In prior posts I have mentioned in passing some of the sources of bluegrass vocal repertoire. These included old time sources such as the Carter Family, whose songs have been covered by bluegrass artists from the Monroe Brothers (actually pre-bluegrass) down to the present day. Of course, such noted early bluegrass performers/composers as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, and Don Reno, to name just a few, were prolific songwriters. They contributed many songs that are part of the core repertoire of the music, known by professional and amateur bluegrassers alike.
My focus here is on another rich source of songs that have become well known in bluegrass: country music of the 1940s-50s. The prevalence of country songs in bluegrass is readily explainable. In its early days, bluegrass was not generally known as a genre of music distinct from country/western music (as the country genre was then often referred to). Instead, bluegrass was considered part of country music, perhaps a more down home or old-style part, but a part nevertheless. After all, Bill Monroe had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s 50,000-watt clear channel radio station WSM since 1939, and he remained a popular country music attraction.
Country music radio was important in spreading bluegrass music in the years between 1945 and the early 1960s. WSM and the Opry were not the only radio sources. Once, on the air in the early 1980s, Gary Henderson, a legendary bluegrass broadcaster for five decades in the Washington D.C. area, explained what he was aiming for with the mix of bluegrass and country music that he played on his Saturday morning show. Henderson said he was trying to recreate the feel of the country music radio shows that he heard when he was coming up, where country and bluegrass were both played. Henderson cited as his main inspiration disc jockey and musician Don Owens, whose radio shows helped popularize bluegrass in the DC area in the 1950s when the boundary between bluegrass and country music was not as clearly marked.
Moreover, country music and bluegrass covered a lot of the same thematic ground. Songs about good loving gone bad, isolation from home and loved ones, and drowning one’s sorrows where the lights are dim, the smoke is thick, and the music is loud, were (and are) common to both genres.
So it was understandable that many bluegrass artists would draw material from country music sources. The following are bluegrass (mostly) covers of some of my favorite old country songs. In some but not all cases links to the country version are also provided for purposes of comparison.
Bill Monroe set the pattern in the mid-1940s. Although Bill never recorded Johnny Bond’s song “Love Gone Cold” (popularized by Ernest Tubb) in the studio, a scratchy 1946 live recording of the tune by the Blue Grass Boys exists with Lester Flatt’s lead vocal and hot solos by Chubby Wise on fiddle, Bill on mandolin and Earl Scruggs on the banjo. Bill also covered Jimmy C. Newman’s “Cry, Cry Darling” and “Big River” by Johnny Cash.
(starting at 19:17)
Hank Williams was a prolific songwriter and many bluegrass artists including Bill Monroe have covered songs that Hank wrote or popularized. In the 1970s, Larry Sparks recorded an entire album of Hank Williams covers. Hank himself covered fellow Opry star Pee Wee King’s song “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and his version inspired covers by the Stanley Brothers and, much more recently, Caleb Klauder and Reeb Wilms.
Honky tonk country songs are popular with bluegrass artists. In the early 1980s the Johnson Mountain Boys covered Webb Pierce’s 1950’s country weeper, “Don’t Throw Your Life Away.” And Del McCoury recorded Harlan Howard’s “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” which was a big hit for Charlie Walker in the late 1950s.
Perhaps one of the most successful and best known bluegrass covers of a country song was the Country Gentlemen’s 1960 recording of “The Long Black Veil.” It sounds like an old folk song but it was written by two Nashville songwriters, Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill. Country star Lefty Frizzell had a big hit with it a year earlier, and the Gentlemen’s version was itself covered by folk revival artists.
Finally, here’s Bill Monroe’s 1960 cover of a western swing tune, “Time Changes Everything,” written by Bob Wills’ vocalist Tommy Duncan and recorded by the Duncan and Wills with the Texas Playboys in 1940.
In recent years, many bluegrass artists have covered more recent country songs. Also, country artists themselves such as Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton have covered their own songs in a bluegrass style with help from bluegrass pickers, perhaps demonstrating that country artists also believe that bluegrass really is a part of country music.