disappearing from Nashville.
In retrospect, Bluegrass music may have started when Bill’s new band, featuring Earl Scruggs on banjo, started playing a new dynamic version of the music. But it wasn’t codified as a new style until 1948, when the Stanley Brothers completely altered their musical style from a Wade Mainer style to a Bill Monroe style. For almost twenty years, the founders of Bluegrass didn’t know that what they were playing would one day be called Bluegrass. That happened in the mid 60’s, when Carlton Haney and Ralph Rinzler, both former managers of Monroe, staged an outdoor festival in Fincastle, Virginia showcasing the distinct style of music that Bill Monroe’s band was evolving.
Look at the list of inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bill Monroe is there (1970). Flatt and Scruggs are there (1985). Incredibly, the Stanley Brothers are not there. Granted, they had a very distinct individual style, often a mountain music style. But they composed and performed a ton of great Old Country music.
Lester Flatt’s famous “G run” is familiar to every Bluegrass fan. And fans of Old Country will recognize what I call the Country bass run which consists of the notes (in the key of G, all quarter notes): D,E,F#,G. If you haven’t heard that run a thousand times you haven’t listened to very much Old Country. And if you’re playing bass on an old Stanley Brothers song like God Gave You To Me, Little Glass of Wine, The Old Home, The Fields Have Turned Brown or the Lonesome River, you will have a tough time not playing the Country bass run.
What about some of the respected Bluegrass bands that followed the founders? Did the Osborne Brothers play Bluegrass or Old Country? How about Jimmy Martin? J.D Crowe? These bands are all steeped in the country music of their day and many of their greatest songs reflect that.
Good music has many voices. If a folk singer sings an Old Country or Bluegrass song well, I’ll probably like it just as much as when a Bluegrass band adapts a pop tune to their own style. Bluegrass as a genre is really an amalgam of many musical influences, from the Old Time fiddle playing of Bill’s Uncle Pen to the Blues guitar playing Bill heard from Arnold Shultz to the Gospel songs of the 1920s. Bluegrass has never been one thing and it still isn’t.
But for my money, one of the very best things that Bluegrass is… is Old Country.