10 Essential Bluegrass Artists You Need to Know
If the recent passing of music legend Earl Scruggs left you wanting to know more about bluegrass, then you’re in for a treat. Anna Schwaber and Chris Cloyd, the filmmakers behind The Porchlight Sessions , an exciting new documentary that traces the evolution of the sound, have kindly offered to walk us through some of their favorite artists in the genre.
“What the film discovers is that the community of bluegrass lovers is as diverse and unique as the variations that bluegrass has taken over the years,” they explain of the project. “Documentation is important to bluegrass. As a predominantly oral tradition, it is necessary from time to time to preserve the vitality of the genre while capturing the spirit of the community from which the music springs.” Click through to check out their picks, and be sure to visit their Kickstarter page to help the duo raise enough money to license the archival film footage, historic recordings, and still photos necessary to bring the story of bluegrass to life. They’ve only got a week to go!
Bill Monroe – “Uncle Pen”
No top 10 list of bluegrass would be complete, or exist at all for that matter, without Bill Monroe. The undisputed father of the genre, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys blended the sounds of country and blues with with string band music and infused it with the improvisational elements of jazz to create a sound all their own. When Flatt & Scruggs left the band, people didn’t know what to call their style of music and the term “bluegrass” was born. Uncle Pen recounts the driving fiddle playing of Bill’s uncle Penn Vandiver, solidifying the instrument as a staple of the genre.
Flatt and Scruggs – “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
The sound of Earl Scruggs playing single-handedly fused the banjo with bluegrass in most people’s minds. The three finger style that he pioneered has become the standard by which all other banjo players are measured. Flatt & Scruggs took bluegrass out of the south and brought it to television, becoming the most commercially successful bluegrass band of their time. With their own show and credits ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Bonnie & Clyde, Flatt & Scruggs brought the genre front and center to the American pop psyche.
Osborne Brothers – “Ruby”
Vocal harmony has always been an important component of bluegrass, and it would seem that brother duos do it best. Whether it’s the way their voices blend perfectly, or their innate ability to follow the other’s lead, the Osborne Brothers took the “high lonesome” sound to another level. Driving from gig to gig one day, Bobby started singing the lead part of “Once More” higher and higher until they found themselves with and inverted vocal stack and what became known as the “high lead” style.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”
Born out of the southern California folk rock scene of the 1960s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band definitely figured out how not to work for a living. With its rotating cast, and constantly evolving dynamic, The Dirt Band has become iconic as the “all-star” band of bands. Over the years, a veritable who’s who of bluegrass and country musicians have graced the microphone to record classic versions of timeless songs.
John Hartford – “Steam Powered Aereoplane”
John Hartford was a musical virtuoso just as comfortable plucking the banjo as he was stompin’ his feet and sawing away at the fiddle. Growing up in St. Louis along the Mississippi, his life was surrounded by music. A regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, John was often a true one man band. Co-founder of the newgrass movement, Hartford’s love of old-time folk music was never far from the surface as he channeled the hippie spirit of the 1970s into a new interpretation of bluegrass.
New Grass Revival – “Callin’ Baton Rouge”
Drawing upon the influences of John Hartford, The Country Gentlemen, and others, Sam Bush sought to revitalize the newgrass movement within bluegrass and inadvertently solidified the definition of the term with his band the New Grass Revival. A ragged bunch of mangy mountain men, New Grass Revival got its start in the early festival scene playing for the hippie crowd once all of the God-fearing folk had gone to sleep. Adapting rock & roll songs to the bluegrass style, New Grass Revival embraced extended instrumental jams and long format songs that influenced many of the jam grass bands coming from Colorado.
David Grisman Quintet – “E.M.D.”
Absent the banjo yet fueled with technical dexterity, the David Grisman Quintet approached bluegrass from the jazziest extreme and has gone on to influence a whole new wave of musicians in the newgrass movement who look to the potential of the instruments themselves as opposed to the style laid out before them. Known for his “Dawg Music,” Grisman is the pioneer of a new approach to the instrumentation of the genre and for lengthy instrumental improvisations. Grisman is also known for his time spent in supergroups such as Muleskinner and Old & in the Way, which included Jerry Garcia on the banjo.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Getting her start at an early age, Alison Krauss released her first solo album at the ripe old age of 14. At the age of 21, she was the youngest cast member at the time, and the first bluegrass artist to join the Opry in twenty-nine years. Bringing country influences into bluegrass, her angelic voice has been credited with bringing a new wave of listeners to the music in the 80s and 90s. A staple on the Grammy Awards stage, Krauss has worked with numerous artists in various capacities throughout her amazing career and has broadened the market with one of the few female voices. Her standout performances on the O’Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack helped launch the album to the top of the charts going platinum eight times over and ushered in a revival for the old-time and bluegrass genres.
Trampled By Turtles – “Stars and Satellites”
Just as Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival took rock & roll songs and did them in the bluegrass style, the boys of Trampled by Turtles are taking rock & roll style and doing it with bluegrass instruments. Not unlike other newcomers, these guys are still expanding their sound and repertoire as they carve out a niche for themselves across this fair country. In fact, their latest album, Stars & Satellites, was just released and really looks to find breath and space in their sound that diverges from their hard-driving approach that has grow wildly popular with the younger fans of the genre.
Punch Brothers – “Movement and Location”
Aesthetically bluegrass but classically infused, the Punch Brothers is considered the contemporary extension of progressive bluegrass. Started in the living room of Chris Thile’s New York apartment one afternoon, the band is a supergroup of musical virtuosos. They bring a spontaneity and intellectual approach to bluegrass while infusing their sound with elements and influences from contemporary popular music. Using their traditional instruments more like sonic weapons to create songs that blur the lines between old-timey and electronic, the Punch Brothers have staked their claim to the bluegrass mantle.