Introduction to Literature Review

To inform this study, literature in several fields was critically reviewed.  First, literature on the current and comparative status of bluegrass music is presented.  To ascertain scholars’ views of how the historical development of bluegrass music contributed to its current status in the contemporary music arena, the history and development of  bluegrass music is then discussed and analyzed.  Finally, literature examining the reciprocal influence of culture and stereotypes is discussed and analyzed as a basis for this inquiry.

Bluegrass music in the contemporary music arena

Definition of Bluegrass: Artis, Price, Canwell and Rosenburg

Only recently has bluegrass music become the subject of inquiry. The first scholarly work discussing bluegrass music was written by Mayne Smith (1963-64) in an unpublished master's thesis (Rosenberg, 1985).  Since then, a small number of seminal works by Artis (1975), Price (1975), Cantwell (1984) and Rosenberg (1985) have been published, but no universal agreement on the essential characteristics of bluegrass have been put forth.  Since Rosenberg (1985), no single scholarly work has been specifically devoted to bluegrass music.  The absence of a definition of bluegrass music may be one element that is responsible for the conflicting findings regarding its popularity (Colwell, 1992) and its positioning among music genres in mass culture.  However, an examination of the definitions presented by the seminal scholars does reveal sufficient commonalties to extract a set of essential characteristics that delimits bluegrass and distinguishes it from similar music forms such as country, old-time, Appalachian folk ballads and country fiddle music.

Definition of Bluegrass: Artis

As stated by Artis (1975), bluegrass is root music with an oral tradition handed down from generation to generation, an improvisational music with soul.  He states,

    Bluegrass is too country for country. It is about coal mines and hard times, playful tunes, religious tones, railroad construction, and “walking bass line” guitar…It's mountain music, and only the mountain people and those others sensitive enough to grasp the feelings of the country people and their hard, poverty-bred realities can fully appreciate the simple, eloquent songs of death and lost lovers, lonesome mountains and deep religious faith, cabin homes on hills, gray-haired parents awaiting the return of the wandering boy.  The high, haunting sound of a tenor-range trio, hammering drive of a “Scruggs-style” banjo, lonesome wail of a fiddle have an appeal that goes beyond region and background, beyond music prejudice and cultural differences, beyond the hard categories of “urban” and “rural”. It's more than the music of one people and their way of life.  The instrumentation is dazzling and the ring of the banjo captivating, and a whole new generation has discovered bluegrass the most honest, forthright statement of human emotions to be found (p.xvi).


Artis goes further and states that…

    Many consider it [bluegrass music] the intellectual side of country music.  Open-minded, well-adjusted, secure people are finding that you don't have to be the moronic result of two centuries of Appalachian inbreeding to appreciate, admire, and even genuinely love bluegrass… There is a great desire today to get back to the genuine human values, to return to the soil, and to find roots in today's most common form of artist expression - music.  Bluegrass celebrates the earth and the basic human condition in a way that is both direct and musically valid.  It's a healthy and predictable reaction to the super-cynical age of future-shock and Alice Cooper (p.xvii).


Definition of Bluegrass: Price

From a perspective not quite as passionate as Artis, Price (1975) writes that the…

    origins of bluegrass are nearly four hundred years old and developed as a result of political, economic, and social events…From back porch amateurs to professional musicians, from barn raisings to medicine shows, to records, radio, and movies, from east Tennessee to West Germany, this brand of music has spanned the world as well as the centuries…Purists feel that it must be played on unamplified instruments, that Bluegrass and electricity mix like oil and water.  But there are many who don't, and to avoid an overly narrow definition problem, the book acknowledges (and appreciates) the existence of “rock-grass” performers (p.ix-x).

    [Bluegrass is] twanging banjos, whining fiddles, sliding Dobro guitars, fluttering mandolins, and the solid rhythm of acoustic guitar and bass fiddle.  It is piercing solo singing and the tight harmonies of trio and quartet chorus harmonies.  Bluegrass is romp-and-stomp instrumental tunes, mournful ballads of unrequited love and the homely virtues, and hymns of steadfast faith.  It's part of a musical tradition spanning centuries, from the Elizabethan “Barbara Allen” to the Beatles' “Yesterday” (p.1).

    Bluegrass is polyphonic vocal and instrumental music played on certain unamplified instruments, based on music brought from the British Isles to Appalachian regions and refined by additions of Negro and urban music.  A bluegrass band typically consists of a five-string banjo and guitar, together with a fiddle (or any combination thereof).  Vocal lead parts are rendered in the high-pitched style of traditional British balladry, with chorus harmonies added by a “high tenor” sung a third or fifth above the lead, and lower baritone and/or bass lines (p.2).


Price goes on to explain that any music which seems “Bluegrassy” should also be included within the genre of bluegrass music.  “Bluegrass is, well, just plain ol' foot-stompin', ear-to-ear grinnin', good-time music, no matter where you hail from” (Price, 1975, p.5). 

Definition of Bluegrass: Cantwell

Cantwell's (1984) approach to bluegrass draws on his experience as folklorist and popular culturalist.  He positions bluegrass music in a cultural setting which, over the years, has evoked an international following.  Bluegrass music is an original characterization, simply a representation of traditional Appalachian music in its social form.  The music is what Bill Monroe, the acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass Music”, called the old southern sound.  It was played first in 1946, on the famous radio barn dance the Grand Ole Opry, by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, a hillbilly string band.  Like jazz, bluegrass is the fruit of a union of Afro-American musical ideas with the European, especially the Celtic, on the folk and popular levels, and its roots are to be found in the popular culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth century America.  Bluegrass music is an art which transforms social tensions into imaginative forces through which a dynamic and diverse civilization realizes itself (Cantwell, 1984).

He goes on and states that…

    Bluegrass music…seemed to “re-authenticate” or “traditionalize” hillbilly music; it was a representation of traditional Appalachian music in its social or assembly form.  Consequently, through it was original and individual creation, it aroused a powerful response in a people who were still essentially the dispersed "folk" of a folk culture…[bluegrass] is a kind of reunion of this community based upon that widespread response and upon the power of radio and phonograph to engender it among people otherwise isolated from one another…(p.155-156).


According to Cantwell,  bluegrass transcends cultural boundaries and bonds people together through spiritual experience.  He does not dwell on the mechanics of the music.  There is the constant reminder that the musician can freely improvise to express the music but s/he is also fulfilling a social obligation to keep the tradition alive. Cantwell suggests that the banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro and bass fiddle are the instruments of bluegrass musicians but it is the soul and the communal messages of the songs, with their haunting melodies, which calls forth the spirit of bluegrass (Cantwell 1984).

Definition of Bluegrass: Rosenberg

Rosenberg (1985), the acknowledged scholar of bluegrass music, offers his definition of bluegrass music.

