Enthusiastic fans of top-selling traditional titles like “Pretty Polly” and “Kentucky Waltz” will gobble up books about bluegrass music.
In the mountain towns of rural Appalachia, bluegrass was bred from various folk influences with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and fiddles aplenty. By the late 1930s, Bill Monroe had popularized the style with the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass has sung to millions of Americans’ hearts with its authentic lyrics about day-to-day life. In 1997, one survey found that 43 percent of U.S. adults listened to bluegrass music regularly. Musicians like Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss, and David Grisman have topped album charts with American roots music. Bluegrass books also represent a significant literary genre where readers gain insights into the backstory of their festival favorites.
Below we’ve rounded up 30 of the best books about bluegrass music, telling stories that will rivet your mind and keep your boot tapping along.
#1 – Bean Blossom
Banjoist Thomas Adler penned Bean Blossom to detail the colorful history of the famous Brown County Jamboree and Bluegrass Festival. Started in 1967 by Bill Monroe, the June event is widely regarded as the United States’ oldest festival devoted to bluegrass. Adler explores the venue’s past by featuring top performers, such as Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs, as well as the bluegrass aficionados who attend in legions.
#2 – Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times
Perhaps the foremost of bluegrass biographies, Man of Constant Sorrow portrays the life of legendary musician Ralph Stanley through his 60-year career. Born in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in 1927, Ralph discovered music in a one-room country church. Soon he joined his brother Carter to create the acclaimed Stanley Brothers. Ralph reflects on the tragedies that were channeled into Grammy-winning songs like “O Death.”
#3 – Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words 1966-86
Carl Fleischhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg
Bluegrass Odyssey is a compelling, 208-page narrative about the cultural landscape of bluegrass music tracing back to its “father” Bill Monroe. Crisp black-and-white images taken by Carl Fleischhauer, the Library of Congress Curator of Photography, vividly portray the stellar musicians of this formative period. Audiences receive a panoramic look at the hillsides, parking lot jams, and festivals that shaped bluegrass.
#4 – The Bluegrass Reader
Journalist Thomas Goldsmith gathered classic articles from Marty Stuart, Hunter Thompson, and other great minds to create The Bluegrass Reader. Published in 2006, the literature collection offers indispensable insights into the development of the bluegrass genre from its Anglo-American folk roots. Firsthand interviews with musicians like Bill Monroe, Don Reno, Lester Flatt, and Alison Krauss abound. Goldsmith also shows how bluegrass’ history parallels key social movements.
#5 – The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook
Featuring 100+ vintage photos, The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook was compiled by music teacher Wayne Erbsen with all of the genre’s favorites. In addition to a history of bluegrass gospel music, the short 179-page book painlessly introduces music theory. Readers will learn how to choose the right key, use a capo, carry a harmony, and strum essential guitar chords through the lens of well-known classics like “Amazing Grace.”
#6 – Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
Satan is Real is an illuminating memoir sharing untold stories about the harmonizing bluegrass duo. On a cotton farm in 1930s Alabama, Charlie and his little brother Ira discovered their mandolins. Together the Louvin Brothers reached fame with songs like “Knoxville Girl.” That’s until Ira’s alcoholism left the sober sibling to carry the tune. Charlie reveals the brothers’ Cain and Abel-like relationship with genuine grit.
#7 – I Hear a Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir
Gene Lowinger, a bluegrass fiddler originally from New Jersey, joined Bill Monroe’s band during the last few years of his life. I Hear a Voice Calling is a well-written memoir published to provide unique access to Monroe’s private life behind-the-scenes. Lowinger recounts memories with his mentor, including playing at the Grand Ole Opry. Dozens of rare photographs are also captured of the bluegrass pioneer.
#8 – Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First 100 Years
Belonging to the American Made Music series, this short novel provides a treasure trove of amusing stories about banjoist Wade Mainer. Along with his fiddling brother J.E., Wade punched his ticket out of the cotton fields in 1934 with Mainer’s Mountaineers. After attracting radio fame, Wade formed his own band, the Sons of the Mountaineers. Readers then progress through the exciting career of bluegrass’ longest-lived entertainer.
