Charlie Louvin once said that bluegrass is just a song speeded up three times faster than it was originally recorded, “I don’t care if it’s ‘White Christmas.’” A little stereotyped, but he did have a point.
Bluegrass makes more use of instruments such as banjo and mandolin. Also, bluegrass does not use electrical instruments, it’s all acoustic.
As for lyric content, many bluegrass acts rely on old country (and sometimes rock!) songs to record. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver won an IBMA award for “song of the year” one year (think it was 2001) for “Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line),” which was an old hit for country singer George Hamilton IV that was written by John D. Loudermilk. Lawson’s also covered the 1960s hit “Yellow River” and does a lot of Delmore Brothers/Browns Ferry Four and Louvin Brothers songs. Alison Krauss has recorded old country songs AND old rock songs (she did a cover of the Bad Company song “Oh Atlanta” for instance). So lyrics have little to do with it, although I will say that a lot of bluegrass acts do tend to dig out those great old “murder ballads. In fact, there was a bumper sticker at one bluegrass festival that said, “Stop Willie before he kills again!” (in reference to the fact that the name “Willie” is extremely common in those old murder ballads — see “Knoxville Girl” and “Katie Dear”).
And I will say that bluegrass musicians, unlike most of the modern country musicians, remember and pay homage to their roots. You probably couldn’t find a modern country singer who can perform a Carter Family song, but you likewise probably couldn’t find a modern bluegrass act who CANNOT perform a Carter Family song. People like Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen are still revered and honored in bluegrass.
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