I’m a bluegrass musician. So you can imagine I spend a lot of my time explaining to people what bluegrass is because no one seems to know. One of the most popular misconceptions is that bluegrass is traditional Appalachian music (sometimes called mountain music) or some other older American folk style. Most folks are surprised to learn that bluegrass is a much more modern genre. A lot of musicologists point to the 1945 Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys lineup with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt as the first fully formed bluegrass band. You can contrast that with the release of the single Rocket 88 in 1951 which marks the start of rock and roll just six short years later.
The older traditional folk music of the Appalachians that is sometimes erroneously labelled as bluegrass is now called old time (sometimes written old-time or oldtime). This music is generally non-improvisational dance music that developed from the Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes and European ballads that early immigrants brought to the area. Bluegrass took that heritage and combined it with blues and country, turned the speed up and put more focus on improvisation.
Let’s see if we can break down some of the more characteristic differences between these two genres without going overboard with the detail or getting too pretentious. These are lofty aspirations.
One of the more strict traits of bluegrass music is the instrumentation. Despite it being the free spirited younger brother of old time, it has much more specific instrumentation. The source of this instrumentation is the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, was comprised of upright bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. This has become the standard sound. Yes, we have seen variations. The electric bass has made appearances in progressive and traditional acts alike, many bluegrass bands briefly adopted drummers in the 60’s and 70’s, Bill Monroe himself even cut some tunes with accordion. But these have never been the norm and likely will never be. The only instrument that remains optional to this day is dobro. Which was a mainstay of the Flatt & Scruggs lineup, who are bluegrass royalty in their own right.
We see a lot more variation in old time music. Old time has no figure head that we can look to for the “correct” lineup. You can see bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle at the local old time jam but you might also see mountain dulcimer, harmonica, or even a confused musical saw player. This leads to old time potentially being much more inclusive but also much less refined. With variation comes less room for standardization in musical roles.
Speaking of standardized musical roles, bluegrass has a hierarchy that defines each instruments job when playing rhythm. Depending on your initial subdivision, the results will be something like this: bass plays half notes (“boom”), guitar plays quarter notes (“boom-chuck”), mandolin plays off beats (“chuck” or “chop”), banjo plays 8th notes (called “three-finger” or “Scruggs style”), and on top of that the fiddle and/or dobro plays improvised fills. Throughout the course of a tune each instrument will have the chance to take a break or solo. I break all this down in this video.
The old time rhythm standard is once again a little looser. You may find something similar to a bluegrass groove in the bass (if you have it), guitar, and mandolin but its likely to feel less regimented and simpler. Banjo won’t be playing Scruggs style but will likely be playing clawhammer or one of the many other stylistic variations of old time banjo. You also won’t see a bluegrass banjo but an open back banjo. On top of all of this the fiddle plays the melody. If other melodic instruments are present like harmonic or dulcimer, they may also play the melody.
How vocals are treated is also a defining trait. Many old time jams may have one vocalist or group vocals. You may find a “brother” style duet here and there. With few rules comes unlimited combinations from countless regional traditions from the American South. Once again bluegrass does have a standard way this situation is generally tackled. Bluegrass has three part vocals: baritone, lead, and tenor. With a fourth part, bass, being included for gospel tunes.
Up until this point you may be feeling that old time is the looser more inclusive genre. The definition is a little more lax, the instrumentation is more open, and the playing style of those instruments can vary greatly. Meanwhile, bluegrass is based on Bill Monroe’s band, you can only play these instruments, or sing these parts, and only in certain ways. But there is one big way in which bluegrass is more open, bluegrass has improvisation.
Since old time is an evolutionary step before bluegrass, it isn’t as infused with the improvisational spirit of the early 1900’s. So at old time jams a fiddler may repeat the A part and B part of a fiddle tune into the sunset. At the neighboring bluegrass jam the job of “lead instrument” will be passed around the circle and everyone will get their chance to express a personal voice. These are called breaks/solos/leads/etc.
I think for many musicians in the old time or bluegrass scene, this difference is a big one. The choice to improvise or not improvise has led to a lot of positive and negative stereotypes for both groups. Bluegrass has a bad reputation for having competitive musicians that want to “win” at music. I’m going to improvise this break to Red Haired Boy so hard that my own hair turns into fire! But we also end up with a lot of well educated monster musicians who are merging bluegrass with jazz, classical, pop, and rock to create more subtle shades in-between. Old time has a different reputation, many old time musicians I’ve met are almost music preservationists. They know so much about the history and lineage of tunes but virtuosic improvisation doesn’t interest them. The negative stereotype of old time is that they’re hippy musicians and they picked old time because it’s “easy”. Right? Because not improvising = easy.
I don’t bring up these stereotypes to anger anyone, the majority of musicians in the scene play a little of both so there’s nothing here to fight about. I do hope the difference is a little more clear. Old time is, shockingly, older folk music with less improvisation, and more open instrumentation. Bluegrass is a newer genre from the 1940’s, with improvisation, and strict instrumentation.