A bluegrass primer by KAFM’s Vetabluegrass
BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND <BUG>>
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The Infamous Stringdusters perform 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 1, at the James D. Robb Colorado River State Park in Fruita. Tickets are available at City Market for a $2 handling fee per ticket.
Do you like bluegrass music and want to know more? How long has it been around? What makes it bluegrass? Is all bluegrass the same?
This is a primer to my favorite music. It wasn’t always my favorite. KAFM Radio 88.1 gave me the opportunity to play a bluegrass show over eight years ago. I knew only two musicians, Bela Fleck and John McEuen. But I listened closely, and took copious notes and listened some more and discovered that it’s not all alike. It’s very earthy and folky and country with its own style. Just like in classical music, Mozart isn’t the same as Mahler or Chopin.
Bluegrass was coined after Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, who made the style popular. They were from Kentucky, the Bluegrass state! That was around 1939. My friend, Fletcher Bright of Chattanooga, Tenn., told me that when he was a young man, “they were playing that music in Tennessee and just called it ‘hillbilly.’”
The instruments in a bluegrass band include guitar, mandolin, fiddle (violin) and upright bass. As time has gone by the banjo and the resophonic guitar (aka dobro) joined the band. In a typical band, all the instruments play together but not so in bluegrass. Each instrument takes a break or lead while the others just play in the background, then they all come back and play together. The vocals are usually sung in harmony and around a single microphone. In traditional bluegrass, the vocal sound is “the high lonesome” which is very nasal and high pitched. Many new listeners do not like this twangy sound. Most contemporary bluegrass does not have that sound.
Generally, bluegrass has a quick tempo though there are some lovely waltzes. Sometimes bluegrass is played at “warp” speed; those tunes are usually very short. A typical bluegrass song is 3 minutes long or less. This makes for good dance music. The lyrics are about everyday life — life, death, love and heartache.
The banjo was added in 1945 by Earl Scruggs when he joined Bill Monroe’s band. Earl played a three-finger style which gave the music a definitive sound. The resophonic guitar gave yet another dimension (country) to the music. Then drums were added in “new grass” music in the early 1970s. New grass included elements of rock ‘n roll with traditional bluegrass. New grass is the most popular style in western Colorado.
Bluegrass has progressed through the decades as musicians learn different methods of playing their instruments and yet keep the basics of bluegrass in their sound. From traditional to new grass to contemporary to progressive to bluegrass jamband, it’s all bluegrass.
To learn more about bluegrass, I recommend the documentary “Bluegrass: Country Soul,” available to rent on Netflix or purchase through Amazon. Filmed at a festival in 1970, it features traditional bluegrass and early new grass. Hint: Look for a young Sam Bush on the stage. Locally, there are numerous bluegrass “jams” open to the public. Check out http://www.gvbluegrass.com or http://www.gjbluegrass.com for local events.
Veta Gumber aka Vetabluegrass hosts a weekly show on KAFM 88.1, Bluegrass and Beyond, every Monday, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Tune in to hear old and new bluegrass, from traditional to progressive; from Doc Watson to The Boxcars to Hot Buttered Rum, and beyond! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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