Bluegrass music is often thought of as old, but in actuality it is not. Bluegrass as a musical form was created in the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his seminal band. Being from Kentucky, the bluegrass state, Bill called the band “Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys,” and the popularity of this new music soon took the name of the band and came to be known as “bluegrass music.”
True, its roots are old, stretching back to Appalachian mountain music, Celtic fiddling, Delta and Piedmont blues, and more. However, the particular combination put together by Bill Monroe with his own added genius was new and is what, ever since, has been called bluegrass music.
This new musical genre established by Bill Monroe was quickly adopted and pushed forward by a number of other early pioneers. These included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who started in Monroe’s band but soon left to form their own group called Flatt and Scruggs. It also included the Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter, and a few others. These early pioneers were essential to the development of bluegrass music and are greatly revered today. Sadly, however, with the passage of Ralph Stanley in June of this year, we lost the last of the top-tier early pioneers. Some of the prominent practitioners of the next tier are still with us, but, inevitably, we are losing them to the passage of time as well.
As with so many things in life, the guard is changing. We can count ourselves lucky that those who went before us left a lasting legacy of recorded music that we and future generations can enjoy. Through their recordings the pioneers still touch those who follow, right up to the present. The hottest most avant-garde current bands all tip their hats to the pioneers. A careful listener can hear the influence of the pioneers in this modern bluegrass music. Listen to a Punch Brothers concert and, if you get a chance, ask Chris Thile about Bill Monroe’s influence on his music. Ditto the Infamous Stringdusters, Della Mae, the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and so many others. Ask Jerry Douglass about his Earls of Leicester band and he will explain how it is a tribute band to pioneers Flatt and Scruggs.
The influence of the pioneers permeates bluegrass, even to groups like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and Railroad Earth. All the musicians in those bands, trust me, have studied Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. That’s a good thing. As the pioneers did in their day, these modern bands learn from their predecessors, stir in their own perspectives and help the music evolve.
This changing of the guard is happening locally here in San Diego as well. Some of the prominent local early bluegrass bands have gone by the wayside, including Pacifically Bluegrass, San Diego Grass and Eclectic, Down the Road, Brush Arbor, Highway 52, and most recently Lighthouse, to name a few. Some of the players from these seminal groups are still active, but their group’s time in the spotlight seems to have passed. Fortunately, many of these great local groups left us recordings to remember them by, which are a treasured part of our local history.
Individual players who achieved prominence in the local scene in prior decades, in many cases, have also given way to the next generation. Many of these prominent musicians from the past have moved on to Nashville and other higher-profile venues and have achieved some degree of national prominence. These locals who grew to greatness, resulting in departing San Diego include Stuart Duncan, Sara and Sean Watkins, Chris Thile, John Moore, and others. The good news is there is a whole new generation of committed players on the up and come to take their places.
This kind of changing of the guard, whether at the national or local level, is inevitable. But, it is also a good and healthy thing. It keeps our music vigorous and alive, bringing new voices and new approaches. The thread tying it all together, however, is the invisible hand of the pioneers. What Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley brothers gave birth to continues to define the essence of modern bluegrass music, and continues to encourage what they started: respect for virtuosity on the instruments, high lonesome singing, and the other essentials that distinguish bluegrass music. For that, we can all be grateful.