Bluegrass didn't spring out of thin air, but though it had plenty of influences, most aficionados agree that it was the creation of a particular group of musicians working at a particular time — specifically, the 1946-48 edition of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys: mandolinist Monroe, banjo player Earl Scruggs, guitarist/lead singer Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bass player Cedric Rainwater. Monroe had already been a Grand Ole Opry star for more than half a decade, but that lineup and the music that it made were so powerfully influential that they spawned a whole genre — one that even today is largely built around the instrumental lineup, vocal stylings and repertoire of the original quintet.
Still, it was both imitation and innovation that turned bluegrass from the sound of one band into a style. By the start of the '50s, Flatt & Scruggs had split off on their own, while artists like the Stanley Brothers had rearranged their sound to reflect what they had heard from Monroe's outfit; by the end of the decade, enough musicians were following the pattern — even as they were also making their own alterations — for the style to earn its own name.
From the beginning, bluegrass has been filled with strong talents and strong personalities, appealing to people from all walks of life with a mesmerizing blend of instrumental brilliance and emotional expression. Bluegrass lyrics express the pain of love gone wrong, recount the trials of life and reflect a longing for the peaceful innocence of childhood and gospel salvation, while individual instrumental achievement is matched by a kind of rhythmic drive that demands a rare level of cooperation from every bandmember. And while the music's popularity has risen and fallen with intermittent exposure in the popular mainstream — mostly recently through the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — these core values and its sense of community have remained constant.
Over the years, the repertoire has grown to include songs written in both traditional and new forms (as well as many borrowed from other genres), while a myriad of influences have made themselves felt as artists have stretched the boundaries of the style — often to heated reactions from fans. Still, at its core, each of the albums here offers music that is, as one important musician once put it, “played with virtuosity and deep feeling.”