Bluegrass Vs Country: What Are the Differences?

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Are you having a hard time distinguishing between bluegrass vs country music? Not sure what the differences are between these two unique musical genres?

Especially for people who don’t ordinarily listen to either bluegrass or country music, it can be difficult to understand what the differences are between the two. This is because the two genres share a lot of similarities and use a lot of the same instruments. To make things even more difficult, there are many “crossover” songs that straddle the line between the two genres and appeal to listeners of both.

Surprisingly enough, even though the two genres have a lot of similarities, not everybody likes both of them. While many people love to listen to both country and bluegrass, some people are fervently for or against one genre or the other.

If you’re confused about the differences between country music and bluegrass, you’re in the right place. In this guide, we’ll get to the bottom of the bluegrass vs country music debate and will tell you exactly what the differences are.

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A Shared History: Two Intertwined Music Genres

The first thing to realize about bluegrass vs country music is that they have a shared history. There has been plenty of crossover between the two genres throughout the years.

The Carter Family
The Carter Family (Source: brett jordan via Flickr)

There was a time when the two genres were much more closely aligned, but over the years their paths have diverged by quite a bit. However, there is still a lot of cross-over and they still influence each other significantly, even in the modern age.

While country music arguably began in the early 1920s, bluegrass didn’t really come along until the 1940s. Both genres, however, have been influenced by a lot of the same genres and have their roots in old-time music, traditional folk songs, gospel, and early cowboy music. From these influences, these two genres developed and continued to go their separate ways over the years.

While country music has evolved by quite a bit over the years and its sound has changed from decade to decade, bluegrass has arguably evolved less. It sounds a lot more similar to its original sound than country music does to its original sound.

Traditional bluegrass artists have tried to hang on to the roots of the genre. They still play and record many of the same songs that were popular in the 1940s and 1950s when the genre was created. On the other hand, there are still many bluegrass bands and artists that have taken the genre in new and exciting directions as well. These artists are considered to be a part of a bluegrass subgenre known as progressive bluegrass music.

How is Bluegrass Different From Country?

While many people can listen to a country song and a bluegrass song side by side and easily determine which is which, for some people, it’s not so easy. Additionally, because many elements are the same depending on which song you’re listening to, the task becomes even more difficult.

Fortunately, there are some ways that you can determine which type of song you’re listening to. While there are always genre-bending songs and recordings out there that break all the rules, here are some key differences you’re likely to spot when speaking about bluegrass vs country in a general sense.

Instrumentation

Many of the instruments that are used in bluegrass vs country music will overlap. However, there are certain instruments that you’ll almost never hear in bluegrass that will often appear in country music.

Generally speaking, the instrumentation will vary from song to song and artist to artist in country music by quite a bit. However, instrumentation in bluegrass will stay a bit more static with usually only small changes between one artist or band and another.

Main Instruments Used in Bluegrass and Country Music

Here are some of the main instruments you’re likely to hear in country music:

  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Electric Guitar
  • Piano
  • Electric or Upright Bass
  • Full Drum Set
  • Steel Guitar or Lap Steel
  • Fiddle
  • Banjo
  • Mandolin
  • Dobro

Here are some of the main instruments you’re likely to hear in bluegrass:

  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Fiddle
  • Mandolin
  • 5-String Banjo
  • Dobro
  • Upright Bass

Understanding Country and Bluegrass Instrumentation

As you can see, you’ll hear fewer instruments in bluegrass music than in country music. You’ll also notice that none of them are electric and that the piano, the steel guitar, and the drum set are all missing from the list of bluegrass instruments.

Bluegrass bands, especially very traditional ones, very rarely use electric instruments such as the electric guitar. Acoustic instruments are front and center in bluegrass music.

