Bluegrass Music

Why Define Bluegrass?

“There is a difference between rock and rock & roll; beware of inferior imitations (avoid contact with any musician who doesn’t know how to play Chuck Berry music).
– Cub Koda (The Book of Rock Lists)

Ask 100 bluegrass fans to define “bluegrass” and you will probably get 101 different answers. Some are reference book styled that are definitely written by someone who has never really been to a bluegrass festival (check out this computer female voice defining the music on YouTube: California fiddler Kat Bula goes on and on in her 13+ minute video to describe bluegrass (, of which I personally disagree with a lot of her statements. There are many other definitions out there on the internet, be it a blog, video, or excerpt from one of tons of books on music.

But why does bluegrass need a concrete definition?

Define a “house.” Four walls? Roof? Doors, windows? But if you gave a dozen people a pencil and paper, and told them to draw a house, there would be 12 different interpretations. So, it is the same for bluegrass.

What gets my goat is the fact that so many people attempt to make these concrete definitions, even in the most minute form, to state what bluegrass is:

  • It must have a banjo (and only Scruggs style)
  • It should not have an electric bass
  • No drums
  • No horns
  • Singing must be that high lonesome sound
  • (Insert your favorite bluegrass gripe here)

Yes, in 1945, Bill Monroe had “something” when he walked on stage with Lester, Earl, and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys. It would knock everyone who was listening on their butts. But he didn’t call it bluegrass at the time. It took more than a decade for the term to get established by people in the music biz so that they could market it as such. Once that happened, bands suddenly were or weren’t bluegrass, despite how audiences reacted previously.

Bluegrass isn’t baseball. It shouldn’t have a certain amount of players or use specific instruments to make it acceptable to go forward. Bluegrass, like really any musical format or genre, is based on the attitude and emotion it creates and how the listener reacts to it. Bluegrass can include guitar, banjo, mandolin and so forth, but there are plenty of instances where those “rules” are broken and the “feeling” of bluegrass is still there. How many times did Dr. Ralph Stanley sing a capella? How many times did you hear Doc Watson play solo or maybe with a second guitar? Some would argue that these instances are NOT bluegrass, but don’t these instances bring forth the same listener emotions and responses as the typical bluegrass band performance?

Bluegrass music, like any art form (be it music, painting, sculpture, architecture, or whatever) has styling, but should never be put into a concrete position. It should be allowed to continually grow and experiment. Bill Monroe tried accordion and xylophone into some of his recordings. The Osborne Brothers had drums and electric instruments throughout the 1970s. One of my favorite “bluegrass” bands of today, the Steep Canyon Rangers, has a percussionist. If it weren’t allowed to grow, the dobro would not be a part of it. Nor would lead breaks by guitars be acceptable. Pickups on instruments, even the use of separate microphones for each band member, would be prohibited. What about the songs? If the subject matter wasn’t dealing with a farm or coal mine or mama praying, it would be scrapped.

In short, the bluegrass society needs to stop putting the music into a box. It should be allowed to breathe, try different sounds, explore outside of the three chords. Who cares if there’s no banjo? As long as it still moves me the same way other bluegrass songs do, then it’s bluegrass. Try to refrain from using the words “must,” “should,” “never,” and “supposed to” when talking about bluegrass music.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

The Lost Art of Bluegrass Singing

So you go to see a local or regional bluegrass band. They seem to know their instruments really well and start off their set with a bouncy instrumental. Then one of the musicians steps up to the microphone and starts a vocal number. He/she is more out of tune than a piano that’s been sitting in a damp basement for 50 years and is attempting to sing in a key that is way out of range.

It is great that bluegrass musicians will practice their instruments intensively on their own outside of band practice. They know that people want to hear professionalism from the player. However, it seems that there is little care in giving the same amount of intensity to singing. Most think that if they sing in the shower or in the car along with the radio, that is enough practice. Think again.

Bluegrass has always been about the singing. Its roots come from the vocal choirs at the country churches, as well as performing on the back porch of a shack where the singer had to compete with a few stringed instruments. Bill Monroe knew that, and he worked hard to make sure that he or any of his other lead singers were in good form. Even today, if you pick out some of the top traditionally influenced bluegrass bands, the vocals are what makes them just as much as flashy banjo or fiddle solos (if not more so). Think about those voices that stand out, both past and present – Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Hazel Dickens, Del McCoury, John Cowan, Peter Rowan, John Duffey, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Russell Moore, Dudley Connell, James King, Danny Paisley, Alecia Nugent and Dan Tyminski to name a few.

