Few genres have a knack for such strong storytelling as bluegrass. Often placed in the same breath as country and folk, it’s a form of music that relies less on the noise of the instruments, and more on the ability of the artist to weave acoustic sounds into compelling tales and ballads that tug on the heartstrings or invoke deep-seated emotions as they’re played.
From the original bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe, to contemporary artists such as Billy Strings, songwriting, and lyrics are at the center of the music. Perhaps in rock, you can get away with repetitive chorus and non-sensical verses by masking with multiple guitar effects, but that just doesn’t wash in bluegrass, no sir. To be a success in our field, you need to have a knack for writing material people want to listen to, rather than simply hear.
Luckily, we’ve got a quick guide to creating engaging and interesting themes within your bluegrass music, a songwriter’s guide that will soon have you enthralling your audiences.
Writing a strong bluegrass song is a bit like writing a novel – there are some key components that will make your work infinitely better. One of the most obvious is to feature a character, something Bill Monroe did to perfection. Take his 1969 hit “With Body and Soul” – it doesn’t sound like there’s a character in it from the title, but the lyrics tell us otherwise. “Her beautiful hair was the purest of gold, her eyes were as blue as the sea. Her lips were the color of summer’s red rose, and she promised she would always love me,” – that’s definitely written about someone.
That is written from a first-person perspective about a character, but you may write in the narrative voice as well. For instance, “Georgia Buck” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops tells of a specific person rather than the writer’s impression of someone. Like any good novel, a central character people empathize with or perhaps have a distaste for is great for a strong bluegrass tune.
If you wish, you can write about places, rather than people. Places are often personal to the writer, and as they mostly tend to be real, they come attached to real emotions. It also makes them easier for a listener to identify with, as they could think ‘I’ve been there’ and therefore understand the writer’s motivation behind the song.
“Rocky Top,” by The Osborne Brothers, is a great example of this. It’s believed to have been written by a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains close to Gatlinburg, and doubtless, anyone who has visited can feel the emotion behind the lyrics. Of course, a place doesn’t have to just be a single location, but a point in time as well – “Tennessee 1949” by Larry Sparks is a great example of this. He writes, and sings, about a time he can’t possibly know about (Sparks was born in 1947), but still conveys a story about a real place. “Does life still go to sleep just after sunset? Are the berries still as big on the vine? Do old men sit and talk about the old days? The way they did in 1949” – this isn’t just a tale of a place, but a moment in term served with sharp recollection and nostalgia.
Most crucially of all, you have to be telling a story. Much like a good novel, the success of a bluegrass song is based almost entirely on what you’re telling the listener. Florida singer-songwriter Bacon James explains how his song, Lost and Found (at the Santa Fe), has a clear direction, a start, a middle, and an end that gives the listener a journey to travel. This can even be reflected in the tone, key, and pace of the song, speeding up towards a final conclusion. One of the bands listed on our site, Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys, are masters of this. Their album Real Stories and Other Tall Tales draws on stories from characters such as “Bobbie McGee” and “Bad ‘ol Betty,” mixing two of our suggestions here into great bluegrass.
Of course, selecting actual lyrics that underline a journey in a song would entail reproducing a whole song. That’s perhaps a good indication of whether you’ve told a story or not. If the only way to get a true flavor of what you’re saying is to have every lyric heard, then you’re halfway to telling a good story.
The first component of writing a great bluegrass song is being able to play an instrument, but we’ve taken that as a given. If you’re at a point where you need songwriting tips, you’ve likely done covers and now want to blow the world away with your songs.
You don’t need to take every piece of advice here – usually, a mixture of story and one of the others will do the trick. Write about something personal, something meaningful or emotive, and your message should get across. If it’s real, your listeners will feel it, and your song will stand out from the crowd.