Additionally, instead of using full drum sets, bluegrass bands make use of acoustic instruments to provide rhythm. Commonly, this will be most transparent in the acoustic guitar and the relationship between the mandolin and the bass. The “chopping” sound of the mandolin provides a great rhythm that cuts above the other instruments while the upright bass provides the low end of the band.Fiddle Player - Bluegrass vs Country Music

Unlike bluegrass, country music is a little bit more flexible with instrumentation and there is a wider range of instrumentation from song to song and artist to artist. Country bands often feature drums along with the steel guitar, the piano, and more.

In addition to other types of instrumentation, country music will sometimes use bluegrass instruments or even a full bluegrass band in songs. However, even when there is a hint of bluegrass instrumentation in a country song, there are usually other elements as well that go beyond a typical bluegrass sound. Even country songs with bluegrass instrumentation will often include drums, steel guitar, piano, and other non-bluegrass elements as well.

Simply put, you can expect to hear acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, upright bass, and the 5-string banjo in both genres. However, if you start hearing the electric guitar, the piano, and the steel guitar as well, you’re likely listening to a country song.

Vocal Style

Another way that country music and bluegrass music differ is in their vocal styles.

Country music is characterized by a vocal “twang” that essentially emulates a Southern accent while singing. While some of country music’s singers are from the South and have a genuine twang when singing, many country singers have learned this intentionally in order to fit in with the genre. Some famous country singers such as Keith Urban and Shania Twain aren’t even from the United States, much less from the American Southeast.

Nickel Creek Singing Harmonies
Nickel Creek (Source: Jake Bouma via Flickr)

Bluegrass music also features a “twang” of its own, but it’s usually a bit different than the sound of country vocalists. Bluegrass singers often sing with a distinctive nasal tone and many of the genre’s pioneers had high tenor voices that helped to characterize the genre’s sound.

In addition to this, bluegrass usually features distinctive vocal harmonies as well. These harmonies are often very “out front” in a band and are in sharp contrast to rock, country, and other styles of music in which vocal harmonies are more subtle.

Bluegrass harmonies are tight and will often have two, three, or four parts. The highest voice will often have a dissonant or modal sound which gives bluegrass music a very distinctive quality.

Focus on Instruments Vs Vocals

Not only is there a difference in which instruments are used between bluegrass music and country music, but the emphasis on the instruments is different as well.

The song and the singer are usually front and center in country music. The instruments support the singer, first and foremost. With bluegrass music, the instruments take more of a central role.

Bluegrass takes a lot of influence from jazz, and in a bluegrass song, each of the instruments is given their time to shine. While country often features just a single solo during the course of a song, bluegrass songs will often feature solos from multiple instruments. Each player will take turns playing leads and backing the other players.

In vocal bluegrass songs, the mandolin, the banjo, the acoustic guitar, the fiddle, the dobro, and other instruments may all get their time to shine after a verse and chorus. Solos in bluegrass songs will also be largely improvised and will be significantly different every time the song is played by the band.

Bluegrass also features many instrumental songs as well. Many of these are known as fiddle tunes. Usually, in these instrumentals, each instrument will take its turn playing over the basic structure and improvising a solo around the basic melody of the song.

Bluegrass instrumentals are often blistering fast and require a lot of technical skill and proficiency to play well. This is on top of the improvisation skills that a player will need to have.

Mainstream Vs. Non-Mainstream Genres

It’s important to realize that while country music has stayed in the mainstream view for many decades now, bluegrass hasn’t had quite as much time in the limelight. While bluegrass has had some pop culture visibility with TV comedy shows such as “Hee-Haw” and films such as “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou” and “Deliverance”, its overall coverage in mainstream broadcast radio has been minimal.

Also, while there are dedicated fans of the genre all over the world, bluegrass tends to be more popular in certain regions than in others, such as in the Southern states and close to the Southern Appalachian mountains. While country music is still somewhat more popular in rural areas and in Southern states of the US, it still has an extremely widespread and strong mainstream following.

Bluegrass, in contrast, has a rabid and dedicated non-mainstream fanbase. While bluegrass hasn’t achieved the commercial, mainstream success of country music, the genre isn’t likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Creativity Vs Community

Another difference to realize between country music and bluegrass music is that fans and players interact with the genres in different ways.