Those above mentioned, as well as hundreds more well-known pop, country, blues and jazz vocalists (I won’t even get into opera singers here), consider their voices as a fine musical instrument. Thus, they treat it as such, with regular practice and care. When I performed in bands years ago, I never thought that I was a great singer I was good, and had a decent ear for harmonies, but not lead-singer quality. However, I saw (heard) other people in my bands that were usually worse at singing than me, and it was because there was no concern on vocal techniques. Because I did vocal practices on my own, I usually got stuck with lead singing whether I wanted to or not. In one of my last bluegrass projects, I tried to get everyone in the band to commit to every 3rd or 4th practice being dedicated to just our singing and harmonies, but that didn’t last long. One of the reasons that I have stopped playing in bands is that lack of commitment from others.

If you as a bluegrass performer want to be the best that you can, you have to practice regularly, and singing is just as much a part of that as guitar, bass, banjo or other instrument. You shouldn’t have people wince when you step up to the mic, but that can only be cured by work from you.

Record yourself and listen. Don’t sing along with an already final recording (which is easy to auto-tune your voice to) but to a track with no vocals, be it guitar only or a full band. Then seriously critique yourself, or have someone you can trust give an unbiased answer. If there are some flaws, then be honest with yourself and practice your vocals. Even if you have a great sound, it doesn’t mean that you can’t dedicate some weekly rehearsing just to your voice.

Unless you are planning on being a full-time performer in the near future, you really don’t have to spend the big money and get a vocal coach (but if you have the bucks, by all means). There are tons of books out there for strengthening your singing voice, including ones from the Dummies and Idiot’s Guides series. A decent book/CD/Audio Download series from Hal Leonard that should be easily found at either Guitar Center or Barnes & Noble is FastTrack – Lead Singer Method Books 1 & 2 by Blake Neely. One that I recently picked up for myself on the cheap ($6.95 through is How to Sing by Carrie and David Grant (Carlton Publishing). Of course, most of these books are geared toward pop-music singers, but the exercises and suggestions provided are extremely helpful to all genres of music.

If reading is not your thing, then there are also a number of videos out there that may be of interest. One that I find very good and is great for a starting point is The Ultimate Beginner Series: Vocal Basics by Mike Campbell (Alfred Publishing). This one is easy to follow, has simple exercises, and works with both male and female voices. It is also inexpensive compared to other videos. I have this on DVD, but I believe it is now only offered as a download (unless you can find one used somewhere). Alfred Publishing ( has a number of other videos in this series that are dedicated to rock and blues vocals as well. Another good website that lists helpful books and videos for singers is .

If you have worked on your vocals for a while, strengthened them up, are satisfied with how you have improved, then you may want to check out the video Vocal Techniques for Old-Time Mountain Music with Cary Fridley put out by Homespun Videos ( In many of today’s bluegrass bands, the high lonesome sound has been lost, with softer pop vocals becoming the norm Alison Krauss sort of began this. I am definitely not blaming her, as she established a unique voice on her own. Unfortunately, many singers went in this direction and considered it bluegrass. Cary has a true Appalachian voice and gives some great suggestions on how to sing more like that. If you are singing and playing an instrument at the same time (which is pretty much a gimme in bluegrass), Homespun puts out a few other videos geared toward this. One of particular note is Lead Singing and Rhythm Guitar with Peter Rowan.

The thing is, you could buy one or more of these videos, watch them once, and think that you have it! NO! These videos are like any other exercise video like aerobics or pilates. You need to continue to watch them and practice the techniques regularly. You need to quit treating bluegrass vocals as an afterthought – Bill Monroe would be offended. I hope this information helps, and I plan on talking more about vocals, especially harmonies, in future blogs.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 1

One of my biggest pet peeves regarding the bluegrass music scene is the disdain for the electric bass guitar in a typical ensemble. A good-sized chunk of the bluegrass pack, be they fans or musicians, feel that the electric bass has no place in bluegrass music, and the upright doghouse bass is the only choice. Some stalwarts even go as far as to claim that they would rather have a washtub bass in the group than an electric bass (check out some bluegrass chat groups online if you don’t believe me).

