It is often said that Bluegrass music is more a way of playing the music rather than a genre in its own right. What can mostly be agreed is that its origins are in the state of Kentucky around the 1920s with the Father of the movement called Bill Monroe.
His band was called the Bluegrass Boys and the name stuck. They performed songs based on old folk tunes popular by fiddle players at the turn of the 19th century but in a new and exciting style that captured the attention of the listening public. It has remained popular ever since.
Famous Bluegrass Music Pieces
1. Kentucky Waltz by Bill Munroe
Selecting the most famous pieces from any genre is challenging as inevitably songs are overlooked or some included that many may think inappropriate. This song has been popular for decades and remains a consistent contender on the list of famous Bluegrass songs. It is charming and simply engaging as a wonderful example of the early Bluegrass style.
Munroe played and sung for over fifty successful years and was one of the best mandolin players on the Bluegrass scene. His musical influences were taken from the folk songs from the earliest American music and reflected in his choice of instrumentation. This often included him playing the mandolin with his band members on acoustic guitar, bass, fiddle, and banjo.
2. Bringing Mary Home by Joe Kingston & Chaw Monk
This song was recorded in 1966 by the renowned Bluegrass group called The Country Gentlemen (originally from Washington DC) and was the title track of the album of the same name. The origins of the song are slightly ghostly as they tell of a young girl called Mary who was supposed to have died in a crash in the early part of the 20th century.
It is a sad narrative song not untypical of many tracks from this genre. The Country Gentlemen bring the song effortlessly to life in their version that has now become an established track in the Bluegrass repertoire.
3. There’s a Time by the Dillards
This fine group of musicians are often felt to have been at the progressive forefront of Bluegrass music. They were probably the first Bluegrass band to move towards the electric sound rather than a purely acoustic one. There’s a time, has become a favourite song written and performed by the group.
It’s an emotive and reflective look at life and all the things it brings. There is a certain resignation in the tone of the song as each verse talks about stages of life and its finality. The hope comes through love in the line, “but there is love and love is warm.”
4. Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs
Unlike the other songs I have surveyed, Foggy Mountain Breakdown is an instrumental alone. The track was composed by Earl Scruggs in the late 1940s and quickly became a very popular single performed by him and his group The Foggy Mountain Boys.
The song is a testament to Scruggs progressive style of three-finger banjo playing that set the standard for many performers that followed. Scruggs himself began playing with Monroe and this song has a close link stylistically with the Munroe hit titled “Bluegrass Breakdown”. Interestingly, Foggy Mountain Breakdown was featured in the 1969 movie, Bonnie and Clyde where it was well placed to underscore the chase scenes.
5. Tramp on The Street by G L Cole
This song dates back as far as 1877 with the original version coming from the pen of a Dr Addison Crabtree. The tune was later adopted by Grady Cole who was a well-known gospel singer, who then gave the song a more Christian focus changing the anonymous tramp of the original for the biblical Lazarus.
Like so many songs from this genre, the narrative is a vital part of the song. This story is heart-breaking and tells of a night watchman who discovers an unfortunate tramp who has died of starvation.
6. Salty Dog Blues (Traditional)
As with many blues songs the precise origins are difficult to trace. This earthy song dates back to the early part of the 1900s, probably before but can be thought of as traditional in spite of the spurious claims of ownership from Zeke Morris. The title of the song is almost as curious as of its origins.
What is suggested is that it took its title from a soft drink but for me, the most likely option is that it came from the practice of rubbing salt into your pet dog’s coat to act as a repellent for fleas. The feel of the track is very much closer to the Blues, especially in its lyric content. There are numerous versions of Salty Dog Blues with a significant contribution from Bluegrass artists for it to be included here.
7. Midnight Train by the Delmore Brothers
This track has become a hugely popular one amongst the Bluegrass community. This recording dates back to 1947 and has an authentic and earnest feel to it. Similar to many of the other Bluegrass tracks, this has its heart in the folk-blues. It tells the story of a man who has lost the love of his girl who has not been true to him. He decides to ride the train again to leave the unhappiness behind and hopefully begin again.
8. Uncle Pen by Bill Munroe
For the final song in this brief survey, I return to the legend that is Bill Munroe. It is a Bluegrass classic as this performance clearly highlights. The lyrics tell of a strange man named Uncle Pen whose abilities with playing the fiddle were spellbinding.
“Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord, how it would ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing.”
There is the distinct impression that perhaps Uncle Pen is the Devil in disguise who makes people dance to his wicked tunes, but that is only speculation. The song is remarkably upbeat and enjoyable featuring, as you might expect, the wonderful strains of Uncle Pen’s fiddle.