Songwriting and Innovation

Country music is very focused on songwriting and singing and is a very creative genre that is constantly reinventing itself. While country music is very commercial, it still allows songwriters and artists to let their creativity shine. Songs in country music are very well-written and dig deep into human emotions while also telling great stories at the same time.

Chord structures and song structures in country music can also vary quite a bit and there are endless possibilities for how a song can be written, what melodies can be created, and how the instrumentation will be. Once you start writing or playing country songs you can form a band, play an open mic night, and share your songs with the world.

While bluegrass music features some great songwriting as well, the songs tend to be more repetitive. The same instruments are commonly used and many traditional bluegrass bands play the same songs that were popular over 50 years ago!

There’s still a lot of opportunity for writing new bluegrass music and taking the genre to new heights, especially in the progressive bluegrass and newgrass sphere. However, many bluegrass players like to follow the traditions of those before them and that’s totally fine too.

Bluegrass Jam at Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Source: Brian Omura via Wikimedia Commons)

Community and Subculture

Where the bluegrass genre really shines, especially as a musician, is in the subculture. The bluegrass community is strong and listeners are very passionate about the genre, its players, and its traditions.

Additionally, musicians love the genre because opportunities for organized jamming abound. Since many songs in bluegrass have been played by musicians for decades, this means that bluegrass players from all over the country and world know a lot of the same songs. This makes it incredibly easy for bluegrass players to meet each other for the very first time and to immediately start playing songs together.

Like with jazz music, bluegrass players know the same songs and can improvise their parts over them with other musicians who are familiar with the same song. Whether it’s a vocal bluegrass song or an instrumental, mandolin players, banjo players, guitarists, and other bluegrass musicians can easily go through a song from start to finish and continue jamming for hours.

While there are plenty of new bluegrass songs that are being created by bands every year, nearly every bluegrass musician will know many of the same traditional and well-known tunes as well.

Organized bluegrass jams and bluegrass festivals are extremely popular among bluegrass musicians and can be found across the United States and in many places around the world. This is something that makes bluegrass a very unique and fun genre to participate in and to listen to.

While there are music festivals for all music genres out there, bluegrass music festivals are pretty unique. At these festivals, not only will bands and musicians be playing on stage. Amateur musicians from all over will attend the festival to meet other bluegrass enthusiasts and will jam with them throughout the duration of the festival.

Notable Songs & Artists in Bluegrass and Country Music

While a lot can be said about the differences between bluegrass vs country, simply listening to the two genres a lot will help you get an idea of what their differences really are. Here are a few songs that you should listen to in each genre to get a feel for how they differ.

Garth Brooks - Country Music Tour
Garth Brooks (Source: fatherspoon via Flickr)

Country

Because country music artists all have their own styles and because the genre can vary quite a bit, it’s hard to point out any specific country song or artist as being characteristic of the genre.

Some of the most popular country artists of all time include Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard. Some of the most popular artists in the last decade or so include Jason Aldean, Luke Bryant, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, and the Zac Brown Band.

Here are a few songs that make many “essential” lists that include all decades:

  • “Friends in Low Places” – Garth Brooks
  • “Jolene” – Dolly Parton
  • “I Walk the Line” – Johnny Cash
  • “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – Wille Nelson

Here are a few essential songs from just the 2010s:

  • “The House That Built Me” – Miranda Lambert
  • “Tennessee Whiskey” – Chris Stapleton
  • “Body Like a Back Road” – Sam Hunt
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church

Modern country music tends to use more intricate production. It takes more influence from pop music than country music in earlier decades did. However, there are still a lot of similar characteristics between the two. Much of the same instrumentation can be found in both modern and classic country music.

Bluegrass

While bluegrass music and country music have been around for a similar timeframe, a lot of bluegrass bands stay close to their roots. Newly formed bluegrass bands often play in a very similar style to what you would have heard in the first couple of decades of the genre. They even play many of the same songs both on recordings and when playing live.

