What Is the Difference Between Country & Bluegrass?

By Nate Lee ; Updated September 15, 2017
Bluegrass is played exclusively with stringed instruments.

Legendary folk composer and singer Pete Seeger described bluegrass music as "folk music on overdrive." Though bluegrass shares its roots, rural focus and some of its instruments with country, it is its own distinct form of American music.

Same Musical Heritage

Country is a vast category that includes everything from western swing to Willie Nelson's progressive country to gospel. Bluegrass and country have both been referred to as hillbilly music because they originated in Appalachia and share the musical heritage of the region's Scotch-Irish inhabitants. Bluegrass tunes often share the themes and rural values of country music. Songs about leaving -- separation from home, love and family -- are frequent, as are songs about hard work and the country life.

Unique Sound of Bluegrass

Bluegrass has a sound that sets it apart from all other musical forms, including country. The instruments are usually a banjo, guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and fiddle -- all strings. As with jazz, players take turns in solos, often to exhibit their technical virtuosity, or speed, in such tunes as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." On vocals, bluegrass is noted for its "high lonesome" harmonies.

The Start of Country and Bluegrass

Country music got its official start in 1923, when Ralph Peer of Okeh Records recorded "Fiddlin' John Carson" in Atlanta. The nation, which was becoming rapidly urbanized after World War I, gravitated to country music's nostalgia for the simpler life it had left behind. The Grand Ole Opry brought the sound to radio in 1927. Kentucky native Bill Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, joined with banjo player Earl Scruggs in 1945, creating the sound known as bluegrass.

About the Author

Nate Lee was senior editor of Chicago's "NewCity" newspaper and creative director in a global advertising agency. A playwright and published poet, Lee writes about the arts, culture and business innovation. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Tulane University.