Bluegrass band plays in the background, camera focuses on pipe, wallet, and a small in on a weathered wooden table.

Technology and Bluegrass: More Than Just the Electric Banjo

history, music, Technology

By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach

After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.

Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?

Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.

One of Bill Monroe’s first appearances on the Opry.

CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?

MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.

The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.

I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.

Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys at “The Country Place.” This video illustrates the use of a single microphone for live performance.

I could also discuss the significant influence of the locomotive and later the automobile. I mentioned that Appalachia is a historically isolated region. People in this region of the United States rarely travelled beyond their region, state, county, or even town. It was simply too difficult to traverse the hills and mountains of the region on foot or on horseback. The locomotive changed all that. Over time, as travel became easier and cheaper, musicians travelled out of the region and others travelled into the region. Some of the jazz musicians that fled New Orleans in the 1920s came to Appalachia, bringing their style and technique. This significantly contributed to the use of improvisation and instrumental virtuosity among bluegrass musicians. Those leaving the region helped to spread their regional musical style. They also contributed to one of the major themes in bluegrass lyrics: longing for home. Simply considering how many bluegrass songs are about trains, the influence is undeniable.

CT: Are the technologies you’ve discussed particular to bluegrass and the culture and/or historical period the genre grew out of?

MB: No, these technologies are not unique to bluegrass. Popular music, in general, spread during the same period with the help of the same technologies. Country western, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and bluegrass all spread through the United States and the world through recordings and radio broadcasts. These genres developed in parallel, keeping their own unique stylistic elements but dependent on the same technology. For this reason, I believe that these technologies are synonymous with the 1940s and 1950s.

CT: Yes, great point about how so much popular music spread following those same technological lines! What about the technologies of the music itself – like the instruments? Do you see any distinctions in the way these various forms of music spread as a result of the instruments they used?

MB: One can certainly see a rapid evolution in popular forms of music that embraced these new electric guitars and an adherence to older style in genres that didn’t embrace them. When Leo Fender introduced the first high-quality, affordable solid body guitar, the Fender Telecaster, it was embraced by rock ‘n’ roll and country western artists. Their sounds rapidly evolved while bluegrassers focused, for a long time, on reproducing the style that Monroe, Flatt, and Scruggs defined.

If you look at the acoustic instruments that bluegrass musicians were playing, they didn’t evolve significantly during this period. The banjos that we see today are about the same as the banjos of the 1950s. Manufacturers use different materials to make production cheaper, but high-quality instruments are roughly the same. The same is true for acoustic guitars and mandolins. There are new production methods, new ideas for bracing guitars, or different woods (including synthetic materials), but buy an expensive guitar and it is made the same way and of the same materials as a guitar made in 1950. In fact, if you’re playing a Martin or Gibson guitar from that era, you’ve got quite a sought after and valuable guitar. It could be argued that this is one reason why bluegrass recordings from the 1960s sound very much like recordings from the 1950s. You can’t say the same for rock or country. Rock ‘n’ roll, in particular, got louder, heavier, and more complex. Just compare early Elvis recordings to the rock music of the late 1960s, the Woodstock era. Put Jailhouse Rock (1957) next to Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady (1967). Those songs were released exactly ten years apart and they don’t seem to live in the same universe. Compare two bluegrass recordings from ‘57 and ‘67 and you’ll hear roughly the same sound, just with better recording quality.

Cover art for Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock, featuring Elvis (a young white man) holding an acoustic guitar and gesturing toward the camera, and Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady, which features multiple overlapping images of Jimi Hendrix's face in different color tones.
The cover art for these songs hint at the changing musical sound, too.

I think I should also mention that technology like the electric guitar pulled some bluegrass players away from the genre. A lot of people don’t know that Jerry Garcia started out in bluegrass, old time, and folk music. From 1962-64 he almost exclusively played these musical styles, and he carried a lot of the stylistic elements of bluegrass into the Grateful Dead. The Dead’s instrumental virtuosity and reliance on improvisation are just a few elements that stick out. So, while bluegrass didn’t necessarily take up the electrified instruments, the electric guitar certainly influenced bluegrass musicians.   

CT: So clearly technology of various sorts is really important to the genre. How might paying attention to the technologies involved in bluegrass help us understand or appreciate it better?

MB: Many people view bluegrass music as low-class or even simple. This is a caricature of bluegrass, which in reality is played by professional musicians with virtuosic ability. Still, when one casually listens to early bluegrass recordings one hears harshness and nasality in the singing, lack of blend and balance in the instruments, static and crackle in the low fidelity recordings, and several other issues that might be misattributed to quality. Many of these audible quality issues, however, are simply byproducts of recording equipment of the time. Nasal singing is caused by trying to project into a low-quality microphone. Blend and balance issues are often due to the challenge of recording an entire band with one mic. Fidelity issues are obviously due to the recording equipment of the time.

As recording technology advanced, the clarity and cleanliness in bluegrass recordings advanced. Musicality similarly advanced as more players adopted the bluegrass style and made incremental stylistic advances. Musicians from other genres added to the style and development of bluegrass through the years. When you go back and listen to early recordings, however, you will not find a lack of virtuosity.

So, to answer the question, paying attention to the technologies involved in bluegrass allows the listener to separate musical elements from technical elements. When we consider the musical elements, alone, it is evident that bluegrass is not a lesser musical style.

CT: So far we’ve mostly focused on the history of bluegrass, but I’d like to bring the conversation into the present. How have advances in technology continued to shape bluegrass and variations on it (like classical adaptations, newgrass, etc.)?

MB: As I ponder this question, I have to mention that bluegrass musicians have historically been slow to change. Though the electric guitar developed around the same time as the rise of bluegrass (during the 1940s), musicians in the genre stuck to their acoustic instruments. It took decades for electric guitars and basses, drums, electric keyboards, or any other emerging instruments to be accepted in the bluegrass community. Many hardcore bluegrassers still reject these instruments.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Stomping Grounds 1996.

Advances like the electric banjo have allowed artists like Béla Fleck to incorporate new sounds into the genre. Artists like Fleck, who have one foot in bluegrass and other in jazz, have inspired collaborations with artists from a variety of genres. My favourite bluegrass crossover album of all time is The Goat Rodeo Sessions. This 2011 album includes bluegrass musicians Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile, as well as classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma has also recorded folk, old time, and bluegrass tunes with artists like Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss, and James Taylor. These crossovers wouldn’t have been possible without advances in recording technology, telecommunication, transportation, etc. Technology really drives creativity as much as creativity drives technological advancement.

CT: Thanks so much! I hope that this prompts people to listen to more bluegrass!

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