By revitalizing pre-existing folk sounds through a new and ever-evolving approach, Bill Monroe, his peers and their sonic children pioneered one of the most crucial and enduring musical developments of the first half of the 20th century.
For snapshots of how bluegrass bands have always balanced tradition and innovation, consider these 12 hard-hitting recordings that span over 50 years.
This is not a ranking of the best bluegrass songs. This would require a much longer list of standards recorded by precursor artists. Instead, it’s a look at the creation and progression of a genre that continues to morph to fit the times without losing sight of its roots.
“Love Somebody (Soldier’s Joy)”, Joe and Odell Thompson
Ongoing and vital conversations about the role of black artists in the creation of country and other forms of popular American music extend to bluegrass, which still borrows generously from ground-level musicians in the recording industry.
“Blue Moon of Kentucky”, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys
Bill Monroe and a backing band named after his home state of Kentucky first popularized an avant-garde vision of early, folk, and string band music that, despite its traditionalist reputation , remains relevant and fresh more than 75 years later.
To give you an idea of Monroe’s impact on popular culture, his composition “Blue Moon of Kentucky” became Elvis Presley’s first B-side.
“Angel Band”, The Stanley Brothers
While Monroe certainly deserves credit for inventing bluegrass in 1945, he wasn’t the only one to forge a genre that would stand the test of time. Downstairs, you’ll find Carter and Ralph Stanley: Virginia-born siblings who set the standard for bluegrass guitar and banjo (alongside former Monroe bandmates Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs) and the blood harmonies at the heart of so much country music.
This selection highlights the historical overlap between bluegrass and gospel. And many will recognize him from the soundtrack to the 2000 film. O brother, where are you?
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
Early Bluegrass Innovators Flatt & Scruggs took Monroe’s creation to Hollywood with two iconic hits. First came “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the TV theme The Beverly Hillbillies which in 1962 exceeded BillboardThe Hot Country Songs chart from . In 1967, Scruggs’ famous five-string banjo performance on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (1950) gained a much stronger place in popular culture thanks to its inclusion on the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.
“Mountain Dew”, Grandpa Jones
While much can be written about Grandpa Jones’ talents as a musician, his greatest contribution came as an exaggerated personality on the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Ha: two platforms on which he represented the banjoist’s role as a comedian that predated country or bluegrass music.
“Feudin’ Banjos”, Don Reno and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith
Seventeen years before the movie Issuance made Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos” a quintessential bluegrass song, Don Reno (of Reno & Smiley) recorded it under its original title, “Feudin’ Banjos”, with its composer, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith .
Tennessee, Jimmy Martin
Early in his career, Jimmy Martin set the standard for “high and lonely” voices as lead singer of the Blue Grass Boys. Martin was later crowned King of Bluegrass as the crucial bandleader and definitive guitarist who would well represent the genre in the 1960s and beyond.
“Special orange blossom”, the Stoneman family
Early country music influencer Ernest “Pop” Stoneman contributed to bluegrass in the 1960s as the leader of one of its founding family bands. His children rank among the greatest of all time for their favorite instruments, namely fiddler Scotty, mandolin picker Donna and banjo player Roni. Indeed, the youthful exuberance of the Stoneman children made the group accessible not only to established bluegrass and country audiences, but also to the student-led folk revival.
“Will You Come Sing With Me”, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard
Although co-ed bluegrass bands date back at least to when Sally Ann Forrester played accordion for Monroe in the 1940s, women didn’t come to the fore (at least not on high-profile recordings) until the 1960s, when country innovator Rose Maddox and social-conscious duo Hazelnut & Alice innovated.
“Rocky Top”, The Osborne Brothers
Southeastern Conference (SEC) Soccer immortalized this co-writing by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant first recorded in 1967 by brothers Bobby and Sonny Osborne. Since 1972, it has been synonymous with University of Tennesseefrom the athletic department and the marching band.
“Sally Goodin”, JD Crowe and the New South
A new generation of elite bluegrass players shared a platform beginning in 1971 when JD Crowe, a banjoist and former member of Martin’s band, formed a band that at various times included Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas , Doyle Lawson, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.
Bluegrass’ progressive push into the future was also led by another group founded in 1971: the aptly named New Grass Revival.
“Tears Will Kiss the Morning Dew”, Alison Krauss and Union Station
Alison Krauss continually resets the bar for bluegrass excellence in an ongoing string of commercial and critical successes that she began in the 1980s as a teenager. She first joined Union Station in the studio for the 1989 album two highways.