Six Songs That Define Bluegrass

Emma John is an award-winning journalist and author of the acclaimed book ‘Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey In The American South’. One of our favourites of recent times, it was written as Emma spent two years travelling around the USA on a quest to learn all there is to know about bluegrass. A classically trained violinist who had fallen out of love with her instrument, hearing bluegrass music for the first time set her off on an emotional journey that brought the fiddle back into her life. Emma told us all about her discoveries during a much-loved talk in the deer park last summer and now she’s back with Black Deer to present six songs that define bluegrass…

‘Can’t You Hear Me Calling’ by Bill Monroe (1949)

As the man who started the genre, with his band The Bluegrass Boys, you could argue that anything Bill Monroe recorded from the late 1940s onwards defines bluegrass. He took the old-timey sounds and songs of the Appalachian Mountains and injected them with a hard-driving rhythm that was practically punk for the time. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Calling’ isn’t just a great example of that sound – complete with his inimitable high-and-lonesome singing – it’s also one of the most autobiographical songs he ever wrote, a love letter to one of his many mistresses. Bluegrass romances never seem to end well…


‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ by Flatt and Scruggs (1949)

This instrumental is the ultimate sound of bluegrass: all banjo, all the time. You probably can’t listen to it without picturing ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, the TV show that brought Flatt and Scruggs their fame and fortune. Given that Earl Scruggs’ revolutionary, ridiculously fast banjo picking was the key to Bill Monroe’s musical breakthrough, it’s a well-deserved legacy.


‘Who Will Sing For Me’ by The Stanley Brothers (1962)

Ralph and Carter Stanley’s brother duets were the third foundational pillar of bluegrass. Part-time rascals – especially Carter, who was handy with fists and drank himself into an early grave – they also recorded some of the most hauntingly beautiful gospel songs bluegrass has ever known. The mournful longing of this number a reminder of the Stanleys’ (and bluegrass’s) ever-present obsession with death…


‘The Old Home Place’ by JD Crowe and the New South (1975)

Nothing is more important to the meaning of bluegrass than the old homeplace – the family farmstead hidden up in the hills, where mama still prays for her sons and daddy still works the land. Nostalgia for the mountains is fundamental to bluegrass – it’s a music created by men who moved to the cities during the Depression, looking for work – and that didn’t change when the second generation of bluegrassers took on its sounds and themes in the 60s and 70s. The Dillards wrote this song, and it’s now a standard, but we defy you to find any better recording than JD Crowe’s.


‘Steel Rails’ by Alison Krauss (1990)

Bluegrass was a macho, male-dominated preserve until Alison Krauss came along with her voice of an angel and reworked the music for a more pop-savvy generation. This isn’t just a beautiful example of how bluegrass evolved for the 80s and 90s, it’s also about trains… which is important, because train songs make up about a third of the bluegrass repertoire.


‘Rye Whiskey’ by Punch Brothers (2010)

The other category of song that bluegrass cannot do without is drinking songs… and none have a more riotous, woozy vibe than this. Punch Brothers are at the cutting edge of contemporary bluegrass, but Rye Whiskey – a foot stomping song about the effects of liquor – anchors them firmly to bluegrass’s past, and even has a singalong part for the audience. Oh yeah…



We have three copies of the brand new paperback of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ to give away – to be in with a chance of getting your hands on a copy, tell us the name of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s famous band. Email your answer, name and address to making sure you enter ‘Bluegrass’ in the subject box. Usual T&C’s apply. Good luck! Closing date: Midnight September 6th 2020.