    [Bluegrass] is a type of “hillbilly”/“country and western”/“country” music initially most popular in the rural upland South, particularly the Appalachians…it has been a professional and commercial music from its beginning…Bluegrass depends upon the microphone, and this fact has shaped its sound…bluegrass is performed on acoustic-nonelectric-string instruments…guitar and string bass-have mainly rhythmic roles, while the others--fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, lead guitar and Dobro…play melody (“lead”) and provide rhythmic and melodic background (“backup”) for vocalist…Instrumental pieces feature alternating solos, as in jazz--a clear stylistic departure from the old-time southeastern string band music from which bluegrass developed… Vocal delivery tends to be relatively impersonal and rather stylized…In contrast with other forms of country music, bluegrass is characterized by very high pitched singing.  This preferred vocal tone, often described as “clear” or “cutting” or, sometimes, “piercing”…which during the sixties came to be called “the high lonesome sound”…[harmony] is an important dimension of bluegrass singing…In duets, the second part (“tenor”) is sung above the melody; trios usually add a part below the melody (“baritone”)…In trios, the tenor and baritone parts are sometimes rearranged so that the melody is the lowest or highest part…average tempo is faster…. (pp.6-8)


In his book, Rosenberg also includes a discussion of the social aspects of bluegrass music as both a cultural tradition of Appalachian folk and a reflection of social concerns of “urban hillbillies”. According to Rosenberg, bluegrass is able to capture rural and urban listeners through “down home” themes.  Titon (1977) defined down home as a “sense of place evoked in singer and listener by a style of music” (p.xiii).  Instead of dealing directly with the problem of urban life, bluegrass responds by offering contrasting themes and tunes from down home, a happier, simpler existence than the urban complexity.  In this way, Rosenberg (1985) suggests that bluegrass music maintains a stance that has been part of American culture for over a century.  Because the content of the bluegrass repertoire is so often clearly symbolic (rather than directly oriented towards current concerns), it is accessible to people from diverse cultures who can relate to the music as an art form, enjoying it as many enjoy opera sung in languages they do not comprehend.

Definition of Bluegrass Music: A Synthesis

An examination of the definitions posited by the four bluegrass scholars discussed above reveals the debates among scholars and ethnomusicologists about what specifically characterizes bluegrass music.  All four of the seminal bluegrass authors described bluegrass music in detail as originating in style and form, in one form or another, between the 1930s and mid-1940's.  However, the term “bluegrass” did not appear formally to describe the music until the late 1950’s, and did not appear in Music Index until 1965 (Kretzschmar, 1970).  The first entry in Music Index mentioning “bluegrass music” directed the reader to “see Country Music; Hillbilly Music” (Kretzschmar, 1970, p.91).  Music Index maintained this listing for bluegrass music until 1986.  The first time bluegrass music had its own entries in Music Index was 1987 (Stratelak, 1988).

An in-depth analysis of the four definitions presented above reveals that while these definitions may seem conflicting, each author addresses several different aspects of bluegrass. Thus, a synthesis of the definitions can be obtained by creating a multi-faceted view through four theoretical lenses:  context, content, interaction, and structure.   Scholars who view bluegrass through its context position bluegrass, its practitioners and audiences in a distinct historical and present cultural, intellectual, and social settings.  Content characterizes bluegrass in terms of the themes represented in song titles and lyrics.  Interaction refers to the relationships between musicians/musicians, musicians/audience, and audience/ audience.  Structure examines bluegrass through its instrumentation, musical techniques, timbre and so forth.  Each perspective is briefly defined immediately below.

Bluegrass music: Context

All definitions place bluegrass music in a distinct socio-cultural context. That is, the music has Anglo/African roots and developed in the southeastern United States in a region referred to as Appalachia.   As such, it is important to review the historical position this region has held in the development of American cultural identity.  Over the past hundred years, the region has been identified as having specific social/cultural characteristics which were and are viewed as “different”.  Mountain people, who provide the cultural context and foundation for bluegrass music, are often seen as having hard, poverty-bred realities.  These mountain people, as with many other cultural groups, made/make music central in their lives.  Bluegrass is part of a cultural tradition of Appalachian folk and is often a reflection of social concerns of urban hillbillies as reflected in the music’s content (Cantwell, 1984; Rosenberg, 1985). Contemporary bluegrass, however, moves away from its authentic context.  The performers are not all necessarily from the rural Southern areas but come from many different socio-economic backgrounds and geographic areas (Kuykendall, 1996a).  Bluegrass festivals can be found in all fifty states.  A few organizations have been established to specifically expand the bluegrass marketplace.  Mass media occasionally use bluegrass music as background music for sound beds for commercials and music themes for product promotion (Linn, 1991; Rosenberg, 1985).  A few bluegrass performers have expanded their audiences, have gained public recognition, and often appear on television talk shows (Irwin, 1996).  However, more than likely, if bluegrass music is used in mass media it relies on or reinforces the “hillbilly” cultural stereotype, evokes a nostalgic moment or is used to promote an outdoor product, event or service (Linn, 1991).

Bluegrass music: Content

The lyrical themes of bluegrass are concerned with basic human conditions and often reflect a return to one’s roots, an earthy, simpler way of being. As stated by Erbsen (1992) bluegrass music is characterized by eight specific themes. They are: sentimental songs of the 19th century; songs of lost love and broken hearts; murder ballads; breakdown tunes (i.e. songs played at very fast tempos); songs of home, mother, and dad; songs portraying hard luck and hard times; songs of rascals, rounders and wild women; and gospel and songs of faith (Erbsen, 1992).

A quick check through any bluegrass songbook indicates that the lyrics speak simply and eloquently of death and lost lovers, lonesome mountains and deep religious faith, cabin homes on hills, and gray-haired parents awaiting the return of the wandering boy.  Bluegrass is characterized by romp-and-stomp instrumental tunes, mournful ballads of unrequited love and the homely virtues, and hymns of steadfast faith (Erbsen, 1992; Midtown, 1983).

Bluegrass music: Interaction

Bluegrass music in its authentic setting leaves very little space for an audience (Rosenberg, 1985).  That is, individual musicians are often playing for each other or playing as an integral part of a specific social function. In this setting the performer/audience separation does not exist.  However, as bluegrass music gained a larger audience beyond its indigenous roots, live bluegrass music, as Benjamin (1968) suggests, meets the listener in several specific arenas. 

Bluegrass music performed in concert settings takes on the characteristics of any staged performance.  The audience sits in front of the stage and the musicians come out from backstage and play.  The interaction between the musicians is generally controlled and songs are selected from a rehearsed “set” list.  The interaction between the musicians and audience is typical of what one would expect in a theater setting.  The audience behaves and applauds appropriately and the musicians respond accordingly (Rosenberg, 1985).  However, beyond the typical performer/audience configuration, a bluegrass music venue provides an opportunity for the stage barrier to be removed such that the musicians and audience move as one (Cantwell, 1984).  This phenomenon is apparent at the bluegrass festival (Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).

The first outdoor bluegrass event was held July 4, 1961 in Luray, Virginia.  The first bluegrass festival was held in Roanoke, Virginia, September 3-5, 1965 (Rosenberg, 1985). According to the annual festival guide in Bluegrass Unlimited, forty-eight states (except Hawaii and Idaho) have at least one bluegrass festival each year.  Leading the list for the five most reported number of bluegrass festivals is Ohio with forty-seven, followed by Georgia with thirty-seven, Missouri with twenty-nine, and Kentucky and Florida each with twenty-seven.  Leading the international list is Canada with sixteen festivals, followed by England with five and the Czech Republic with four (Kuykendall, 1996a).

