Settlers from the British Isles colonize Appalachia. Many are Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Of Scottish and English descent, the Scots-Irish settled the northern counties of Ireland in the 1600s, but leave for economic and religious reasons. Between 1700 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 leave Northern Ireland for the United States. Another 100,000 leave in the years between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They bring their music, dance, and folklore. Traveling southward and westward, they colonize the Southern uplands, and the region’s isolation keeps their culture surprisingly intact.
The banjo enters white culture. Blackface performer Joel Sweeney becomes the first known white banjo player. He has been credited with stretching animal skin over a hollow box to create a better resonating chamber than the traditional gourd, and adding a fifth string, although both innovations probably preceded him.
Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass,” born in Rosine, Kentucky. His older brothers, Charlie and Birch, already play guitar and fiddle, so Bill takes up the mandolin. Monroe’s uncle, Pendleton Vandiver (“Uncle Pen”), is a square-dance fiddler and takes Bill to dances with him.
Gibson introduces the F-5 mandolin, originally priced around $100. In Miami around 1943, Bill Monroe finds a 1923 F-5 and plays it for the remainder of his career. The F5 also becomes another of Bluegrass’s iconic instruments.
Earl Scruggs born in Shelby, North Carolina. Aged four, he begins playing his father’s banjo in a self-taught two-finger style. He develops his signature three-finger picking style, allowing him to play lead and backup counterpoint.
Birth of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Originally named the WSM Barn Dance, it is renamed in 1928. Broadcast live, it blends rural music and comedy. Just one of many radio barn dances to launch around this time, it becomes preeminent by the late 1930s, drawing top Country musicians to Nashville.
Bill Monroe moves to Indiana to join his brothers. Working in an oil refinery, they form a band with a pair of backup musicians, playing square dances, halls, and local radio. Birch and the backup musicians soon quit, leaving Bill and Charlie as a duo. “Brother” duets are a hot commodity in Country music at the time.
The Monroe Brothers turn professional. Sponsored by a laxative, they move from station to station playing “live” on-air for their sponsor. By 1936, they are on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Monroe Brothers split. Bill soon settles in Asheville, North Carolina, and forms a new group, the Blue Grass Boys. Charlie continues to record for RCA Victor with a group confusingly called Monroe’s Boys.
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys audition for WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. They join the cast but are not yet playing what became known as Bluegrass music. That same year, thirty minutes of the Opry is broadcast on the NBC network, giving nationwide exposure to Monroe’s music.
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys record their first session for RCA Victor. It includes Monroe’s rearrangement of Jimmie Rodgers “Blue Yodel #8” as “Mule Skinner Blues.” There is another session in 1941, but, after the United States enters World War II that year, the government rations the chief component in record manufacture, forcing labels to cut back their rosters. Bill Monroe is let go, but Charlie is kept on RCA.
Banjo player Stringbean joins the Blue Grass Boys. Bill Monroe is signed to Columbia Records, but there is a union-organized recording ban in effect and Monroe will not record his first Columbia session until 1945, and his first Columbia records won’t be released until 1946.
Carl Story records some acetates in North Carolina with a Bluegrass line-up. His band, including Johnnie Whisnant on Scruggs-style banjo, also includes fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. These amateur recordings show that others were taking string band music in the same direction as Monroe.
Bill Monroe’s first Columbia session. He records several songs that become Bluegrass standards, including “Rocky Road Blues,” “Kentucky Waltz,” and “Footprints in the Snow,” but his line-up includes an accordion and Stringbean’s clawhammer style banjo.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs join the Blue Grass Boys. By year-end, the classic Bluegrass line-up is in place. Although Bluegrass bears Monroe’s artistic vision, it is ensemble music. It is also acoustic at a time when most Country musicians have an electric steel guitar and lead guitar, and it addresses rural themes at a time when the top Country songs are shading toward pop. Monroe also made transformed the banjo into a lead instrument. Although rooted in Appalachian string band music, Bluegrass often has a more syncopated, off-beat rhythm. It features high lead parts in the harmonies, and takes some of its drive from Jazz and Blues.
