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What is Kentucky Bluegrass?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 23, 2024
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Kentucky bluegrass is a particular type of music, most often compared with folk music, with origins in the southern US. Kentucky bluegrass is generally played on banjos, guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. Kentucky bluegrass music commonly incorporates improvisational solos by each of the instruments.

Other instruments frequently used by Kentucky bluegrass bands include drums, electric guitars, the harmonica, the mouth harp, and the piano. In addition to the instruments, Kentucky bluegrass music often contains traditional lyrics, often with a sentimental or spiritual theme. The lyrics are often sung in harmony, with two, three, or four parts. The tone is often described as a high pitch with a nasal timbre.

Kentucky bluegrass has its roots in English, Irish, and Scottish music, along with some African American influences. The original bluegrass moniker came from a band known as the Bluegrass Boys, which featured a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and upright bass. Important players in the development of bluegrass music include Bill Monroe, Lester Flatts, and Earl Scruggs.

Kentucky bluegrass was born in the mid 1940s. Monroe was a Kentucky native and a mandolin and guitar player. His band, The Blue Grass Boys, formed in 1938 and was popular for several hit songs, including “Kentucky Waltz,” “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” and “New Muleskinner Blues.” The band’s style combined blues, gospel, and folk music.

Another of Monroe’s songs, “The Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was adopted by the state of Kentucky as its official bluegrass song. Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, the next year into the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame, and eventually into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those following the Blue Grass Boys included the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, Reno and Smiley, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, and Jim and Jesse. More recent musicians in the Kentucky bluegrass genre include Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton, and Allison Krauss.

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