Bluegrass has come a far way from it’s roots. It’s joined forces with rock, jazz, and world music – and created a new generation of amazing musicians playing this exciting new mashup: Newgrass.
AKA “New Acoustic”, or “Modern bluegrass”.
Odds are you’ve heard it and loved it, even if you didn’t know what it was called ; )
What is Newgrass?
Traditional bluegrass music sticks close to traditions. Instrumentation, song selection, playing styles – they’re all based in a long and storied bluegrass tradition. Specifically, in the playing and person of Bill Monroe.
In the 1970s, though, several new bands began pointing the way to a more liberal interpretation of bluegrass. One of those bands was “New Grass Revival”, including members Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, John Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn.
New Grass Revival took bluegrass to a new level in a number of ways. First of all, they looked different. Instead of a traditional approach, they looked more like a crossover from the hippie movement.
More importantly, this new interpretation of bluegrass incorporated new sounds and new instruments in four key ways:
- Songs might be pulled from other genres like rock or pop.
- Arrangements included jazzier progressions and chord voicings.
- New instruments were incorporated, like drums, dobro, and electric guitar.
- Performances were more akin to jam-band style performances than the neat’n’tidy bluegrass formulas of the past.
A Brief History of Newgrass
By the late 80’s and early 90’s, Newgrass music was going mainstream. In 1991, Alison Krauss won best Bluegrass Album Grammy for “I’ve Got That Old Feeling”.
In 1988, Béla Fleck earned a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Recording (Vocal or Instrumental) for his album “Drive”. And in 1990, Béla Fleck earned another Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for his song, “The Sinister Minister”, which has gone on to be a staple of Fleck’s performance for almost 3 decades. And, of course, many other Newgrass musicians were gaining notoriety along the way, as well.
A cultural turning point was, perhaps, reached with the popularity of the soundtrack to “O Brother Where Art Thou” in 2000. For many people that had never been exposed to bluegrass before, the Soggy Bottom Boys handling of songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Down to the River to Pray” instantly won them over. Of course, the Soggy Bottom Boys was a fictional band in the movie – but the film recordings were performed byf many of the great newgrass players like Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and others.
Today, we see Newgrass artists commanding packed shows and busy touring schedules. People like: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and The Infamous Stringdusters.
And the field keeps growing. New artists like: Chris Thile, Jordan Tice, and Trampled by Turtles are consistently breaking new ground.
For a quick way to listen to some of these artists, check out the last.fm station for Newgrass.
Players to Hear
There’s no shortage of great Newgrass players. Here are a few highlights. (And, of course, if you a favorite Newgrass artist, be sure to mention them in the comments below!)
- New Grass Revival
- Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
- Alison Krauss and Union Station
- Punch Brothers
- Yonder Mountain String Band
- The Infamous Stringdusters
- Jordan Tice
- Chris Thile
- Sarah Watkins
- Trampled by Turtles
- Old Crow Medicine Show
- And many, many more…
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of material out there on this genre, despite it’s popularity. A couple links, though, that will provide some more detail:
Before You Go:
This is the song that first personally captivated me with the potential of Newgrass. I can still remember that moment in the pro audio section of Sam Ash in Northridge. Hearing this song being played to test a speaker system and thinking, “What? How is this even possible?”. I was floored.
It’s Newgrass through and through – a classical song, performed by an electric bluegrass band, in complete jamband style.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones rocking “Hoedown”..
The Devil Makes Three!
Thank you for this article! Very helpful:)
The Country Gentlemen (since 1957) and then the Seldom Scene (since 1971) have been stretching the boundaries of Bluegrass since 1972. Together, they practically invented Progressive Bluegrass. And the Washington, DC area is one of the epicenters of the Bluegrass/Newgrass Revival in the 1970s and 80s at venues like the Red Fox Inn, The Birchmere, etc.
Arkansauce and The Brothers Comatose were excellent at a little bowling alley in Fort Collins. Can’t forget Greensky Bluegrass too!
How can you not mention Leftover Salmon? These guys from Colorado have been around at least since the mid-90s and are still touring and making records today. They describe their varied style “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” and there’s some of all of that, and more, in their music. But mostly they’re very accomplished bluegrass/newgrass musicians who, in my opinion, are among the best around. They have a large and devoted following and really should have been mentioned.
It’s difficult to believe that this entire article never once mentions John Hartford, who was at the very least one of the earliest players of newgrass, and probably one of the co-founders of the movement. Better check out his story, and better yet his music, before you finish this history!
I love the Steep Canyon Rangers.:-)