6 Essential Songs for Beginning Bluegrass Music Fans

Bill Monroe didn’t invent bluegrass music, but he refined it and is the person most often referred to as the “Father of Bluegrass.” The classic instrumentation includes upright bass, banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, and mandolin. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys became a breeding ground for musicians who would go on to their own fame. Bluegrass stalwarts including Stringbean, Roland White, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Byron Berline, Gordon Terry, Buck Trent, Sonny Osborne, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs all spent time in the ranks with Monroe. 

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The music started as old-time country from the hills of Appalachia. As it was honed and modeled into what we now know as bluegrass, the lyrics often reflected rural life. Many classic bluegrass songs could represent what the genre is about. But these six have made an impact on other aspects of pop culture. If you are new to bluegrass or want to expose someone to the genre, start with these classics.

1. “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys

The soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and brought old-time country music to the masses. The Coen Brothers’ movie starring George Clooney used a version sung by Dan Tyminski. It was used in the film with Clooney lip-synching to the track, but the recording won a CMA Award, a Grammy, and an IBMA Award.

The song’s origins go back to 1913 when similar lyrics were published as “Farewell Song” in a songbook by R.D. Burnett. Multiple artists have recorded the song through the years since. The Stanley Brothers recorded it several times in their career. Bob Dylan included it on his debut album. It is interesting to hear the different approaches used, as some stray from traditional bluegrass. Waylon Jennings, Rod Stewart, and Dwight Yoakam all gave the song a spin.

2. “Mule Skinner Blues” by Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys

The first solo recording by Bill Monroe, he adapted Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8” into the style that we all know as bluegrass. Rodgers adapted the song from Tom Dickson’s 1928 recording of “Labor Blues.” The “Muleskinner Blues” has had many lives, reaching the Top 10 of the pop charts in 1960 by The Fendermen and the Top 5 of the country charts by Dolly Parton in 1970. Roy Acuff recorded the song in 1939 and released it as a B-side.

Monroe performed it a year later on his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, and it became one of his signature tunes. Also worth checking out is “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” another song associated with Monroe that has widespread pop culture implications as one of Elvis Presley’s earliest recordings.

3. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

This instrumental has been used in many television shows and movies, most famously in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt started as part of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs revolutionized the banjo by introducing a three-finger picking technique that allowed the instrument to be a featured part of the show instead of just a background rhythm element. If you are interested in learning to play this awesome instrument, read our beginner banjos reviews for instruments that are easy to play and won’t break the bank.

[RELATED: 7 Bluegrass Songs for a Feel-Good Playlist]

Flat and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys were treated like rock stars before they knew what to call such a phenomenon. They were certainly “country music stars” in the early ‘50s, when they split away from Bill Monroe and continued his formula with even more success.

4. “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell

First recorded in 1955 by Arthur Smith and Don Reno as “Feudin’ Banjos,” most listeners are more familiar with this tune because of its inclusion in the 1972 movie Deliverance. The scene in the film that features the song is an excellent example of how musicians can bond with each other without even speaking. Actor Billy Redden is playing banjo in the Georgia hills when guitarist Ronny Cox finds himself on an adventure he could have never imagined.

In reality, Redden was not a banjo player, and Mike Addis had to hide behind him to reach around and provide the left hand to match the recording. Eight years earlier, the song appeared in The Andy Griffith Show when “The Darlings,” played by The Dillards, visited Mayberry.

5. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” by Flat and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Flatt & Scruggs show up twice on this list. They had their first wave of success in the early ‘50s, but their career had come back down to earth by the time they were asked to record a television theme song for the ‘60s CBS television series The Beverly Hillbillies. The duo even made appearances on the show as themselves and would perform.

Earl Scruggs’ wife, Louise, suggested they release a single of the theme song, and it went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. The song is featured on the live album Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall, a classic recording that captures the band in their element. A few years later, when “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” resurfaced, the duo found they had a whole new younger audience and could play frequently at colleges and universities.

6. “Rocky Top” by the Osborne Brothers

Written in 10 minutes by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudreaux Bryant, this song is most famously associated with the University of Tennessee. It is not the official fight song of the school (that honor belongs to “Down the Field”), and yet “Rocky Top” was voted the No. 1 fight song in college football in a poll conducted by USA Today.

This is another situation where the version you may be familiar with is not the traditional bluegrass recording. The Osborne Brothers had success in the late ’50s and early ‘60s before they recorded “Rocky Top,” which became their signature song. The band faced criticism from bluegrass purists for experimenting with electronic instruments and straying from the traditional formula. Dolly Parton, Buck Owens, and Lynn Anderson have all recorded the Tennessee anthem, as well.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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