Progressive bluegrass music, however, is a different story. Progressive bluegrass bands and artists tend to take the roots of bluegrass music and mix it with stronger Celtic, rock, and jazz influences. They tend to write brand new songs and experiment with the basic style and instrumentation a bit more. Many of them will even cover popular rock and pop songs as well.

Some of the most popular bluegrass artists of all time (and founders of the genre) include Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin. Some of the most popular progressive bluegrass artists include Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Grass Revival, The Seldom Scene, Trampled By Turtles, Punch Brothers, and Nickel Creek.

Here are a few of the most popular traditional bluegrass songs of all time:

  • “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
  • “Duelin’ Banjos” -Eric Weissberg
  • “Rocky Top” – The Osborne Brothers
  • “Blue Moon of Kentucky” – Bill Monro & His Bluegrass Boys
  • “Nine Pound Hammer” – Tony Rice

Here’s a small selection of progressive bluegrass songs you may want to check out:

  • “Julep” – Punch Brothers
  • “When You Come Back Down” – Nickel Creek
  • “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – Tim O’Brien
  • “Where is My Mind – Trampled By Turtles
  • “Callin’ Baton Rouge” – New Grass Revival
  • “The Lucky One” – Alison Krauss & Union Station
  • “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo” – Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

Crossover

One reason that understanding the distinction between bluegrass vs country can get especially tricky is because some artists end up releasing albums in both genres or releasing songs that happened to do well for both audiences. Additionally, many other country songs will feature bluegrass-style instrumentation to some extent or another.

Some artists that have released music in both bluegrass and country genres include Dierks Bentley, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, and of course, Ricky Skaggs.

Here are a few crossover bluegrass/country songs that you may want to check out:

  • “When You Say Nothing At All – Alison Krauss
  • “Up On the Ridge” – Dierks Bentley
  • “Uncle Pen” – Ricky Skaggs

FAQ on Bluegrass Music

There may still be a few things that you’d like to know about bluegrass music. In this section, we’ll answer a few of the most common questions about the genre.

Is Bluegrass Popular?

While bluegrass music doesn’t have the mainstream appeal that country, pop, and rock music have, many people are aware of its existence and have heard at least a couple of songs.

Bluegrass definitely has a special place in popular culture in the United States due to movies such as “Deliverance” and “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou” heavily featuring the genre. Many country music fans also have a passing awareness of the genre. They’re familiar with some of the crossover songs we mentioned above if nothing else.

As far as active listeners and fans go, however, bluegrass remains a pretty niche genre. Where bluegrass really shines is in its unique subculture and its fairly small but extremely dedicated fanbase, many of which are musicians themselves.

On top of this, despite its Appalachian roots, bluegrass has spread far and wide. Today, diehard bluegrass fans exist around the world.Banjo Player - Bluegrass vs Country

The grammy-winning progressive bluegrass band, Nickel Creek, for example, was formed far away from the Appalachian mountains in California. There’s also a thriving bluegrass scene across the water in the Czech Republic (Czechia).

Where Do People Listen to Bluegrass Music?

As with many other music genres today, you’re likely to find bluegrass listeners all over the world.

Bluegrass has its roots in Kentucky and in the surrounding Southern states of the US. It likely remains the most popular in these states and there are plenty of bluegrass festivals and concerts in the region. However, a quick glance at the Spotify page for Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys shows that the 5 cities with the most listeners as of this writing are Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Additionally, many people listen to bluegrass globally. Particularly in Europe, bluegrass popularity is rising. There are many bluegrass festivals in Europe each year.

Is Bluegrass a Subgenre of Country Music?

Some people would argue that bluegrass is a genre that stands all on its own. However, many people agree that bluegrass is a subgenre of country music.