The birth of Bluegrass on record. In four days of sessions in September 1946 and October 1947, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys record 28 songs that will be regarded as the cornerstone of Bluegrass music. The songs include “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Summertime Is Past and Gone,” “Will You Be Loving Another Man?” “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” and “Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong.”
Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys are heard weekly on the Grand Ole Opry, and Scruggs’ banjo leads are an immediate hit with the Opry audiences.
Ralph and Carter Stanley form the Stanley Brothers. They are the first group to copy Monroe’s new style. Almost immediately, they begin recording for the tiny Rich-R-Tone label in Johnson City, Tennessee. Other early adopters include the Bailey Brothers and Carl Sauceman.
American Federation of Musicians Recording Ban. Monroe’s late ’47 recordings were made to create a stockpile for release during the second strike. He performs one of the stockpiled songs, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” on the Opry, and the Stanley Brothers release it on a non-union label, Rich-R-Tone, before Monroe’s Columbia record is released. Monroe is furious.
The Stanley Brothers sign with Columbia. Monroe exits the label in protest and signs with Decca. The Stanleys reconfigure Monroe’s Bluegrass vocal trios (lead, tenor, baritone) replacing the baritone with a high baritone to create a haunting effect that complements Carter Stanley’s often ethereal songs. During the Stanleys’ three years on Columbia, they record several soon-to-be standards, including “The White Dove” and “The Fields Have Turned Brown.”
Foggy Mountain Breakdown. In December, Flatt and Scruggs record the original version of what is now the best-known Bluegrass instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Although it swiftly becomes well known among Bluegrass fans, it doesn’t become broadly popular until its inclusion in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde.
Uncle Pen. During Bill Monroe’s first Decca sessions he records several songs that become standards, including “Uncle Pen” (a tribute to his uncle, Pendelton Vandiver), “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” (cowritten with Hank Williams), and the instrumental “Rawhide.” The following year, Monroe departs from Bluegrass to record cover versions of then-popular hits with Nashville session musicians, but the lack of success sends him back to Bluegrass.
Popularity of Bluegrass. Other groups favoring older styles of Country music take their cue from Monroe and begin playing Bluegrass, integrating a banjo into their line-up. “Live” morning radio is still a feature on most radio stations in the South and Southeast, and Bluegrass can be heard on many of them. Most Country record labels now have at least one Bluegrass act.
Bill Monroe purchases Bean Blossom country music park in Indiana. His brother, Birch, operates Sunday outdoor concerts there from April to November, and a Saturday night dance. Starting in 1967, Monroe holds his own festival there.
Don Reno & Red Smiley begin recording for King Records. Their first session includes their biggest hit, “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap.” Although they record together until 1964 and intermittently thereafter, they rarely tour.
Flatt & Scruggs move to Nashville. Sponsored by Martha White Flour, they appear on WSM’s morning line-up but don’t appear on the Opry because of Bill Monroe’s insistence that he remain the only Bluegrass act on the show. In 1956, Martha White Flour issues an ultimatum: either Flatt & Scruggs appear on the Opry or Martha White will pull its advertising. The Opry gives way. Flatt & Scruggs also begin a syndicated television series sponsored by Martha White, making them by far the most popular Bluegrass group.
Elvis Presley records “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on his first single. Monroe played it as a slow waltz, but Elvis records it at a brisk 4/4. Presley’s concern that Monroe wouldn’t care for the record is unfounded. Monroe persuades the Stanley Brothers to record the song in Presley’s style and is won over by the significant royalty income. “Them was powerful checks,” he often says. At the Million Dollar Quartet session in 1956, Elvis sings several more Monroe songs.