Typically, a bluegrass festival is divided into two areas where music is played, the stage and the “field”.  The stage area generally has a performance platform and an audience area.  The audience area may have permanent seating. More likely however, seating is provided by bringing a lawn chair or blanket or just sitting on the ground.  In the stage area, very much like a theater, the audience will sit and listen to the various bands that have been booked for the festival.  Members of the audience often come and go, leaving their chairs or blankets to reserve space for later shows.  The “field” area does not have a formal space for performance.  Rather musicians sit at camp sites, or just form musical circles at any convenient spot.  These informal jams are referred to as “parking lot picking” or “field picking” sessions.  Unless an organized band is practicing or performing for a gathered audience, musicians and audience alike frequently wander in and out of these impromptu musical groups playing or listening for a few minutes or hours, then moving on to find the next jam session.  At even the smallest festivals these jam sessions often go all night with the quietest time of the day being between 7 and 10 a.m. (Price, 1975; Jabbour, 1996).

The informal interaction among musicians in the field picking sessions is often based on musical skill.  Musicians who are more proficient are often in the center of the circle with the less proficient and beginning musicians playing at the circle’s fringe.  At the fringe, the musicians and the audience interact as one.  From the fringe area, musicians of equivalent playing levels become acquainted and often move to another location to start their own jam sessions.  At some festivals, the stage performers, after their stage show, can be found “field picking”.  A few musicians often come to field pick and never make it to the stage area.  Of the people who come just to listen, many bring tape recorders and videocams to capture the moment and wander from jam session to jam session. (Jabbour, 1996; Price, 1975).

Bluegrass music: Structure

No universal agreement is reached on the structure of the music, perhaps in large part due to the oral tradition and non-specific structure from which the music evolved (Hayes, 1996). The prevalent, but not exclusive, structural view of instrumentation includes the 5-string banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and bass fiddle (Artis, 1975; Cantwell, 1984; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985). Bluegrass music is polyphonic vocal and instrumental music played on certain unamplified instruments. Guitar and string bass have mainly rhythmic roles, while the others--fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, lead guitar and dobro--play melody ("lead") and provide rhythmic and melodic background ("backup") for the vocalist/s (Rosenberg, 1985).  Instrumental songs feature alternating solos between the lead instruments with the rhythm section setting the tempo.  Rock-grass performers with electric instrumentation are valued by some but are not universally considered to be bluegrass musicians (Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).

Musicians often improvise around the music's chord progressions.  Typically these chord progressions vary around the I, IV, V chords and if a ii chord appears, it usually begins as a major II chord, then adds the 7th, providing the transition to the V chord. Key signatures common in bluegrass are G, A, Bb, B, C, D, and E (Erbsen, 1992; Midtown, 1980). 

The vocals are characterized as having a high-lonesome quality (Artis, 1975; Erbsen, 1992; Rosenberg, 1985). Vocal lead parts are rendered in the high-pitched style of traditional British balladry, with chorus harmonies added by a "high tenor" sung a third or fifth above the lead, and lower baritone and/or bass lines sung below (Rosenberg, 1985).

A quick scan of the internet bulletin boards (i.e. alt.banjo; alt.bluegrass; alt.fiddle, Cybergrass ( and Bluegrass-l (BGRASS-L@LSV.UKY.EDU,Internet) reveal some of the continuing definitional debates (Jabbour, 1996).  Common debates often include the following:

    1.Can music played on electric instruments be called bluegrass?

    2.Is bluegrass the intellectual side of country music?

    3.What was the exact date when the bluegrass sound was first played by Bill Monroe? 

    4.Has bluegrass always been commercial music dependent on the microphone or was it porch music brought to commercial popularity by mass media?

    5. Traditionalists insist that the music played today by musicians such as Eddie Adcock, Tony Triskia, Bela Fleck and Allison Brown, to name a few, with modern lyrics and sophisticated chord structures, and studio production is not bluegrass.  The Seldom Scene, a popular bluegrass group (among the bluegrass audience), has added a pedal steel guitar in place of the dobro and electric bass stands in for the acoustic bass fiddle on some songs.  Some of Allison Krauss' recordings include electric guitar (Irwin, 1996). 

Many traditionalists see this new music as an attempt on the part of bluegrass promoters to capitalize on country music's popularity (Hayes, 1996; Irwin, 1996), while others welcome the sound as a fresh approach to the bluegrass tradition (Artis, 1975; Cantwell, 1984; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).

Music genres that are similar to bluegrass and that emerge from similar roots include old-time music, Appalachian ballads and Southern style fiddle tunes (Gerrard, 1996).  Although commonsense knowledge held by musicians and listeners reveals the characteristics that distinguish these musics from one another, no literature to date has explicated these factors.  However for clarification, the following differences are offered.  As noted, exemplars of all these musics can be found on an old-time music sampler issued by Rounder Records (CD 0331): Old-time Music On The Air (DePoy, 1994).

Old-time music differs from bluegrass in several areas.  The banjo in old-time music is open-backed and does not have a resonator. The banjo is played without picks in a style referred to as clawhammer, frailing, or rappin’ (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 16: Leroy Troy).  Some bluegrass and old-time banjoists have strong feelings as to where 2-finger (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 12: Will Keys) and 3-finger pick banjo (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 6: Clarke Buehling) fit within bluegrass/old-time music.  Old-time music relies on instrumental arrangements with the fiddle dominating the melody and no clearly defined solo breaks for other instruments. (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 1: Ralph Blizard & The New Southern Ramblers; Track 5: Dirk Powell, John Herrman & Tom Sauber; Track 25: Mac Benford & The Woodshed Allstars).  Some performers sing and play a style of old-time music which has a smoother open beat than the driving beat of bluegrass. (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 2: David Holt; Track 9: The Volo Bogtrotters)(DePoy, 1994).

Appalachian ballads are often presented as a cappella solo or duet harmonizing, with unison on certain words, or with sparse instrumentation.  The voice is often characterized as raspy, nasal and having a high-lonesome quality (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 4: Ginny Hawker & Kay Justice; Track 11: Hazel Dickens; Track 15: Tracy Schwarz). Southern style Appalachian fiddle is often played solo or with only a guitar providing the rhythm and bass line. (i.e. Rounder CD 0331 Track 3: Clyde Davenport; Track 10: Bruce Greene; Track 22: Benton Flippen; Track 24: Bruce Molsky)(DePoy, 1994).

Although the musicians playing music forms similar to bluegrass have concerns similar to those of bluegrass musicians (Lilly, 1996), these music forms are not addressed in this study.  However, these musical traditions invite further examination for future studies.

With a definition of bluegrass music clarified to the extent possible, the current position of bluegrass music is now discussed immediately below.