In reality, the two genres developed more-or-less side by side. Country music has its roots in traditional American music, old-time, and gospel, but bluegrass is also influenced by many of the same traditions. It’s also an evolution of the traditional music of England, Scotland, and Ireland as well as blues and jazz.

The popularity of country music, however, has essentially dwarfed that of bluegrass. As a result, most consider it a subgenre. Nevertheless, some diehard bluegrass fans may argue that point and claim that it’s a genre that is just as unique and significant as country music.

Where Did Bluegrass Get Its Name?

Bill Monroe is widely seen as the “Father of Bluegrass Music” and his band was called the “Blue Grass Boys”. His band was named after Kentucky bluegrass, a common meadow-grass that is synonymous with the state.

Put simply, the genre was named after its founder’s band. Whereas the band was actually named after a type of grass that grows in Kentucky.

How Was Bluegrass Music Invented?

Bill Monroe started playing with His Blue Grass Boys in the late 1930s. At the same time, he created a new genre and became the Father of Bluegrass.

Bill Monroe played the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, a venue well known for its significance in country music history. However, his style of music was much different than other country bands of the time. With the help of his hard-driving mandolin style, strong vocal harmonies, and the unique instrumentation of his band which also included banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bass, a new genre was formed.

Not much later, the bluegrass genre was truly born with the rise of Flatt & Scruggs in 1945. In addition to Monroe’s fast-paced mandolin style, the unique 5-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs also became a centerpiece of the genre that still lasts today. Earl Scruggs is considered one of the greatest banjo players of all time and he had a huge influence on how the 5-string banjo is played.

FAQ on Country Music

If you still have some questions about country music, read on. We’ll answer some of your top questions about country music here.

Is Country Music Popular?

When compared to most other styles of music, country music is extremely popular. In polls and surveys, country music is commonly within the 3 top genres in the United States. Other countries rate it highly as well.

In addition to country, pop, rock, and hip-hop/R&B are also among the top genres in the US.

Is Country Music Popular Outside the US?

Country music definitely has more widespread popularity in the United States than anywhere else. However, it’s growing stronger in other countries as well.

There are a lot of country music listeners around the world in Canada, the United Kingdom, and beyond.

Why is Country Music Called Country Music?

Prior to the 1940s, country music was better known as “hillbilly music”. As time went on and as it became more commercial in the 1940s, it became known as “country and western” music instead since the term was a bit less derogatory. This later became known simply as “country”.

Country music is likely known as country music because it was most popular in rural areas rather than in cities early on. It was mostly heard on rural AM radio stations prior to the expansion of FM radio in the 1980s.

How Many Subgenres of Country Are There?

Wikipedia lists over 35 subgenres of country music.

Some of these subgenres separate mainstream country music based on decade. There is often a distinction made between the classic country genre, which includes country music made before the late 1980s (when the genre had a big change in its sound), and modern country music.

You can break mainstream country music of present-day down into subgenres as well. Subgenres include pop country, bro-country, and more.

Aside from these subgenres, some of the most popular subgenres of country music include outlaw country, alt-country, rockabilly, southern rock, and country gospel. Many people consider bluegrass to be a subgenre of country music as well.

How Was Country Music Invented?

Country music really came into its own in the 1940s, but arguably, was around for quite a while before then. Country music has its roots in some of the same traditions that bluegrass does. Both are evolutions of older American folk music and traditional songs along with blues, Southern gospel, and spirituals.

The first recordings of what would become country music were mostly instrumentals and were released in the 1920s. Vernon Dalhart was considered the first country star. He had the first major hit in the genre with “Wreck of the Old 97” in 1926.

Soon after, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers both helped to pioneer the genre and became some of the first artists to craft its sound and bring it fully into the public eye.

Bluegrass Vs Country: Understanding the Differences

Understanding the difference between bluegrass vs country isn’t an easy task, particularly if you’re not already familiar with the genres. However, while they may seem to be the same at first listen, country and bluegrass are very different.

Make sure to consider all of the information above if you want to fully understand the differences between these two unique musical genres.