The pride and joy of Kentucky… That no one knows about

Josh Preston

There is a unique sound to the state. It is embedded in the hills, the valleys and the history of the commonwealth.

Bluegrass music: what do you think of it?

Unfortunately, this dying genre of music is all too often cast into a stereotype of “hillbilly” music. Now-a-days, it is almost outrageous the notion of someone our age listening to, and enjoying, bluegrass music. It is too “old-time,” it is too “country”… Yet there is so much more to this genre than meets the ear.

Bluegrass music was popularized by Kentucky’s own Bill Monroe (“The Father of Bluegrass”). In the early 1950s, Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys began to play this “new” style of music on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and soon after, the genre attracted a diverse following throughout the country.

Though Monroe first broke this style of music out of its long-time shell of isolation in Appalachia, the style can trace its roots back to the Civil War and beyond. The style was a conglomerate of several influences brought forth by early settlers of the upper south and the Ohio valley. Still today, bluegrass music has a very Irish-sound, though it is also incorporated with a southern-gospel and Negro spiritual sound; Monroe characterized it as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.”

Soon after its propagation into the Opry music scene of the 1950s, artists such as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers and Jessamine County’s very own J.D. Crowe began to break off and mix in their own sound. Today, contemporary bluegrass artists such as Allison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs still produce music and carry on the age-old tradition.

Though you may think of just a “dumb hillbilly” pickin’ away at this style, there proves to be a lot more depth and complexity to the style. The main instruments -banjo, guitar, flat-steel guitar, upright bass, mandolin, fiddle – are all extremely challenging instruments to master. The upbeat and quick timing, characteristic to the genre, can exemplify the extreme talent one must possess to play this type of music.

So why not give it a try? You never know what you might enjoy listening to. Take to Youtube, look up some the bluegrass pioneers: Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, or even more contemporary artists Ricky Skaggs or Allison Krauss. Listening to this beautiful, upbeat music will not be met with disappointment. There is much more substance to it than what the teen generation listens to today. The instrumentation is not a simple computer-generated beat (rap music) nor is it perfectly engineered to maximize your listening experience. The beauty of bluegrass lies in its raw, pure nature. What you hear is what you would hear if you heard it live. Furthermore, bluegrass that isn’t simply instrumental carries a lot more meaning in its lyrics than does, for example, rap music. It tells a story; it is an anthology of the history of Appalachia.

I believe it is our duty as Kentuckians to be informed on such a pure and native music. It is scary to see the rate at which such a long tradition is declining and the ignorance people have towards the genre.

Take it from Allison Krauss: “You know, for most of its life, bluegrass has had this stigma of being all straw hats and hay bales and not necessarily the most sophisticated form of music. Yet you can’t help responding to its honesty. It’s music that finds its way deep into your soul because it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.”

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