Comparative popularity of Bluegrass and other contemporary music genres

The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts special census report conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 (n=5700+) identified bluegrass as the 9th most popular music form in the United States, less than 4 percentage points behind Classical music.  This report estimates that 53.9 million people or 29.5% of Americans over 18 years old enjoy listening to bluegrass music (Zill, 1994).

Of the twenty music genres represented in the survey, the eight categories preferred over bluegrass were: Country/Western (52%), Mood/Easy Listening (49%), Rock (44%), Blues/R&B (40%), Hymns/Gospel (38%), Big Band (35%), Jazz (34%), and Classical/Chamber (33%). Following bluegrass music (29.5%) in popularity were: Show Tunes/Operettas/ Musicals (28%), Soul (24%), Contemporary Folk (23%), Ethnic/Nationality Groups (22%), Latin/Salsa (20%), Reggae (19%), Parade/Marching Band (18%), New Age (15%), Choral/Glee Club (14%), Opera (12%), and Rap (12%)(Zill, 1994).

Therefore, it is curious to note that despite the relative popularity of bluegrass, it receives minimal airtime or commercial dissemination.  However, the NEA study is limited by its failure to ascertain the degree to which respondents were familiar with bluegrass and other music forms, and it is therefore not possible to know what music respondents were actually rating (Cutietta, 1993).  Assuming that respondents were accurate in their identification and ratings, a review of rankings clearly indicates that some lesser liked music forms (opera, rap, new age, folk) have much greater exposure than bluegrass on mass media, especially in radio and television programming.  Considering bluegrass music's level of reported popularity, an inquiry into the forces (i.e., vague definitions, cultural values, lack of knowledge, negative attitudes) that might limit mass media from programming and disseminating bluegrass music to a broad general audience would assist in developing an understanding of why such a popular music receives a disproportionately low share of airtime and commercial dissemination.

To begin to address the limitations of and questions left by the NEA study, DePoy (1995a) conducted a pilot study in which he used a design integrating qualitative and quantitative methodology to ascertain familiarity with and preference for bluegrass music and to reveal stereotypes held by respondents about who played and who listened to it.

The findings of this study revealed that the musical preferences among the respondents were quite different from the NEA’s findings, with bluegrass being ranked third, behind classical and rock music, in popularity.  Moreover, findings indicated that most respondents could identify opera (100%), country (94%), classical, (94%), rap (84%), traditional bluegrass (84%), and Rock (84%).

In addition to testing knowledge and eliciting music preference, the pilot study sought to identify the images that bluegrass music evokes.  A range of responses were offered from extremely positive to extremely negative.  Positive images included a view of listeners and players as primarily a simple rural people with roots in the Appalachian Mountains, or non-rural people with simple values.  The listeners’ appearance was described as unsophisticated, country, casual dress.  Positive images of bluegrass musicians characterized them as proficient but unschooled, earthy, country musicians.  Negative images included the terms “hillbilly, hicks, old farts, good-old boys, backward, smoking - maybe not tobacco, drinking, having a good time, too small a brain, like on Hee-Haw, Deliverance or Bonnie & Clyde” (DePoy, 1995a), and revealed that bluegrass was equated, by some respondents, with the negative ethnic stereotype of the rural white Southerner very similar to that described by Linn (1991).

Although DePoy’s study was limited by its small sample of convenience and its failure to examine associations between knowledge, stereotype and preference, the study laid the groundwork for future inquiry.  To provide an historical context for advancing this research agenda, a history of Appalachian mountain music, which later came to be known as bluegrass, is presented. (Artis 1975; Cantwell, 1984; Erbsen,1992; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).

History of Bluegrass

As stated above, Artis, Cantwell, Price, and Rosenberg each have written a well known and respected work on the history of bluegrass music.  Additionally, many works in the Country music field offer brief histories of bluegrass music. The brief history presented below draws on these seminal works.

Most scholars agree that bluegrass music has its roots in the European/African-American traditions (Artis 1975; Bastin, 1986; Cantwell, 1984; Erbsen,1992; Hennessey, 1994; Hitchcock, 1988; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).  The musical form, now played for the most part by Anglo-Americans, for Anglo-Americans, draws on a musical heritage which includes gospel, minstrel, ragtime, blues, string-band, British-American fiddle music, ballads, jazz, classical and popular music.  Each one of these musical styles can be traced back further to reveal yet another layer of music history.  The characteristic swing rhythm of both jazz and bluegrass (as well as other related music genres) was evident in the earlier minstrel music of the 1840's.  The American rhythms of ragtime, early jazz, and bluegrass are the banjo “jigs” of the minstrel-show dances (Hitchcock, 1988).  Additionally, Nathan (1962) reports that, “The motion (of banjo 'jigs') is animated by many irregular stresses: hectic offbeat accentuation projected against the relentless, metrical background of the accompanying taps of the feet which change 2/4 to 6/8” (Nathan, 1962,p. 195). 

Another part of the minstrel heritage is the characteristic art of improvising on a tune.  Both rhythm patterns and improvising are common to early American fiddle and dance tunes (Gridley, 1991). By the late 1800's many white Southerners had come to know many of the same dance “jigs” played by African-American musicians (Conway, 1995; Hitchcock, 1988).

The reconstruction of the South after 1865 and the growing westward expansion of the late 1800's had little impact on the Southern highlander (Shapiro, 1978).  Left isolated from mainstream American culture, the Southern highland region developed its own unique culture and musical form (Batteau, 1990; Hamm, 1983; Shapiro, 1978).  For the purpose of geographic distinction, the Southern highland region runs roughly west of the Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina and includes the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina.  These regions and their associated mountain ranges, the Alleghenies, Blue Ridge and Great Smokies, comprise what is now considered the Appalachian region of the United States (Batteau, 1990).

The musicians in this region often learned and played on home-made instruments.  The fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica and an occasional mountain dulcimer were used as solo or group accompaniment for dancing and singing.   Most of the musicians were self-taught.  That is to say, the master musicians of a community taught the younger players how to play.  The songs were passed on from generation to generation and musician to musician by oral tradition. Over time, with musicians going off to work in urban centers or on the railroad, in factories or mines, and with new music being brought into the area by traveling medicine man shows, and the influx of immigrants, new tunes were added to the musicians' repertoires.  Multiple variations of a tune could often be found within a small geographic area.  These variations were due in part to community isolation.  Though some communities were only a few miles apart, with perhaps impassable mountains or a river between, tunes took on community characteristics expressed by the local musicians.   For example, over one hundred different versions of the famous British Isles ballad, Barbara Allen, have been found to exist in Virginia alone (Jabbour, 1996; Sharp, 1932).

With no early recordings of this music available, it is impossible to recapture the songs as they might have been played prior to the advent of the recording process in the late 1800's.  However, based on the availability of the traveling minstrel and medicine man shows popular in the Appalachian region until the early 1900's, and the exchange of musical ideas between the Southern highlanders and the outside world, and collections of tunes played, one could assume that the music was diverse and represented both Anglo traditional music (ballads, broadsides, and dance tunes) as well as African-American music, tin-pan alley and standard popular music of the day (Conway, 1995).

