Bluegrass for beginners

Bluegrass for beginners: 12 songs you need to know

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 


Bill Monroe, right, the father of bluegrass music, is shown with one of his disciples, Lester Flatt, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn., in a March 1974 photo.


If you were to try and describe bluegrass music to someone who had never heard it, you could talk for hours and probably still not do it justice. But here’s an easier solution: Just play the dozen tracks below, which qualify as a rough neophyte’s guide to the genre. This won’t make you an expert, but it’s a start on learning the style’s building blocks.

To see an expanded version of this list, with links to examples so you can hear the songs, go to

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (Earl Scruggs, 1949) – Say “bluegrass instrumental,” and for most people “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is probably what comes to mind. Written by Shelby native Earl Scruggs, it’s been covered by virtually everyone in the genre; but look for the Flatt & Scruggs original.

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” (Bill Monroe, 1946) – Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were both in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys when he first recorded this stately bluegrass waltz in 1946. Beyond bluegrass, the most famous version is probably Elvis Presley’s up-tempo cover on the B-Side of “That’s All Right.”

“Rocky Top” (Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, 1967) – Composed by the songwriting team responsible for most of the Everly Brothers’ catalog, “Rocky Top” fondly recalls a bucolic paradise. It’s probably best-known nowadays as the University of Tennessee’s fight song, but the Osborne Brothers (who recorded the first version) own it.

“Orange Blossom Special” (Ervin T. Rouse, 1938) – Pretty much every country or bluegrass fiddler who ever set bow to strings has attempted this amped-up train song. Written by Craven County native Ervin T. Rouse, it was a sizable hit for Johnny Cash in 1965, and it’s probably being played somewhere on the planet at this moment.

“Can The Circle Be Unbroken” (Ada Haberson, Charles Gabriel and A.P. Carter, 1927) – Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter rewrote the 1908 spiritual “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” into one of the most enduring songs of the American roots-music canon. In the early 1970s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band collaborated with Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and other venerable country stars on its landmark hippie-country summit “Will The Circle Be Broken,” a then-unheard-of three-disc album.

“Feudin’ Banjos” (Don Reno and Arthur Smith, 1955) – In 1972, a plagiarized version of this song from the Burt Reynolds movie “Deliverance” made it to No. 2 on the pop charts. Charlotte native Arthur Smith didn’t take kindly to having his song lifted without credit (or payment), and successfully sued.

“I Wonder How the Old Folks are at Home” (A.P. Carter, 1929) – Here is another venerable song in a key of nostalgia, adapted and popularized by the Carter Family from the period when they were more or less inventing country music.

“Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (Lester Flatt, 1951) – Originally a 1930s-vintage Monroe Brothers tune, a recast version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” was a hit for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys (and later, a 1971 hit for Buck Owens). It’s another classic bluegrass breakdown, fast and clean.

“I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” (Johnny Bond, 1941) – One of bluegrass’ greatest missing-you songs, high and lonesome and keening.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” (traditional) – Long before the hit version sung by Alison Krauss sideman Dan Tyminski in 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” this century-old traditional song was a standard in bluegrass circles.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (traditional) – Gospel has always been a key part of bluegrass, a style that lends itself well to African-American spirituals. Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys did this one regularly.

“Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (Steve Martin, Graham Sharp & Woody Platt, 2011) – There is a long tradition of a cappella singing in bluegrass, especially spirituals, and also onstage humor. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” combines all of that in a dead-on affectionate homage to bluegrass gospel, as put together by Steve Martin with Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin’s solo vocal at the end never fails to bring down the house.

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