Bluegrass versus old-time: A primer

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From the N&O archives — this piece originally appeared on Sept. 24, 2013.

It’s common to see “bluegrass” and “old-time” used as almost interchangeable labels, especially in the years since roots music went mainstream with the chart-topping soundtrack to 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But while both styles are closely related and have similar instrumentation, bluegrass and old-time are not the same.

It’s a gross over-simplification, but here are the two quickest ways to tell whether someone is bluegrass or old-time:

Type of banjo — In old-time, it’s typically an open-back model. Bluegrass banjo has a resonator and is louder.

Solos — Everyone just plays the song straight on through in old-time, which rarely has individual solos. In bluegrass, there are “breaks,” interludes in which each instrumentalist takes a lead solo while the rest of the players stick to the main melody.

Beyond those generalizations, you could do a lot worse than to ask local musician Joe Newberry (who has been known to play both bluegrass and old-time) to break it down.

“Bluegrass and old-time are vines from the same root,” says Newberry, who won International Bluegrass Music Association songwriting awards in 2012 and 2013. “Old-time is one of many roots of bluegrass, and it has many mothers and fathers as well — African influences with banjo, Scots-Irish fiddle, church and dance traditions. All of these were things folks used to relax at the end of the day and sometimes made hard lives easier to bear.”

Early on, old-time was mostly instrumental string-band music suitable for square-dancing, with fiddle as primary lead instrument. Banjo was also prominent, played in a “clawhammer” style with the right hand stroking down on the strings.

Spray native Charlie Poole came along during the roaring ’20s and moved old-time closer to what eventually became both bluegrass and country music. But it took Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” to create bluegrass by adding his own special blue-note flourishes. When Shelby native Earl Scruggs joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945 and added his “Scruggs-style” three-finger banjo rolls, it caused a sensation.

“It was astounding to people,” Newberry says. “When you listen to their early recordings, it almost sounds like the Beatles from everybody yelling and screaming and carrying on.”

There are, of courses, purists in both bluegrass and old-time camps, which creates fertile ground for parody. In 2013, a website called Bluegrass Nation hilariously delineated the differences between bluegrass, old-time and Celtic music:

“Old Time and Celtic songs are about whiskey, food and struggle. Bluegrass songs are about God, mother and the girl who did me wrong. If the girl isn’t dead by the third verse, it ain’t Bluegrass. If everyone dies, it’s Celtic.”

“Things like that are funny, and they always have grains of truth,” Newberry says. “The problem with stereotypes is a lot of people don’t look past them. But old-time is like anything else — some people just play at it while others play it. Bluegrass is the same way. High-level players will make high-level music no matter the style.”

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David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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