Campbell studied and wrote about the variety of Appalachian life in the late nineteen-tens and early nineteen-twenties (Linn, 1991).  He was surprised to find the banjo popular among the natives.  For him the banjo was associated with “plantation blacks, upper-class fads, lowbrow theater, and the jazzed-up urban dance orchestra” (Linn, 1991, p.119).  The popularity of Campbell’s work and that of other popular writers once again brought Appalachia to the forefront of national attention.  There were still “primitives” yet untouched by civilization and they were in America’s own back yard.  This “find” by northern scholars and anthropologists in the 1920's provided America with a mythologized South, the exoticism within, our national otherness (Batteau, 1990; Shapiro, 1978). 

As far back as the mid 1800’s, the artifacts of the Appalachian culture (produced and reproduced) had been packaged and sold by outside profiteers to locations all around the world (Pudup, 1995; Salstrom, 1994).  By the early 1900’s thousands of “flatlanders” were coming to visit the quaint odd people with a funny sounding dialect, living a poor but proud simple life, void of modern trappings.  These tourists loved everything Appalachian and they took back everything they could carry--quilts, hand made “primitive” furniture, antiques, hitching posts, windmill ducks. If it was hand-made by those hillbillies, they wanted it (Batteau, 1990; Salstrom, 1994).  The first commercial attempt to cash in on this otherness for its music came on the heels of the jazz boom and the rediscovery of the “folk music” in Appalachian mountains (Batteau, 1990; Clarke, 1995; Shapiro, 1978).

The String Band Tradition

The fiddle has had a long association with the mountain folk tradition.  Historical research reveals that the fiddle was the folk instrument of choice in the nineteenth century (Patterson, 1996). The fiddler was the sole musician for many country dances throughout the United States.  A wealth of folklore developed around the fiddle and the fiddler.  The fiddler was third only to the preacher and doctor as the most important member of a community (Patterson, 1996). As communities grew rivals developed between communities and new fiddlers would challenge the older fiddlers.  These friendly competitions gave rise to the American fiddle contest.  The first reported contest was held in Hanover County, Virginia in 1736 (Carr, 1979).  Up until the War Between the States, fiddle contests were common in the rural South.  However, after 1865, these contests expanded their popularity throughout Eastern, Southern, Midwestern, and Southwestern United States (Carr, 1979).  Today fiddle contests are still a part of American culture and can be found throughout the country (Carr, 1979).

The banjo, with its African ancestry, has had a long association with both black and white dance music.  The instrument gained widespread popularity among the Southern highlanders due in part to its easy-to-make components (Conway, 1995).  Unlike the fiddle or guitar, the banjo could be easily made with throw-away items found in most homes. The banjo, before the introduction of the guitar, was the folk singer's accompaniment of choice, second to a cappella singing (Carr, 1979).

Historians trace the introduction of the guitar into the Appalachian region somewhere after the Spanish/American War and before World War I (Conway, 1995).  Up until that time, the guitar was rarely played by Appalachian musicians.  Current theories suggest that black musicians brought the guitar into the mountains in the early 1900's along with their labor for building railroads, dams and mines (Conway, 1995).  The mountain musicians were quick to pick up the black, blues guitar style.  Most early white string band guitarist followed the black style and used a thumb pick rather than the now popular straight or flat pick.  Examples of this guitar style, played by white musicians, can be heard in the early recordings of Riley Puckett, Charlie Pool, Carter Family, and Lester Flatt (Carr, 1979).  The guitar quickly found its voice as accompanist to the high-lonesome ballad singers and the rhythm section for the string bands (Erbsen, 1992).  By the late 1800's, mail order catalogues provided the rural musician with access to better quality instruments than they had previously played.  Catalogues offered a variety of instruments from beginner models to highly ornate professional models made by the finest instrument makers in America (Linn, 1991).

The final element to be considered in this emerging style of Appalachian music was the voice.  Singing has always been an integral part of mountain life.  The story-song ballad has been popular since the Colonial period.  Minstrel, Tin Pan Alley, and vaudeville sentimental ballads and popular sheet music songs made their way into the mountains in the 1800's.  Sacred music and hymns, with tight 4-square harmonies, were introduced by singing schools, popular throughout the United States from the 1720’s through the late 1800's (Conway, 1995; Erbsen, 1992; Rosenberg, 1975; Shapiro, 1978).  

By the early 1920's, the preferred ensemble for dances and local entertainment, and forerunner of today's bluegrass band, was the string band--voice, fiddle, banjo, and guitar. It did not take the string band long to come together ready to bring hillbilly music to the world (Carr, 1979).

(NOTE: Billboard Magazine which, since 1944, publishes the weekly top songs for the music industry, used the term folk to refer to this Appalachian hill country music.  In September 1947, the folk category was dropped and hillbilly replaced it.  However, due to the negative connotation of the word hillbilly, it was dropped in November 1947 and the folk music category was used until mid-1949.  At that time Billboard dropped the folk music designation and added country and western.  Western was dropped in 1962 leaving country (DePoy, 1995b).

The first commercial attempt at capitalizing on hill country music came in 1922.  In an effort to expand the phonograph market, during an ecnomic depression, declining record sales and the growing popularity of radio, Victor Recording Company started recording rural country music (Carr, 1979).  The first recordings featured a popular fiddler from Atlanta, Georgia, John Carson.  In 1924 Vernon Dalhart, a declining popular singer, made the switch to hillbilly music and recorded a cover of Henry Whitter's now famous Wreck of the Southern Old 97.  Dalhart's version became the first million selling hillbilly record (Carr, 1979).

(NOTE: a cover occurs when a song is recorded in another music category different than the first commercial distribution as a means to take advantage of the song's appeal.  For example, Dean Martin successfully covered country music songs in the 1960's and 1970's for the Pop music audience.)

A few of the notable string bands of this era include: (NOTE: dates in brackets represent the year of the first recording) Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers (1924), Riley Puckett (1924), Uncle Dave Macon & The Dixie Dew Drops (1924), Al Hopkins & The Hill-Billies (from whence the music genre gets its name) (1925), and Charlie Pool and the North Carolina Ramblers (1926).  By 1927, hillbilly music had gained an audience far beyond the rural South.  Perhaps the most famous of all the hillbilly recording sessions of this era were the Bristol sessions of 1927 (Carr, 1979).  Arranged by Ralph Peer, a record producer for Victor, two performers were recorded who would change the face of popular music forever; The Carter Family (Sarah, Mother Maybelle and A.P. Carter), and Jimmy Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman.  Their musical careers are well documented (Malone, 1985; Malone, 1993) and need not be discussed here, except to say that their early recorded materials are frequently integrated into today's popular and bluegrass music (Rosenberg, 1975).

The Golden Age Of Radio  

During the 1920's and early 1930's, radio developed side by side with the recording industry (Carr, 1979; MacDonald, 1982).  This powerful medium provided the outlet for much of the rural country music and Texas swing music being played throughout the United States.  It did not take national advertisers long to discover the value of radio and the rural market.  "Farm Time Radio", around 5 a.m. and noon, was a prime-time period for live hillbilly music and product promotion directed to rural communities (Carr, 1979).  Radio stations relied on local musicians to perform “live” for these daily shows which provided the musicians the opportunity to promote their performance schedule (Jabbour, 1996).

