75th Anniversary of the “Birth of Bluegrass”

Bill Monroe's Gibson F-5 mandolin

Most musical authorities agree that Bluegrass music was effectively born on this day 75 years ago, when Kentuckian Bill Monroe premiered a re-vamped edition of his Bluegrass Boys band in a December 8, 1945 performance on the Grand Ole Opry, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The fresh lineup featured, in addition to Monroe on vocals and mandolin, of course, two pivotal new members: Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo. It was the latter’s innovative, lightning-fast 3-finger picking style that especially caused a sensation among the audience, being unlike anything they had heard before. (Flatt’s banjo-playing Bluegrass Boys predecessor, David “Stringbean” Akeman, played in the traditional clawhammer style that had been typical up until then.)

The addition of two more musicians in coming weeks, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts (aka Cedric Rainwater) on bass, completed the ensemble that went on to define the sound of what was soon recognized as a distinct sub-genre of country music. A direct descendant of earlier string band traditions, the hallmark features of bluegrass music include instrumental virtuosity highlighted in a rather democratic fashion (several if not all of the instrumentalists in the band are typically offered a turn to perform a brief solo during the course of a song), vocal harmonies that tend to highlight the upper end of the sonic register (a “high, lonesome sound,” as it has famously been called), and a typically fast, driving rhythm (slower numbers are the exception rather than the rule) that represents a fusion between the Scotch-Irish musical heritage of Appalachia and the blues influence of African Americans.

This edition of the Bluegrass Boys recorded a total of 28 songs together. Many were reinterpretations of older material: established folks standards such as Molly and Tenbrooks, gospel songs, and re-workings of several of Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings, in particular his Blue Yodel series of songs and his Muleskinner Blues. But there was original material that became much-covered standards of their own: Monroe’s most famous composition, Blue Moon of Kentucky, and instrumentals such as Bluegrass Breakdown, which were meant to highlight Scruggs’ banjo-playing virtuosity most especially.

The classic lineup was not very long-lived: by 1948, Flatt and Scruggs had broken with the infamously authoritarian Monroe to form their own highly successful and influential band. (Monroe refused to even speak to the pair for decades afterwards.) But undaunted by the dissolution of such fabulous success, Bill Monroe was really just getting started himself: his Bluegrass Boys band became a virtual nursery for bluegrass talent who would apprentice in the band and then launch out into successful careers of their own in the coming decades, including Mac Wiseman, Carter Stanley (co-founder of the Stanley Brothers), Sonny Osborne (co-founder of the Osborne Brothers), Del McCoury, and Vassar Clements, just to name a few standouts. “The Father of Bluegrass,” as Monroe was affectionately known, continued performing until just a few months before his death, at age 84, on September 9, 1996.