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Fans Celebrate Worldwide Bluegrass Music Month


We know that 12 months make up one year. There is one exception to that rule, however. When you are talking about commemorative months, several types of music are celebrated: September is Classical Music Month; April is Jazz Appreciation Month; Black Music Month is coming up in June. And May? VOA's Katherine Cole reports this is Worldwide Bluegrass Music Month.

For the uninitiated, bluegrass is a kind of acoustic music, built around banjos, mandolins, guitars and fiddles, and it's famous for its lightning-fast picking. While there are now thousands of bluegrass musicians in all parts of the world, not so many years ago, there was only one bluegrass band in the world … Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys.

Bill Monroe came to be known as the "father of bluegrass music," because he invented both the name and the sound back in the 1940s. His group, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, featured Bill on his mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Howard Watts on bass, and Earl Scruggs on banjo.

Bluegrass has now been a part of American music for more than 50 years. While bluegrass fans are fiercely-dedicated, learning as much as they can about their favorite musicians, the instruments they play, and the songs they've written, most Americans are probably only familiar with the genre through a handful of songs that have become popular outside of the bluegrass mainstream. Most of those tunes were associated with television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, or movies such as O Brother Where Art Thou?, Deliverance,"and Bonnie and Clyde, which featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs performing the classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs met while performing in Bill Monroe's bluegrass band. In 1948, they decided to form their own group, The Foggy Mountain Boys, recording "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" a few years later. That "breakdown" did wonders for banjo sales when it appeared in the 1968 movie Bonnie And Clyde. It also helped to introduce bluegrass to a whole new audience.

Today, the popularity of bluegrass has spread far beyond the United States, with fans and musicians, popping up in Europe, South America and beyond.

A few international pickers have even settled in the U.S., and have proven they can play bluegrass just as well as the homegrown talent. One such band is The Greencards, made up of Australians Kym Warner and Carol Young, and U.K. native Eamon McLaughlin.

Cole: "Considering that many Americans don't know the music of Flatt and Scruggs, how did you all discover it living where you did? I can't imagine that American bluegrass was always at the top of the [Australian] charts."

Young: "There was this sort of underground scene in Australia."

Warner: "Like there is anywhere. You're going to meet people from the Czech Republic and Italy playing bluegrass music. Same sort of things. There's just pockets of people [playing it]. For me, it was through my dad. I was one of the few people in Australia that had a father who actually played banjo. And Eamon's family was musical too, so he got into it in that sort of way."

McLaughlin: "Yeah, my Dad had a country band in England for many years, so he'd always have these old LPs [albums] of Charley Pride, and Buck Owens and Jim Reeves. It [the music] was always on. Sunday dinner, it was always country music. As Carol said, it was this sort of underground scene where there'd be one or two radio shows per week that you'd listen to religiously, and you'd write down all the names, and go and try to find out who these singers were. Kind of like a cult."

Twenty years ago, arts consultant Bob Wolff decided it was time for bluegrass to outgrow its cult status, and proposed that May be designated Worldwide Bluegrass Music Month. He had a theory that if more people were introduced to the music he loved, the audience would grow. That seems to have worked, as sales of CDs and concert tickets show bluegrass is more popular than ever these days.

If you're new to bluegrass, and would like to learn more about the music but don't know where to start, a compilation album may be the way to go. Several labels have released new bluegrass collections this year, and they are a very good way to learn more about the music. Rebel Records' latest is called Best Loved Bluegrass: 20 All-Time Favorites. Artists on this collection include first generation performers like Mac Wiseman, The Stanley Brothers, The Seldom Scene, The Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice, and J.D. Crowe, who contributes an instrumental called "Train 45."

If you'd like to find out where to find bluegrass music near you, contact the International Bluegrass Music Association online at IBMA.org. And don't forget to tell them you heard about Worldwide Bluegrass Music Month on VOA.

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