Rock ‘n’ roll. The Nashville Sound is Country music’s response to the changing musical environment, but Bluegrass remains unaltered and, as a result, it’s sidelined. As “live” Country radio gives way to dee-jay shows and the radio barn dances begin to fold, Bluegrass loses its radio foothold. Most Bluegrass acts on major labels are dropped, and Bill Monroe doesn’t record at all for eighteen months.
The Osborne Brothers buck the trend and begin their recording career. At their first session, they record “Ruby Are You Mad,” soon to become a Bluegrass classic. The Osbornes become the first Bluegrass group to incorporate electric instruments and drums into their recordings.
“Bluegrass” is officially named. Although Monroe’s music has been unofficially dubbed “Bluegrass,” it’s not until tiny Wayside Records uses “Music Blue Grass Style” in a Billboard advertisement that the term enters the lexicon. Bluegrass is now markedly different from the mainstream “Nashville Sound.” That same year, Folkways Records in New York issues the first-ever Bluegrass LP, American Banjo—Three Finger and Scruggs Style. The album is produced by Pete Seeger’s brother, Mike, on a budget of one hundred dollars. In the liner notes, scholar Ralph Rinzler explains, “In the mid-Fifties, [this music] acquired the name Bluegrass because it was initially played by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, and Monroe was from Kentucky—the Bluegrass state.”
Carl Story records Bluegrass for the first time. Although Story has been recording since 1947, he doesn’t employ the standard Bluegrass line-up until he signs with Mercury-Starday, bringing banjoists Bud Brewster and Bobby Thompson into his band. The songs include “Mocking Banjo,” a version of Arthur Smith’s “Dueling Banjos.” It is Story’s version that will be copied, first by the Dillards and then Eric Weissberg for the soundtrack of Deliverance.
Tom Dooley. The Kingston Trio’s pop hit, “Tom Dooley,” features a banjo and sparks a folk music revival that soon embraces Bluegrass. Many of the next generation of Bluegrass musicians, including John Duffey, Richard Greene, Bill Keith, and Peter Rowan, are born in the North and discover Bluegrass during the folk revival, as do Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, and others who later play Rock music.
Starday Records relaunched. Although Starday started in Texas, one of the owners, Don Pierce, relocates to Nashville when Starday enters into an alliance with Mercury. When the Mercury-Starday partnership ends, Pierce assumes sole control of Starday and rebrands it as a Bluegrass label. His first signings include Carl Story.
“Folk Music with Overdrive.” Folklorist Alan Lomax publishes the first long-form piece of journalism about Bluegrass in a mainstream publication. In Esquire magazine, he writes, “Bluegrass is the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years; and entirely on its own is turning back to the great heritage of older tunes that our ancestors brought into the mountains before the American Revolution.” Lomax invites Bill Monroe to his Folk Song Festival at Carnegie Hall, but Monroe declines because he has heard that Lomax is a Communist.
The Greenbriar Boys form. They are the first Bluegrass group comprised of northern college-age kids, and they play in New York’s Washington Square Park. Their line-up includes Ralph Rinzler, who will later introduce Bill Monroe to college audiences, and Eric Weissberg, who popularizes “Dueling Banjos.”
All-day Bluegrass show in Berryville, Virginia. Bill Monroe appears with Mac Wiseman, the Osborne Brothers, and Reno & Smiley. To this point, accepted wisdom has it that promoters shouldn’t have more than one act in any style of music.
Luray Bluegrass festival. East coast folk and Bluegrass musician Bill Clifton organizes an event in Luray, Virginia. Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman and Clifton himself perform. For the first time, Monroe calls former members of the Blue Grass Boys to join him on stage. Twenty-two hundred people attend. Festivals will soon become the principal venue for Bluegrass musicians.