The reasons these critics put forth are numerous, but can be easily rebutted:

  1. There should be no electric instruments in a bluegrass band. Well, then the band shouldn’t be using microphones and speakers of an electric PA system. Additionally, many bluegrass musicians are using
    transducer pickups on their guitars, mandolins, banjos and fiddles.
  2. No good bluegrass band would use an electric bass. Did you know that one of the first recorded uses of an electric bass was with a bluegrass band? Reno & Smiley recorded in the 1950s with an electric Fender bass. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Osborne Brothers as well as Jimmy Martin used the electric bass. In the 1980s, two of the most influential bluegrass bands, Hot Rize and New Grass Revival, used an electric bass in their arsenal, as well as the Seldom Scene when Michael T Coleman was in the band (he also used an electric during his tenure with Doc Watson). Lately, bands such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Lonesome River Band, and Lou Reid & Carolina regularly have an electric bass.
  3. It doesn’t have the upright bass sound. Yes, and??? The main job of a good bluegrass bass player is to keep the rhythm and tempo (as long as the banjo player doesn’t get too crazy with the Scruggs rolls). He/she can do that with the simple 1-5 note progression and some walk-ups/downs to set a groove. Bass solos in a typical bluegrass band are a rarity, and mostly seem to be done as a courtesy to
    the musician (I am not referring to great acoustic bands such as The Punch Brothers and Hawktail that are occasionally lumped into the bluegrass fold). True, the upright has that woody, non-sustaining sound when the string is plucked. But Jaco Pastorius is not the intent here. With the correct playing technique and instrument set-up (I will cover that in an upcoming post), the electric bass will come close to the upright sound and to the job.

If you check the chat groups discussing the bluegrass bass and using an electric, most comments are coming from adults discussing the sound of the upright versus the compact carrying of an electric with a small amplifier. What is agreed upon by all is the cost of an upright bass. That is my biggest concern, particularly if we as a bluegrass community want to see this music continue with future generations.

Ten years ago, it was hard to find a playable acoustic instrument under $250 unless you lucked out with a garage sale find. Today there are plenty of quality beginner guitars, mandolins, and fiddles for under $100. A good starter banjo can be had for under $200, and the same goes for dobros. However, an upright bass cannot be had for under $500, and it will surely need a set-up that will cost about that much more. What is there in that situation that will convince a young bluegrass enthusiast (as well as his/her parents that are fronting the money) to consider pursuing the bass? Surfing eBay, one can find a decent electric bass with gig bag for about $80, and adding in a small amplifier and cord will cost another $50. These can all be found cheaper if you shop around. Replacing strings on an electric bass can be done for under $25 easily, and that is less than the price of one string for an upright.

Then there is the acoustic bass route. You know, those bass guitars that have a bass neck on an acoustic guitar body. These start at about $150, and vary in quality from horrid to great, but will still require a small amp if played with a group. However, jamming with one or two others should cut
through without amplification. Some brands like Martin charge almost as much as a good upright for their models. Tacoma used to make some great acoustic basses, as well as quality ones under the Olympia name, until it ceased operations around 2008. If you can find one of these used under $300 and it is not beaten up, get it. I still have mine and record my demos with it unplugged with a microphone at the soundhole for a great upright sound. Dean also makes a decent acoustic bass guitar (model EAB) that can be had for well under $300, even less if on sale at Guitar Center or if you can find a used one.

My point here is that the argument to not allow an electric bass into the bluegrass setting is foolish. Professional bluegrass bands can make the choice because of their status. Jam sessions and amateur bands copping such an attitude only discourages beginning musicians, especially of the young generation, and will make the bluegrass community look offish with the rest of the music scene. I plan to talk more about the bass in bluegrass in future posts, so stay tuned.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Uncategorized

Happy 2020! Introduction to Luegra

Hello and welcome to Luegra, the blog that hopes to take the B.S. out of Bluegrass. In all seriousness, I plan to use this blog to talk about music, particularly Bluegrass and Americana, and post my raves and gripes whenever they come to mind. There may be a few non-music rants along the way, usually related to my writing or other work that I do, but they should be few and far between. Hopefully, I can put up a post weekly, but no guarantees. Some posts may be complete, some may be in parts. You can agree or disagree with me, that’s part of the reason. I want to stir up intelligent talk amongst the readers. So check in when you can and let me know what you think.