In the early days of radio several channels were reserved as clear channels.  That is to say, only one station was licensed to operate at that frequency.  With 50,000 watts of power and the natural phenomenon of skip, after sundown it was possible to receive these stations thousands of miles away from the transmitter (Carr, 1979; MacDonald, 1982).  Skip is used to describe the natural characteristic of AM radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere which allows AM radio signals to travel great distances, especially after sundown (Holsopple, 1995).  For example, it was possible to receive WSM in Nashville well into interior Canada and as far south as Mexico and the station frequently received in much of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes was WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.

The power of super power clear-channel stations and the long distance characteristics of AM radio, especially after sundown, contributed to the development of the barn dance jamboree (Carr, 1979).  America's first barn dance jamboree was on WBAP (Fort Worth) January 1923.  Following the successful format of vaudeville with a hillbilly twist, jamborees became extremely popular (Carr, 1979).  A few of the successful and long-running radio barn dances and their associated clear-channel radio station include: Barn Dance (1924) WSB (Atlanta); National Barn Dance (1924) WLS (Chicago); the world famous Grand Ole Opry (1925) WSM  (Nashville); Wheeling Jamboree (1933) WWVA (Wheeling); Old Dominion Barn Dance (1939) WRVA (Richmond).  The local musicians who could gain favor with the national audience, based upon product sales and fan letters, had the opportunity to record and tour.  However, most barn dances required touring musicians to return in time for the Saturday night show (Carr, 1979).  As individuals and bands gained greater star status, allowances were made in the Saturday night rule.  For example, a band might be required to play only three out of four Saturday nights if their popularity warranted.  Many of the successful barn dance musicians of the late 1930's and early 40's are those individuals and bands who are now considered first-generation bluegrass musicians (Malone, 1985). 

By the late 1930's, folk music, with its various forms, had become big business (Malone, 1985).  However, rural country music, with its decidedly Texas flavor, was beginning to discard its mountain roots.  The popularity of Texas style music was due in part to an expanding market of non-southern music consumers, the growing popularity of cowboy movies, and the swing era, which soon became the popular music form of the period (Clarke, 1995).  Texas Swing parallels the swing period of American jazz (Cantwell, 1984; Stowe, 1994).  For example, both American jazz and Texas style music forms took on the following similar musical characteristics: swing 8 or 12/8 time signatures became popular, musical lines running through the tunes sounded similar.  Texas style swing fiddle sounded like the sax lines of Jazz great Lester Young.  Moreover, the lead guitar solos of the 1930's Texas swing bands rivaled the style of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, and the tune selections came from the same pool of reworked folk, standards, Tin Pan Alley, and popular songs of the day (Cantwell, 1984; Williams, 1993).  During the swing era, Texas swing music, with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys leading the way, ushered in a new brand of music perfect for the booming Hollywood's western movie era.  In popularity, the singing cowboy quickly replaced the popular rural music of the mid-1930's.  This emerging Texas sound, with its honky-tonk lyrics, swing fiddle, steel guitar, electric guitar, bass and snare drum, quickly became Country music's style of choice.  However, a few of the old string bands refused to give up the traditional sound, setting the stage for a new music (Cantwell, 1984).

Bill Monroe And The Birth Of Bluegrass

Much has been written about the Monroe family.  Natives of Kentucky, with a long history of family musicians, the Monroe family were not strangers to rural mountain sounds.  This traditional heritage coupled with the influences of local black musicians provided the musical ingredients for the Monroe Brothers (Erbsen, 1992; Rosenberg, 1985).  Bill, Charlie, and Birch Monroe were a successful family band from their first radio debut in 1927 to 1934.  Moving north as part of the Kentucky migration into mid-west cities, it was not long before the Monroes were traveling with the WLS National Barn Dance touring company (Rosenberg, 1985).  Birch left the group in 1934 and Bill and Charlie continued as a duo until 1938 (Rosenberg, 1985).  In 1936, the Monroe Brothers recorded what would become a hillbilly hit and one of the all-time bluegrass standards, What would you give in exchange for your soul.  In 1938 the Monroe Brothers ended their successful duo. Charlie formed the Kentucky Partners and Bill started his now famous Blue Grass Boys (Rosenberg, 1985). In 1939 the Blue Grass Boys recorded what would become another bluegrass standard, the New Muleskinner Blues. This song became the first song in bluegrass time (Artis, 1975). With tight harmonies, “wild new blend of galloping tempos, unique rhythms, and ‘high, lonesome sound’”,(Carr, 1979, p.177) the Blue Grass Boys soon became a very popular WSM Grand Ole Opry touring band. Bill Monroe added the five string banjo to his group in 1942.  However, David “Stringbean” Akeman's old-time frailing style banjo (cut-time rhythm) did not fit the smoother sound of the Blue Grass Boys and in 1945 Earl Scruggs took over as the banjo player (Rosenberg, 1985).  Earl’s three-fingered style picking made it easy to split swing eights or 12/8 time into a series of fast moving triplets.  Most bluegrass scholars in retrospect agree that the Monroe band of 1945 with "Chubby" Wise-fiddle, Lester Flatt-guitar, Earl Scruggs-banjo, Howard "Cedric Rainwater" Watts-bass fiddle and Bill Monroe-mandolin, was the first bluegrass band. (Kuykendall, 1996b)  By 1946, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had developed a distinct sound which reflected traditional roots and a jazz approach to hillbilly tunes played in swing-8 rhythm producing a high energy music with improvised passages equal to jazz (Cantwell, 1984; Hitchcock, 1991; Rosenberg, 1985).

Flatt & Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948. (Rosenberg, 1985)  This band brought bluegrass music to popularity.  Flatt and Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, caught up in the folk revival of the late 1950’s, brought their sound to an enthusiastic urban market.  They continued the spread of bluegrass by providing the theme music for three long running television series, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), Petticoat Junction (1963-1970), and Green Acres (1965-1971) (Rosenberg, 1985).  Flatt and Scruggs provided the theme music for the movie Bonnie & Clyde (1967).  With an abrupt change in musical directions, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys broke up in 1969. Other early bluegrass bands who, along with the Blue Grass Boys and the Foggy Mountain Boys, are considered by many to be the first generation bluegrass groups.  These groups include Ralph and Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, The Lewis Family, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Bob and Sonny--The Osborne Brothers, and Don Reno and Red Smiley and The Tennessee Cutups (Rosenberg, 1985; Wright, 1993).