The Beverly Hillbillies. The CBS-TV comedy remains a Top Twenty show for most of its nine year run. Flatt & Scruggs perform the theme song with vocalist Jerry Scoggins, and record the song for release. It becomes the biggest-ever Bluegrass hit, and Flatt & Scruggs make several guest appearances on the show.
Bill Monroe makes his first college appearance. He performs as part of the Chicago Folk Festival. In January that year, there is a long article about him in Sing Out! The writer, Ralph Rinzler, is a young Bluegrass musician and scholar who later manages Monroe and compiles his older recordings onto LP. That same year, Monroe hires Bill Keith on banjo, the first Blue Grass Boy to discover the music during the folk revival.
The second Dillards album, “Live Almost,” includes a Bob Dylan song. This is the first time Dylan’s music has been adapted for Bluegrass. The following year, Flatt & Scruggs’ LPs begin to feature contemporary folk and rock songs by Dylan, Donovan, Gordon Lightfoot, etc.
First multi-day, multi-artist Bluegrass festival. The event is held in Fincastle, Virginia, and the number of festivals soon expands rapidly.
Carter Stanley dies, aged 41. With his death, the Stanley Brothers end. After some deliberation, Carter’s younger brother, Ralph, decides to continue and assembles a band that will soon include Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.
Bonnie and Clyde. Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” originally recorded in 1949, is used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. After the movie becomes a box office smash, Flatt & Scruggs re-record “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and it becomes a Pop and Country hit. The duo begins performing at hippie venues, such as San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom. Their repertoire is increasingly influenced by their producer, Bob Johnston (who also produces Dylan) and Scruggs’ sons, Randy and Gary. Flatt is increasingly unhappy with the new direction.
Bean Blossom Festival. Bill Monroe begins the annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Brown County, Indiana, and it is now reportedly the longest-running Bluegrass festival in the world.
Bluegrass Country Soul. A documentary by producer-director Albert Ihde captures a festival in Camp Springs, North Carolina with Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley (with Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs), Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe, the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, the Country Gentlemen, Del McCoury, and Roy Acuff. It is the first Bluegrass documentary.
“Dueling Banjos” becomes a Pop hit. The Bluegrass instrumental, written and first recorded by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Don Reno, becomes a Pop hit for Eric Weissberg, who performs it on the soundtrack of the movie Deliverance.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band records “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” An attempt to introduce traditional musicians to rock fans, it is a 3-LP set of collaborations with Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Norman Blake and many others. Bill Monroe is invited to participate but refuses.
Old and in the Way. Its members are Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, David Grisman, John Kahn, Richard Greene, Vassar Clements and John Hartford. Garcia’s involvement (he plays on the album, and it is initially released on the Grateful Dead’s Round Records) introduces many new fans to Bluegrass.
International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) founded in Owensboro, Kentucky. Plans are set in motion for a museum and Hall of Fame.
Alison Krauss’s first Rounder LP released. Krauss, the daughter of a German immigrant, signs with Rounder Records and is sixteen when her first Rounder LP, Too Late to Cry, is released. (Two years earlier, she’d recorded an independently produced LP).
Neo-Traditional Bluegrass. It blends traditional and progressive bluegrass, often with a solo star. Alison Krauss and Union Station, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Sam Bush, the Grascals, Dailey and Vincent, and Nickel Creek are among the genre’s stars.
International Bluegrass Hall of Fame is created. It is headquartered at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Bill Monroe dies.
Ricky Skaggs returns to Bluegrass. After a very successful career in mainstream Country music, Skaggs returns to his first love, and launches his own label, Skaggs Family, to release his work, and the work of others who share his vision.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers film, released with a Bluegrass and roots music soundtrack compiled by producer T-Bone Burnett, relaunches the career of Ralph Stanley while giving exposure to Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Norman Blake, and others. The album is certified 8 x platinum (ie. 8 million sales).
Del McCoury starts DelFest. It is held annually at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland.
Earl Scruggs dies.
Ralph Stanley announces his farewell tour. It will conclude in December 2014.