#9 – How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life
Guitar master John Fahey published How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life just months before his death to share semi-autobiographical tales of his young adulthood. From being an abused child in post-WWII suburbia to discovering bluesman Skip James, Fahey discusses the rise of his bluegrass career. Along the way, audiences are introduced to the remarkable people he meets, including Bukka White, Roosevelt Sykes, and Frank Hovington.
#10 – True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass: Jimmy Martin
Tom Piazza and Marty Stuart
Deems Taylor Award-winning musical writer Tom Piazza produced this bluegrass book to poignantly detail Jimmy Martin’s life. At age 22, Martin was invited to the Blue Grass Boys by Bill Monroe. His subsequent 50+ musical years led to the IBMA’s Hall of Honor. Yet Piazza paints the authentic portrait of a tortured musician whose dream of Grand Ole Opry membership goes unfulfilled.
#11 – Mountaineer Jamboree
First broadcast in 1933, Wheeling’s WWVA Jamboree hit the air waves and made the Mountain State a haven for bluegrass music. Families gathered around the radio for live shows from Little Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones, Buddy Starcher, Cowboy Loye, and more. Author Ivan Tribe presents this book to show how broadcast media popularized West Virginia’s folksong heritage and spawned the state’s famous outdoor festivals.
#12 – Bluegrass Time: A Musician’s Photographs of the Early Days of Bluegrass Festivals
Musician Phil Zimmerman’s “Bluegrass Time” is a short, 64-page book filled with glossy, high-quality photographs of the genre’s greatest artists. Zimmerman begins by introducing his experiences at the first multi-day bluegrass festival on Cantrell’s Horse Farm in Fincastle, Virginia. Bluegrass fans will enjoy seeing their favorites like Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and Curly Ray Cline on stunning display.
#13 – Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal
Editor John Lilly has culled 25 years of Goldenseal magazine issues to create insightful profiles on West Virginia’s premier bluegrass and folk musicians. Mountains of Music offers a goldmine of facts on the musical culture that’s vividly touched rural Appalachia life. Heavenly harmonies from the likes of Molly O’Day and the Lilly Brothers are compiled into a richly illustrated volume.
#14 – Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy
West Virginia remains the genre’s epicenter, but an influx of Appalachia migrants brought bluegrass to Baltimore in the 1940s. Author Tim Newby meticulously sculpts the history of the string-band scene in a major industrial city. Newby portrays the essence of Baltimore bluegrass as a melting pot of urban and rural influences. Readers also watch bluegrass’ uphill battle with prejudice against its hillbilly roots.
#15 – From Every Stage: Images of America’s Roots Music
Stephanie P. Ledgin
Music lovers will adore photojournalist Stephanie P. Ledgin’s lavishly illustrated history on America’s traditional genres. With 200+ images, the book covers the spectrum of bluegrass, folk, blues, country, and Cajun music and their most pivotal personalities. Ledgin captures the shine of roots music icons like Pete Seeger, John Jackson, and Randy Travis. There’s also a can’t-miss foreword from CBS Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood.
#16 – Bluegrass Breakdown – The Making of the Old Southern Sound
UNC Chapel Hill professor Robert Cantwell was awarded the 1985 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Bluegrass Breakdown. Declared the “best single academic book on bluegrass,” its pages display the historical, cultural, commercial, and sociological backgrounds of American roots music. Cantrell thoroughly researches how bluegrass stemmed from African American folk, jazz, ragtime, and blues to forever change Southern culture.
#17 – Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass
Murphy Hicks Henry
Every bluegrass fan knows about Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but the vibrant contributions of female musicians is less recognized. Pretty Good for a Girl changes this by surveying the lives of over 70 women who helped develop bluegrass music. Banjoist Murphy Hicks Henry presents interviews from pioneering ladies like Sally Ann Forrester, Bessie Lee Mauldin, and Alison Krauss to show bluegrass isn’t only “man’s music.”
#18 – Bluegrass: An Informal Guide
Richard D. Smith
Bluegrass beginners can rely on Richard D. Smith’s succinct, engaging guide to study the directions the genre has taken in its 50+ years. Readers get to know essential names like Lester Flatt, instrumental basics, and famous festivals. Approximately 500 CD suggestions are made for bulking up your bluegrass playlist. Smith also examines bluegrass variation styles with simple, accessible knowledge for non-musicians.
