When Bill Monroe wowed the Grand Ole Opry with a newfangled high, lonesome sound in 1939, youd better believe he was wearing a tie.
The father of bluegrass always wore a tie and dress shirt usually with a full suit and hat while performing, and anyone on stage with him was expected to adhere to the same dress code. It wasnt just a matter of preference: Monroe wanted to distance himself from the look and sound of hillbilly music popular at the time, and he wanted to let audiences know he meant business.
Today, the traditions of bluegrass are alive and well, even as the genre reaches in new directions, and bands still use fashion to send a message to the audience.
Its respect to the music, said John Teer, fiddle and mandolin player in Raleigh-based bluegrass band Chatham County Line, which plays the Wideopen Bluegrass Street Festival Saturday on the City Plaza stage.
From the very beginning, we had always been inspired by a lot of the older, great bluegrass through some of the legends in bluegrass like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, he said.
So right from the start, the four members of Chatham County Line decided two things: They were going to play and sing around a single microphone and they were going to wear suits with boots onstage.
My whole motto is if you look good, you play good, Teer said. It becomes this confidence factor. What we do on stage, and presenting it to the audience, its respect to the people who come to the show. They feel like theyre going to get a great show.
A cohesive look
One dramatic change in the look of bluegrass since Bill Monroes heyday is the number of women in bands, both traditional and progressive. And many of those women chose their outfits thoughtfully, a nod to the roots of bluegrass but also to todays fashion consciousness.
You wont catch members of the all-female bluegrass band Della Mae in matching ensembles, but they do coordinate their outfits so that they add up to a cohesive look.
Basically, its a conversation before every show, said mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner. Someone might ask, What are you wearing tonight? This is what I was thinking and well kind of go from that.
The band, playing on the Red Hat Amphitheater stage on Saturday, isnt really trying to achieve a certain look, she said, so much as making sure their clothing matches the venue, the event and the mood.
Everyone sort of has their own individual style, she said, and weve never tried to make a mold out of our style. We really try to feel as comfortable in our clothes as we can, and everyone expresses their individual style in a cohesive sense that will work in the band.
But even in a casual setting, the members of Della Mae dress it up a bit.
Weve really tried to look professional first, Gardner said. We take our jobs very seriously. Stepping on stage, to all of us, is what weve worked so hard for, and we take it very seriously and we want to dress in a way that is respectful to the music and to our audience.
Reaching back to the earliest days of bluegrass doesnt yield a lot of female style icons, but the women of Della Mae draw inspiration from the present.
Gardner listed Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and even Dolly Parton (even though shes a little more flamboyant with her style) as fashion inspirations from the music world, but she said the group draws inspiration from all around them.
Everyone in the group loves clothes and fashion so much. Being an all-female band, more note is taken of that, she said. Theres so much emphasis on fashion with women in general. We really try to take that and do our best with it.
Youll still see blue jeans
Not every modern bluegrass band is so conscientious, said Lorraine Jordan, frontwoman of North Carolina-based Carolina Road.
Ive seen a big change over the years with that, she said. People walk up there with blue jeans, flip-flops and a ragged T-shirt on. Thats just not the way bluegrass was. If youve got the traditional roots with the Stanley brothers and all those people, you know part of bluegrass is to be dressed.
The five members of Carolina Road four men and one woman coordinate their outfits to both embrace tradition and present a modern look.
Our roots are with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, said Jordan, who lives in Garner. And back in the early days of bluegrass, they all dressed alike. They had their suits and their bow ties and their dress shirts and they even wore hats. We dont go to that extreme, but we try to keep the tradition alive.
Sometimes the band, playing a Bluegrass Ramble Evening session at the Long View Center Saturday night, will perform in jeans, she said, but pair them with similarly styled button-down shirts in different colors.
We respect the traditional roots, but our music is a little bit fresher and our dress is a little bit fresher, she said. But were not getting so far away from it that were not respecting what bluegrass is about.
Most important, said Della Maes Gardner, is making sure the look and the sound work together, because the audience is paying attention to both.
We try our best to feel completely comfortable within our own skin and on the inside so that shows on the outside, she said. So far, its been working really well.