Manitoba Old Tyme and Bluegrass Society

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A Brief History of Bluegrass Music


The people who migrated to America in the 1600s from Ireland, Scotland, and England brought with them the basic styles of music that are generally considered to be the roots of bluegrass music as it is known today.  As the Jamestown settlers began to move out into North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, they wrote songs about day-to-day life in the new land.  Since most of these people lived in remote areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills.  This type of music was called “mountain music” or “country music.”  The invention of the phonograph and the onset of the radio in the early 1900s brought this music out of the mountains and into the homes of people all over the United States.

The Monroe Brothers were one of the most popular acts of the 1920s and 1930s. Charlie Monroe played the guitar, Bill played the mandolin, and they sang in harmony.  When the brothers split in 1938, both went on to form their own bands.  Bill was a native of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, so he decided to call his band “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,” and this band started a new form of “traditional” country music.

While many fans of bluegrass music date the genre to 1939, when Monroe formed his first Blue Grass Boys band, most believe that the classic bluegrass sound came together late in 1945, shortly after Earl Scruggs, a 21-year-old banjo player from North Carolina, joined the band.  Scruggs played an innovative three-finger picking style on the banjo that energized enthusiastic audiences and has since come to be known as “Scruggs style” banjo.  Equally influential in the classic 1945 line-up of the Blue Grass Boys were Lester Flatt, from Sparta, Tennessee, on guitar and lead vocals, Chubby Wise, from Florida, on fiddle; and Howard Watts, also known by his comedian name “Cedric Rainwater,” on acoustic bass.

By the 1950s, people began referring to this style of music as “bluegrass music.” Bluegrass bands began forming all over the country and Bill Monroe became the acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass Music.”

From 1948-1969, the Flatt & Scruggs band was a major force in introducing bluegrass music to America through national television, radio, and appearances at schoolhouses, coliseums, and major universities around the country. 

In the 1960s, the concept of the “bluegrass festival” was first introduced, featuring bands on the same bill that had previously seemed to be in competition with each other for a relatively limited audience. Carlton Haney, from Reidsville, North Carolina is credited with envisioning and producing the first weekend-long bluegrass music festival, which was held in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965.

The availability of traditional music broadcasting and recording, nationwide bluegrass festivals, and movie, television, and commercial soundtracks featuring bluegrass music have helped to bring the music out of obscurity.

Bluegrass music is now performed and enjoyed around the world.  The International Bluegrass Music Association claims members in all 50 states and 30 countries.  In addition to the classic style born in 1945 that is still performed widely, bluegrass bands today reflect influences from a variety of sources including traditional and fusion jazz, contemporary country music, Celtic music, rock & roll (“newgrass” or progressive bluegrass), old-time music, and Southern gospel music.

Excerpts from A Brief History of Bluegrass 

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The Manitoba Old-Tyme and Bluegrass Society was incorporated as a non-profit organization on February 14, 1991.  Its purpose is the preservation and promotion of old-time and bluegrass music, fostering the use of acoustic, stringed instruments primarily.  Open Jams are organized quarterly and campouts are arranged in the spring and fall.  General meetings of the membership are held in March (annual meeting), June, September, and November. 


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