In the early 1600s, Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants to the U.S. brought the music styles with them that form the roots of contemporary bluegrass music.
The first immigrants later moved on to Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North & South Carolina, and Kentucky where they were writing songs about everyday living circumstances in the new country.
Most of the immigrants were living in remote locations, so these songs were mostly dealing with country life in the hills, and that’s why this sort of music was labeled ‘country music’ or ‘mountain music’.
Technological developments like the invention of the radio and the phonograph at the beginning of the 20th century made that this music could now be enjoyed all across America.
The Monroe Brothers
In the period 1920-1938, one of the favorite acts was the Monroe Brothers. Bill was playing the mandolin, and Charlie played the guitar, but they broke up in 1938 to continue with their own bluegrass bands.
The brothers were natives of the Bluegrass State Kentucky and Bill formed a new band called ‘The Blue Grass Boys’ to play a sort of country music that was different from what other bands did.
Their music included special vocal harmonies, the sound was powerful, and it was influenced by both black and white gospel music. In 1945, a North Carolina banjo player named Earl Scruggs joined the band and his typical 3 finger picking style of banjo playing gave the band’s music its distinctive sound.
In the years 1950-1968, a band formed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs called the ‘Foggy Mountain Boys’ introduced bluegrass music further across America, and one of Scruggs’ famous instrumental compositions, ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’, appeared in the Bonnie & Clyde film soundtrack.
Earl went on to form a band with his three sons (the ‘Earl Scruggs Revue’), while Lester started a band called ‘The Nashville Grass’ which was very successful till Lester died in 1979. At the end of the 1950s, this type of music was more and more referred to as ‘Bluegrass Music’ as all across America bands started to play this sort of music.
The 1960s brought us the ‘bluegrass festivals’, big happenings that were showcasing bands on a big stage that until then were only used to play for relatively small audiences. One of the pioneers is definitely Carlton Haney (from Reidsville, NC) who organized the nation’s first 3-day bluegrass music festival in 1965 (Fincastle, VA).
All sorts of new media played their roles in helping get this music genre more and more out of obscurity and being accepted as a mainstream music direction. Today, people from all over the world enjoy bluegrass music, and the International Bluegrass Music Association has members in more than 40 countries.
The classic bluegrass music style that originated in 1945 is still performed widely, but modern-day bluegrass bands are also influenced by many other sources such as Southern gospel music, Celtic music, traditional jazz, new country music, and rock & roll, resulting in ‘newgrass’ music.
The Lewis Family
The first and foremost bluegrass gospel group is without any doubt the Lewis Family. They play a sort of music that is a blend of the classic string band and vocal harmony that we know as Southern Gospel. Ever since 1951, the Lewis Family has been entertaining at bluegrass music festivals and gospel venues, and their gospel harmony singing is accompanied by upright bass, guitar, autoharp, and banjo.
Roy ‘Pop’ Lewis, the patriarch of the family, was born in South Carolina in 1905 but moved as a kid to Georgia in 1910. In the year 1925, Roy married Pauline Holloway who was also brought up in a musical family, and together they raised their children in a music-dominated environment.
The children almost automatically learned how to sing and command several instruments, and it wasn’t long before the entire family started to perform as a band in public. The Lewis Family had their own weekly television show from 1954 to 1992, and the International Bluegrass Music Association honored them in 2006 with their own place in their Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky.