A History of Bluegrass Music
In the mid-1940s, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, a Kentucky-based band named after their state, played radio programs with their pioneering brand of country music. This new offshoot of country became known as bluegrass, named after the band that popularized it. By the 1960s, bluegrass had grown into a formidable musical presence all its own.
Though bluegrass came to prominence in the 20th century, the roots of bluegrass music can be traced back as early as the 1600s. During that time, dance music, ballads and spirituals from Ireland, Scotland, England and Africa traveled to America with emigrants from those places. As settlers made homes across the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains, they wrote songs about their new life; these tunes were named “mountain music” after their place of origin.
The bluegrass audience grew with the invention of the phonograph and the radio. A major radio force in the distribution of bluegrass was what is now known as the Grand Old Opry. The first broadcast was on October 5, 1925, making it the oldest continuous radio program in the United States. Originally called WSM Barn Dance, the Nashville-based radio show was primarily a country music showcase but moved to include bluegrass in its live performances and membership.
During World War II, bluegrass’ blend of old-time mountain music, country, ragtime and jazz came into its own as a musical genre. In 1938, musician Bill Monroe started a band called the Kentuckians. The next year, Monroe changed the band’s name to the Blue Grass Boys and the band joined the cast of Grand Old Opry. By 1940, Monroe had hired banjo picker Earl Scruggs, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt and fiddler Chubby Wise; with these players in place, the Blue Grass Boys wrote original music and developed a unique playing style. By the 1950s, people began referring to this new style of country music as “bluegrass music” after Monroe’s band. Monroe is called father of bluegrass music. As folk music’s popularity grew in the 1960s, bluegrass reached larger audiences, and Monroe headlined the first bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965.
The parents of Ralph and his brother Carter sparked the brothers’ interest in music. Their father sang and his mother played banjo, which inspired older brother Carter to play guitar and Ralph to become a banjo picker and tenor singer. The Stanley Brothers performed on the radio in Virginia as early as 1946. The Stanley Brothers recorded for Rich-R-Tone, Columbia and Mercury Records. The brothers and their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, performed mountain folk music before shifting to ultra-traditional bluegrass. In the 1950s, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys expanded their boundaries, recording tracks from gospel and honky tonk traditions, as well as instrumentals and original songs. The brothers performed together until Carter’s death in 1966.
Ralph Stanley has played bluegrass music for over 60 years and has performed on more than 170 albums. In 2002, Stanley won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance “O Death” on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center opened in Virginia in 2004; the interactive museum combines the history of traditional mountain music with Stanley’s career milestones. Stanley’s accolades also include a membership in the Grand Ole Opry and in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, where he was honored alongside his brother Carter for their work as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
After his brother’s death, Ralph Stanley continued performing solo, using his distinct tenor voice to carve new paths in the bluegrass soundscape. Even during his solo work, Ralph considered how the haunting mountain melodies of the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys had set them apart from other bluegrass bands. Stanley decided to continue the Clinch Mountain Boys and build upon the foundation he’d started with his brother Carter.
The re-formed Clinch Mountain Boys have been touring for four decades. Their hybrid of bluegrass, folk and mountain music captures audiences on the bluegrass festival circuit. Ralph Stanley surrounded himself with talented bluegrass musicians to contribute to the unique Clinch Mountain Boys’ sound.
The Clinch Mountain Boys
As a teenager, Jack Cooke told his sister, “I'm never going to work. I'm going to let this guitar do it for me.” Cooke was right: he has played bass guitar for over 50 years.
Cooke had his first stint with the Clinch Mountain boys in 1955 as the bass player for the Stanley Brothers. Cooke then served as a Bluegrass Boy and Bill Monroe's lead vocalist from 1956 to 1960. Cooke played with the Virginia Mountain Boys, Earl Taylor, and the Stoneman Family before returning to the Clinch Mountain Boys for good in 1970. His 39-year tenure as bass player makes him the longest serving Clinch Mountain Boy after Ralph Stanley. In 2007 Cooke released his first solo album, Sittin’ On Top Of The World.
Jack A. Shelton joined the Clinch Mountain Boys as lead guitarist in 1994. Shelton has also served as the band’s road manager and booking agent. Shelton’s love of guitar extends beyond playing: his other projects include a book of guitar tablature and three volumes of Ralph's Song and Memory Book; an instructional video, Clinch Mountain Guitar; and making guitar straps. The Huss & Dalton Guitar Company in Virginia built a limited edition James A. Shelton Signature Guitar. In 2004, Shelton’s album Half Moon Bay was nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Award for Album Of The Year.
Steve Sparkman’s father played clawhammer banjo and loved the Stanley Brothers. Sparkman learned to play banjo by his father’s instruction and listening to Stanley Brothers records. When Dr. Stanley broke his femur in 1994, he called Sparkman as his temporary replacement; Stanley admired Sparkman’s playing so much that he kept the banjo player as a permanent member of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Sparkman has played with the band for over 11 years but still practices his banjo for two to four hours a day to maintain his craft.
Ralph Stanley II is the son of Ralph and Jimmi Stanley; he started going out on the road with his father when he was just two years old. At four, Stanley began learning to play guitar. By the time he was 16, Stanley was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the Clinch Mountain Boys. Stanley has also released five solo albums. Two—Stanley Blues and Carrying On—were nominated for Grammys, and his latest, called This One Is Two, was released in 2008.
Dewey Brown began playing fiddle at age 9. After a friend taught Brown fiddle basics, he began an 11-year study with fiddler J.B. Prince. As a senior in high school he won the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia in 1999. The accomplished fiddler began playing for the band Blue Ridge when he was still in high school. Brown also played with Honi Deaton and Dream, IIIrd Tyme Out, the James King Band, and the Roland White Band. In 2005, Dr. Ralph Stanley invited Brown to join the Clinch Mountain Boys. In 2006, Brown released Traditional Fiddle, a solo album featuring Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Nathan Stanley is the oldest grandson of Ralph Stanley. He started playing spoons for the Clinch Mountain Boys when he was only 6 years old. Now, 11 years on, Nathan plays mandolin for the band. On Nathan’s first solo album, Sandy Ridge, he sings in addition to playing original mandolin and banjo compositions. Nathan has also performed the title track from that album on the Grand Ole Opry with the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Jere and Sandy Lee Cherryholmes met in their church, married, and began raising a family of six children in Bell, California, just outside of Los Angeles. Jere was a carpenter and Sandy homeschooled the children. In 1999, their eldest daughter Shelly died from respiratory failure due to chronic heart problems. The family heard about a nearby bluegrass festival and decided to attend to lift their spirits. The festival changed their lives: it inspired the family to start their own bluegrass band.
The kids were assigned instruments—banjo for Cia Leigh, Skip on guitar, and fiddle for B.J. and Molly Kate—leaving the mandolin for Sandy and the bass for Jere. To cover the novice musicians as they learned, Sandy initially divided the parts so the kids only played one note each. “We just played really loud and fast,” she laughs. What started out as a desire to draw the family closer together during their time of sorrow developed into a legitimate part-time band. Cherryholmes’ skills improved, their reputation spread and the band began receiving invitations to perform.
After a 32-hour round trip to play a show in Colorado, Jere realized they had reached their weekend driving limit. In 2002, Jere quit his job, and the family sold their house to pursue a full-time music career. By 2003, Cherryholmes had appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree, the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Music Fest and International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) FanFest. In 2004, the band self-released their third album and started their own bluegrass festival.
The band signed to Skaggs Family Records in 2005, and their self-titled label debut entered Billboard’s Top Bluegrass Albums chart at no. 3. The album also earned Cherryholmes nominations at the IBMA Awards for Emerging Artist of the Year and for Entertainer of the Year, making them the first act to be nominated in both categories. The win for Entertainer of the Year was followed by their first Grammy nomination. Their follow-up album, Cherryholmes II: Black and White, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Bluegrass Albums chart and earned the band their second Grammy nomination. The band’s lastest album, Cherryholmes III: Don’t Believe (2008), preserves traditional bluegrass elements while exploring bold orchestral arrangements.
Bluegrass music is played primarily on stringed instruments. Modern stringed instruments are nearly all descended from the medieval Italian lute, but cave paintings and murals as early as 15,000 BC depict single-stringed instruments.
- Banjo – A stringed instrument, worn and played in a manner similar to a guitar. The banjo was originally developed by enslaved Africans in the United States and is an adaptation of African instruments. The word “banjo” comes from the Senegambian term for a bamboo stick, which used to make the instrument’s neck. The earliest banjos in America were made from gourds. Bluegrass is usually played on a 5-string banjo.
- Fiddle – A stringed instrument played by dragging a stringed bow across the mounted strings. “Fiddle” is a Germanic word. The modern instrument emerged in medieval 10th-century Europe from the lyra, an instrument used for folk music in Turkey, Greece, Iran and Italy. For most of its history, the fiddle has been used as accompaniment for dancing.
- Mandolin – A stringed instrument from the lute family, mandolins evolved from the lute family in 16th- and 17th-century Italian. Mandolins were a fad instrument in America from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-twenties; salesmen even peddled the instrument to entire communities to create mandolin orchestras. It wasn’t until the 1940s when bluegrass musician Bill Monroe played the mandolin that the instrument became popular again.
- Upright bass – The upright, or double, bass is played by finger-plucking rather than with a bow. The bass provides a steady beat that helps make up the rhythm section in bluegrass bands. Sometimes bassists use a technique called “slap-style” to produce a tap-dance-like clicking sound.