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Bluegrass: A History -- 20th Anniversary Edition

By Neil V. Rosenberg

University of Illinois Press, 448 pages, $24.95 softcover

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver, 2005

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True historical texts usually fall into one of two categories: Ones that attempt only to tell the story of a single event or person and others that go for an all-encompassing view of a subject. This book, originally published in 1985, is mostly the latter kind, but it has the kind of detail and character study that one typically finds more often in the former.

When Neil Rosenberg of Newfoundland, Canada first published this expansive guide to bluegrass music the genre was barely into middle age, if you go by human life spans. To say that a lot has happened in the past 20 years would be an understatement.

Rosenberg makes a valiant effort to catch up by including a newly written preface that covers newcomers like Alison Krauss and the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" phenomenon. Even he acknowledges, however, that to fully cover the past generation's developments in bluegrass would take another book equal in length to his original work.

What this now somewhat dated guide does cover, though, makes it still a worthwhile reference and a fascinating read. If you're new to bluegrass, all the origins are explored, dissected and reconstructed by Rosenberg through interview transcripts, radio program archives, first-person recollections told to the author and commercially released recordings.

Rosenberg goes into more detail about the early days of bluegrass than any other source, backtracking to its origins in the hillbilly music of the time that was just beginning to gain acceptance as "country" music and leading up to and through the gradual adoption of the term "bluegrass" to describe the music of Bill Monroe and his imitators.

The chapters are divided by chronological boundaries, beginning in 1938 with the first post-Monroe Brothers bands of Bill Monroe and ending with "But Is It Bluegrass?" as the genre begins to both splinter off and welcome in new sounds and styles in the 1970s.

In between, Rosenberg deals with the separation of bluegrass music from commercial country music, the adoption of bluegrass by the Folk Revival of the 1960s and the influence of gospel music, fiddle tunes and old time music.

In addition to surveying the music and musicians, Rosenberg does a nice job in covering the business end, including the rise of bluegrass festivals, the formation of important independent bluegrass specialty labels like Rebel, County and Rounder, and the interest generated by bluegrass any time it was used in the mass entertainment media as in the "Beverly Hillbillies" television series and the movie "Deliverance."

There is a focus throughout a large portion of the book on Monroe, along with the careers of several Bluegrass Boys band members like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, but it doesn't seem to detract too much from the inclusion of other important figures, from Don Lilly to Jimmy Martin and up through New Grass Revival.

The most useful portion is still the lengthy bibliography notes and the discography notes that give the reader a chance to find and listen to the albums, songs, and performances discussed in its pages. As a reference tool alone, it would be invaluable to both the novice listener and the collector alike.

Rosenberg's status as a bluegrass believer from way back (He mentions his own participation in a couple of bluegrass bands of the '60s folk revival era) means that he has a sense of awe and respect that translates well to the page.

Even 20 years later, this remains the best single historical account of the bluegrass genre.