In review, bluegrass music started from the traditional music forms of the Appalachian region (Artis, 1975; Cantwell, 1984; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985).  Bill Monroe reworked the songs of the traditional string band by raising the standard keys, speeding up the tempos and changing the rhythm to swing time.  These changes made the sound more appealing to larger, diverse audiences and separated his music from the other touring string bands (Cantwell, 1984; Rosenberg, 1985).  Bluegrass, as a distinct style of country music, was popular and successful until the mid-1960’s.  Until this time bluegrass was just a type of country music (Kretzschmar, 1970).  Bluegrass, as a term to describe a specific sound, does not appear in literature until 1957 in a Variety magazine article describing a recent Nashville event (Rosenberg, 1985).  In 1959, Mike Seeger used bluegrass in the liner notes of an album for Folkways Records and bluegrass became firmly associated with a particular style of mountain music (Seeger, 1959).  Bluegrass became a distinct musical style in Music Index in 1987.  Until that time, information regarding the music was found under country or hillbilly headings (Kretzschmar, 1970). 

By the mid-1960’s mainstream country music programmers no longer played bluegrass music. With the exception of the Ballad of Jed Clampett (Beverly Hillbillies, 1962), Foggy Mountain Breakdown (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), and Dueling Banjos (Deliverance, 1972) bluegrass music has had no further commercial success in mass culture (Rosenberg, 1985). Possible explanations for this phenomenon may be found in the literature on popular culture and stereotypes.

Popular Culture and Stereotypes

As indicated by Fussell (1983) and Hebdidge (1979), cultural productions, artifacts and objects have multiple uses beyond their direct function.  In the case of music, music preference and consumption provide a means of group inclusion, group exclusion and group identity (Hamilton, 1981; Hebdige, 1979; Shepherd, 1991; Stevenson, 1995)  The body of literature on popular culture and stereotype therefore is crucial in providing the foundation for examining the socio-cultural factors that bear on music preference and choices, and that impact music commodification and dissemination.  Before beginning a discussion of the cultural and social factors affecting music preference and popularity, several pertinent definitions and constructs are clarified below.


The definition of culture presented herein and used for this study is derived from the discipline of anthropology.  Culture is used to describe the patterns and shared meanings of individuals in relationships in and among groups (Geertz, 1973; Rossi, 1980; Storey, 1993).  Rossi (1980) states that any study involving individuals in a complex social system must consider the values, shared history/myths, and inter-group relationships, especially as these relations relate to social divisions (i.e. class, race, gender) through which socioeconomic power is allocated.

Subculture and popular culture

Two important elements of culture that underpin the developmental framework of this study are subcultures and popular culture. Popular culture was addressed in the seminal works by the Frankfurt School.  The Frankfurt School, established in 1923, is most famous for its development of critical theory and its various critiques of contemporary culture (Adorno, 1972; Storey, 1993). The Institute’s primary work regarding popular culture can be found in the writings of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal and Herbert Marcuse.  Of these, Adorno (1941) and Benjamin (1966) spoke specifically to the positioning and use of art and music in popular culture.

Adorno (1941) saw all popular culture as unoriginal. That is to say, popular culture produces products that engender the characteristics of sameness, interchangeability and predictability.  Regardless of the mass medium, it is quite possible from the beginning of a production of popular culture to know the final outcome.  According to Adorno (1941), the culture industry produces two complete products: cultural homogeneity and predictability (Storey, 1993). Moreover, popular culture is a contrived set of functions designed to manipulate the working public into complacency and an uncritical approach to life (Storey, 1993).  Adorno therefore sees popular culture as essentially negative, with its purpose to maintain workers and consumers in an unquestioning position (Paddison, 1993; Storey, 1993).

Although from the same school, Benjamin (1966) views popular culture as both demon and angel.  Drawing on Marxist analysis, Benjamin concludes that mechanical reproduction destroys traditional art forms and their specific emic (authentic) meaning.  Yet, reproduction also places art in such a way as to meet the beholder or listener in his/her particular situation.  Reproduction allows individuals to actively make meanings specific to their own cultural context without necessarily considering the historic referent of the original.  The action of making meaning is bounded by rituals that serve to include or marginalize (Auge, 1979; Geertz, 1973).

Similar to Benjamin, Hebdige (1979) addresses cultural meanings.  However, he suggests that meanings are embedded according to the individual’s membership in one or more subcultures.  That is to say, individuals, belonging to a variety of groups co-existing within a culture and move freely among them.  For example, the concept of class, as conceptualized by Fussell (1983), can be seen as a particular subculture.  Fussell holds that individuals purchase specific items and seek out and participate in various activities that indicate group membership, and in the process create lived cultural meaning.  A complete discussion of Fussell’s work is beyond the scope of this investigation.  However, his work is important in that it positions the concept of group belongingness, in this case class belongingness, as being illustrated by the purchase of artifacts and the production and performance of specific rituals.  Summing the elements of reproduction, marketing, distribution, and media on a national/international (mass) scale, the concept of popular culture emerges as a subculture whose member identity is manipulated by mass media (Storey, 1993; Willis, 1991).  Moreover, membership can be bought or obtained by ownership of commodities and participation in rituals stereotypically attributed to cultural subgroups (Hebdige, 1979; Storey, 1993).  Thus, the notion of group membership and/or exclusion as demonstrated by music preference is illuminated by this synthesis of works.

Further clarifying the role of artifacts, productions and rituals is the work of Storey (1993).  She presents a number of different and competing theories from which to analyze the concept of popular culture.  Drawing on the works of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and his concept of hegemony, a working definition of popular culture is one that considers the articulation and negotiation of dominant ideology with subordinate and oppositional subcultures. These varied cultural and ideological values and elements are continually mixed into different permutations giving rise to the meaning of style, what’s in and what’s not (Hebdige, 1979; Webster 1988; Story, 1993).

Turner’s work provides additional insight into the socio-cultural meanings of rituals (Turner 1974, 1982, 1988).  Turner (1974) was concerned with symbolic interaction.  He posited that the evocation of nostalgia and sentimentality, the concept of frontier, and exotic otherness were intertwined symbolically in his construct of communitas.  Thus, in a complex industrialized society, individuals symbolically enact a ritualistic return to nature and use nostalgia, sentimentality and frontier to bound the limits of their own social identity.  For example, outdoor music festivals, such as those attended by bluegrass and jazz listeners, are examples of Turner’s communitas (Turner, 1974; Turner 1982).  In these environments, diverse individuals are united without their identifying cultural trappings for the moment but can return to their respective subcultures following the experiential gathering.


Ashmore’s concern with stereotypes adds another significant lens through which to examine music preference. Ashmore (1970) posits that there are three theoretical lenses through which stereotypes can be examined: the sociocultural perspective, the psychodynamic perspective, and cognitive perspective.  Ashmore further states that there are multiple relationships between the three perspectives.  For this investigation, the socio-cultural perspective will be used to yield the following definition of stereotype.

Stereotype is a mental category based on exaggerated and inaccurate generalizations used to describe all members of a group.  Furthermore, stereotyping is a natural phenomenon in that all humans develop mental categories to help make sense of their environment (Bennett, 1995; Hamilton, 1981; McLuhan, 1970; Resnick, 1991).

Adding to the definition of stereotype, consistent with the works of Adorno (1968), Benjamin (1966), Hamilton (1981), Hebdige (1979), Oskamp (1991), and Storey (1993), is the sociological understanding that stereotypes help develop strong in-group feelings and identity.

