On the Rise of Bluegrass in Popular Music

Who wouldn't want to pick up that banjo right now and play away?
Who wouldn't want to pick up that banjo right now and play away?
Digital Storm / Shutterstock.com

"'Bluegrass is going to be big this year' is what I heard when I started playing around 1964, and every year after that for 20 years!" John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recalls. And while "big" remains a relative term, he notes there has been an upward trend. "Every year since, it has expanded, grown, and increased audience a few percentage points."

One of the earliest threads of Americana and one rooted in more rustic realms, bluegrass has in fact seen a consistent surge in popularity, thanks to artists who have taken the music's traditional trappings and moved them toward the mainstream. It's clearly not your father's bluegrass anymore.

McEuen should know. He witnessed that rise first hand during his tenure with the Dirt Band. Some might consider him a purist, not because he eschews modern methods -- far from it -- but rather because as a loyal bluegrass devotee, he helped spur its spread early on. "If one were to graph Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin from their inception, a continual climb up would be seen, albeit not one so rapid," he explains. "But it has never gone away to 'resurge, as many contend. It has instead seen a long and steady growth."

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That trend began when bands like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, along with the later-day Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Grass Revival, and the Grateful Dead, began taking their cues from bluegrass innovators like the Dillards, David Grisman, John Hartford, the Kentucky Colonels, and Del McCoury. They then introduced that music to adventurous audiences. This "newgrass" crossover drew on those anything-goes artists' irreverent attitude and their edgier material that appealed to a contemporary crowd.

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While bluegrass is still replete with banjos, fiddles, guitars, and mandolins, those elements have expanded into other areas as well, merging and mutating as newgrass, jam, or just plain rock 'n' roll. Whatever it's called, the breakdown in boundaries is attracting attention. What's more, that overarching appeal has been nourished by a host of instrumental insurgents -- Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Steep Canyon Rangers, the Deadly Gentlemen, String Cheese Incident, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Greensky Bluegrass, the Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth and the Infamous Stringdusters -- all of whom owe a debt to the newgrass mentality.

"Many musicians of my generation were exposed to bluegrass through Old and in the Way and the music of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman initially," said Phil Barker, a member of the up-and-coming bluegrass band Town Mountain. "Through Grisman, I found the Del McCoury Band and then first generation guys like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin and others. Leftover Salmon definitely exposed bluegrass elements to a lot of folks in the jam band crowd, myself included. Now when folks see a band with a banjo, they're not as likely to pigeonhole it."

"Bluegrass is a respectable word now," observed Sam Bush, formerly a member of New Grass Revival, a band consistently credited with bridging the stylistic divide between traditional and progressive bluegrass. "Forty years ago, you could tell people you played bluegrass and they didn't really know what you were talking about. It was always interesting to me that when we played to a rock audience, they'd take one look at us and they would call us a bluegrass band. And at the same time, if we played a bluegrass festival, the bluegrass audience would think we were a rock band. In that way, we were kind of a good group to introduce this audience to this music they hadn't heard before."

Today's music lovers are tapping a tradition once nourished by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and scores of other artists who brought bluegrass its initial popularity in the 1940s and '50s. An offshoot of the folk music brought to Appalachia by early immigrants from the British Isles in the late 18th century, what became bluegrass began with traditional tunes that could be plucked, picked and played on banjo, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. By incorporating shared vocals and multi-part harmonies, it evolved into a uniquely American musical form, although it was often dismissed as "hillbilly music."

"This music was never just 'backwoods music' to me," David Grisman maintained. "Traditional bluegrass music is a perfectly crafted idiom, deeply rooted in several cultures. It is also a truly American art form, like jazz and rock 'n' roll, reflecting many aspects of our cultural heritage."


Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon pointed out that bluegrass started as a radio-friendly, commercial form of old time mountain music. "Bill Monroe wanted something snappier and more focused than the music he grew up with to use on radio performances. Once he made it to the Opry, that music was broadcast to most of the population of the eastern U.S. Though it certainly was something rural folks could identify with, it was in ears all around the country."

Sixty years later, Herman's assertion finds broader meaning. The jam band world and its populist perspective have helped bring a new generation of free-spirited music aficionados into the fold, fans who have found the fast-paced picking and upbeat rhythms in tune with their rowdy, devil-may-care sensibilities. The popularity of best-selling soundtracks for relatively recent films like Cold Mountain and especially O Brother, Where Art Thou? also helped bring this music to the masses. Furthermore, the rising popularity of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Strawberry Music Festival, MerleFest, Bonnaroo, RockyGrass, and the Mountain Song at Sea cruise have attracted scores of newgrass musicians and their dedicated fans.

Astute observers credit the commercial success of bands like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers -- outfits that purvey bluegrass' communal quality, replete with banjos, traded vocals, and a distinct down-home sensibility -- with helping to further ignite the bluegrass flame. "If people want to call them bluegrass, that's great," Bush agreed. "They have a large audience, and it can only help the rest of us."

Bands like Mumford & Sons, although not traditional bluegrass bands, use bluegrass instruments and have helped spread the popularity of the genre. "They sell hundreds of thousands of records and have won Grammys going up against pop artists," Charles Humphrey of Steep Canyon Rangers said. "By using banjos and acoustic instruments in their music, they broaden the appeal of bluegrass."

"Traditional bluegrass is appealing because it's organic," Humphrey added. "You can grab an instrument and play without the necessity of amps and electricity. Some people love the hot picking and some love the harmony singing. If you know the traditional songs, you can jump in a jam with people you've never met and play together instantly. Bluegrass is its own language."

The musical conversation between the players and the fans impacts bluegrass as well. Yonder Mountain String Band makes its music with fans in mind, ensuring the crowd's interest and involvement in the process. Yonder Mountain bassist Adam Aijala agrees, saying. "Their contribution is essential to what we do. You feel it, and it makes you go bigger and bigger, and makes you want to be better and better."

Indeed, with today's bluegrass, everything seems possible. And just as certainly, there's an audience eager to embrace it.

Rhonda Vincent, the Boxcars, the Roys, Newtown, Uproot Hootenanny, Banyan Bluegrass, and Drymill Road perform 2 to 9 p.m. on Friday, March 20, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 22, at Bluegrass Spring Music Jam, taking place at Yesteryear Village at the South Florida Fairgrounds, 9067 Southern Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $15 per day, kids 12 and under are free, and $36 admission for all three days. Visit facebook.com/BluegrassSpringJamYYV.

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