Interaction of Culture, Subculture, Popular Culture, Stereotype and Music Preference

From the above definitions and discussion it is possible to posit a framework for examining the cultural, subcultural and popular influences of stereotypes in promoting certain music genres and conversely preventing other music genres from gaining widespread audience appeal.  As reported above, DePoy’s pilot study (1995a) findings suggest a range of stereotypes evoked by bluegrass music.

Of particular importance in explaining DePoy’s findings is the scholarship advanced by Linn (1991).  She suggests that popular culture’s bias against white Southerners, based on racist and ignorant hillbilly stereotypes, keeps bluegrass music at the fringe of mainstream culture.  She additionally positioned bluegrass as the “most sentimental and antimodernist subgenre in country music” (Linn, 1991, p.143).  It is interesting to note that bluegrass music has had immense popularity in other countries where “hillbilly” stereotypes have little if any cultural referent (Jabbour, 1996).  One plausible explanation about non-musical reasons for the ranges of popularity of the various musics is illuminated by Linn’s work.

Within the framework of popular culture, Adorno’s essay, Popular Music (1941), positions popular music as a critical production of mass culture.  Adorno articulated and brought to scholarly debate the notion that popular music is music commodified, void of authenticity, standardized and pre-digested for its listeners (Adorno, 1941).  Moreover, popular music is manipulative and serves to homogenize listeners while marginalizing those who do not partake. Popular music is defined as the music forms that are developed for and disseminated through mass media and are consumed by audiences for which the music has no “authentic” meaning (Adorno, 1941).  Authenticity is embodied by context and purpose embedded in the culture for which the music was created. (Benjamin, 1966)  The meaning of popular music moves away from its authentic roots to be valued only as a product for consumption (Adorno, 1941).  Applying Adorno’s notion of commodified music to bluegrass, it is clear that bluegrass, while commodified somewhat, is not produced and consumed by mass audiences (Jabbour, 1996) and therefore has limited value in a culture in which consumption reigns.  Moreover, examining bluegrass music through Adorno’s lens reveals that bluegrass, as a primarily oral tradition, does not lend itself to easy replication and thus homogenization by those outside its authentic culture.

Whereas Adorno (1941) saw the culture industry working to produce cultural homogeneity, Hebdige (1979) suggested that different subcultures are using the same signs, symbols, artifacts, and rituals in popular culture and are arriving at different and sometimes competing meanings based on individual group values.  It is therefore reasonable to expect that the positive meaning that bluegrass has for some groups is countered by the negative meaning that it has for others (Hebdige, 1979).

It could be argued that any music, regardless of its classification as belonging to a particular form or genre, could be considered “transauthentic” music (DePoy, 1996). Transauthentic music is defined as music that is categorized and named despite its authentic meaning in a culture.  The music transcends its authenticity by virtue of being studied and defined, in that its essential elements and its structure are delineated, known and can be reproduced for commercial exploitation.  Thus, when we speak of rock, classical, rap, and even bluegrass we experience a pre-digested image of what the music should sound like before we ever hear it.  Even with music such as bluegrass, which is not widely disseminated over mass media, it is certainly possible for transauthentic music to be evaluated and used for specific mass purposes because of its fit with “predigested” views of its structure, function and meaning (Benjamin, 1966).  This use can coexist with authentic cultural meaning and individual meaning as well (Gridley, 1991; Linn, 1991).  Bluegrass, as a music that emerged from Appalachia, exemplifies the coexistence of authentic and transauthentic elements and has diverse meanings and uses for differing subcultural groups.  Batteau (1990), in his discussion of Appalachia as a social construct, poses theoretical explanations for how a culture and its artifacts are viewed and used by cultures of which Appalachia is not an integral part.

The Invention of Appalachian Otherness

Batteau presents an historical review of the social conditions by which Appalachia was invented out of political desiderata popular at different times.  He asserts that Appalachia is the manifestation of urban imagination.  For the past hundred years or so, “the folk culture, the depressed area, the romantic wilderness, the Appalachia of fiction, journalism, and public policy has been created, forgotten, and rediscovered primarily by economic opportunism, political creativity, or passing fancy of urban elites” (Batteau, 1990, p.1).  It was only in the early 1900’s that the term Appalachian American gained popularity to describe the inhabitants of an area much larger than New England and encompassing over two hundred mountainous counties in nine states from Alabama to Pennsylvania (Batteau, 1990).  The constant reinvention of Appalachia appeared to have had a profound effect on the popular view of the region and its inhabitants.  From colonial times until the late 1800’s, the Appalachian region was viewed as a hostile impassable wilderness inhabited by wild mountain men with little use of the outside world (Batteau, 1990).  Over the past hundred years, the region has been identified as having specific social/cultural characteristics which were and are viewed as “different”.  Different has denoted a variety of perceived characteristics attributed to the rural folk who live(d) in this region.  According to Batteau many of the characteristics associated with Appalachian Americans served the socio/political agenda of various public interest groups.  Batteau asserts that much of what is believed to be the “real” Appalachia was invented, with negative and positive stereotypes functioning to marginalize the Appalachian folk from mainstream America.  Beginning with reconstruction after the War Between the States, marginalizing has kept the Appalachians isolated, allowing for a rich culture to develop unique to the region, yet maintaining mountain dwellers in an oppressed social/economic position (Gaventa, 1980).  These people, who provide the cultural context and foundation for bluegrass music, are often seen embodying both the negative and the positive values associated with poverty and hard times.  As with many other cultural groups, these people also made music central in their lives (Batteau, 1990). It would therefore follow that their music engenders both negative and positive stereotypes as well.

According to Cantwell (1984) bluegrass as part of the cultural tradition of Appalachia is often used as a reflection of social concerns of “urban hillbillies”, as portrayed in the music’s content.  Bluegrass proponents often refer to bluegrass as a music with an appeal that goes beyond region and background, beyond music prejudice and cultural differences, beyond the hard categories of “urban” and “rural” (Artis, 1975; Cantwell, 1984; Price, 1975; Rosenberg, 1985). For some, for whom there is a great desire today to return to simple, earthy, human values, bluegrass provides a valued form of artist expression (Cantwell, 1984).  Bluegrass epitomizes the “predigested” clean cut, reserved, country life of whites rather than the exotica depicted by music forms such as jazz (Cantwell, 1984, Rosenberg, 1985).  However, for others, bluegrass carries negative connotations (DePoy, 1995a).  By the mid-1960’s the south was “out” among white urban America. It seemed that bluegrass became a symbol of undesirable, white, Southern, redneck values (Batteau, 1990; Linn, 1991). 

Synthesis and Rationale for study

The literature reviewed above provides both the historical and theoretical foundation to explore the seeming discordance between the reported popularity of bluegrass music and its dissemination in mass media. Based on the theoretical works presented above and the limited empirical work that has been done to illuminate the correlates of dissemination in the contemporary American music scene, an investigation into the relationships among knowledge of bluegrass music, preference for the music and stereotypes evoked by the music seems critical to begin to advance an understanding of the current and future status of bluegrass. The study conducted herein therefore builds on previous theoretical and empirical work to examine these relationships.


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