#19 – Bluegrass: A History
Honored with the IBMA Certificate of Merit, author Neil Rosenberg published Bluegrass in 1985 to highlight the pivotal developments of the popular music form. Beginning in the culture of the 1920s American South, Rosenberg describes Bill Monroe’s founding influence along with other pioneers like Flatt and Scruggs. The well-indexed timeline also shows bluegrass’ influence on post-WWII country music and the rise of rock.
#20 – Rural Roots of Bluegrass: Songs, Stories & History
Another of Wayne Erbsen’s bluegrass books offers historical insights into the rural mountain towns at the very core of the musical genre. He surveys the contributions of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee string-band music to contemporary bluegrass. Erbsen profiles 94 sample songs with brief biographical sketches on lesser-known artists like Snuffy Jenkins and Eck Robertson. Novices are also inspired with playing and singing tips for bluegrass.
#21 – The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling
Charles Wolfe’s 256-page resource covers the “Golden Age” of Southern fiddling from the 1920s through the 1950s. Wolfe offers a lively portrait of prominent fiddlers who overlooked the stigma of the devil’s box to revolutionize bluegrass. Dazzlingly talented musicians, such as Uncle Jimmy Thompson and Bob Wills, are highlighted among famous fiddle tunes like “Black Mountain Rag.” Fans could also consider The Fiddle Book from Marion Thede.
#22 – Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler
From the Carolina cotton fields to Nashville Grass, Foggy Mountain Troubadour carves out the illustrious 77-year career of bluegrass great Curly Seckler. Author Penny Parsons pens the first full-length biography on the mandolinist and tenor banjoist who sparked the 1970s revival. The triumphs and tragedies that paved Seckler’s way to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame are detailed with compelling candidness.
#23 – Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass
Stephanie P. Ledgin
Featuring a foreword from Ricky Skaggs, Homegrown Music is an introductory primer designed to enchant newcomers with the “O Brother” bug. Early chapters are packed with helpful tidbits of knowledge on the history of bluegrass. Photojournalist Stephanie P. Ledgin follows this with profiles and images of premier performers, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The appendix provides a valuable list of “25 Recordings to Jump-Start Your Collection.”
#24 – Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe
Through personal conversations, prolific writer Marty Godbey wrote the first biography on a true bluegrass original. As a Lexington native, J.D. Crowe was inspired by Flatt & Scruggs to learn the banjo at 13. In the following decades, Crowe recorded solo hits, toured with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, and developed the eclectic New South style. Godbey also includes a selective discography with albums like The Model Church.
#25 – Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
Richard D. Smith
Deemed a New York Times Notable Book, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ paints a three-dimensional portrait of the man universally hailed the “Father of Bluegrass.” Veteran journalist Richard D. Smith delves into the little-known personal life of the taciturn musician, including his isolated upbringing and wild womanizing. Readers travel through Bill Monroe’s over 60 tireless years of performing in bluegrass’ heyday.
#26 – Come Hither to Go Yonder
In Come Hither to Go Yonder, musician Bob Black offers firsthand recounts from his years spent performing with Bill Monroe’s influential band, the Blue Grass Boys. The 206-page volume is jam-packed with observations made from a man who traveled extensively with one of America’s greatest music innovators. Black also provides further listening suggestions to carry the bluegrass tradition beyond Monroe’s 1996 death.
#27 – Kentucky’s Bluegrass Music
James C. Claypool
Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series continues with this illustrated tribute to the biggest bluegrass names from the Commonwealth. Drawn from Kentuckian Bill Monroe’s band in the late 1930s, the state’s deep-rooted passion for bluegrass is explored. NKU Professor Emeritus James C. Claypool beautifully presents research on Ricky Skaggs, Dale Ann Bradley, Ebo Walker, and other bluegrass performers who’ve called Kentucky home.
#28 – Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir
Born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, Josh Graves is memorialized as the “Father of the Bluegrass Dobro” for linking bluegrass and the blues. Edited by Fred Bartenstein, this tell-all memoir shares Graves’ childhood, musical influences, revolutionary banjo style with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and grueling life on the road. Graves also recounts late-career collaborations with Charlie McCoy, Alison Krauss, Eddie Adcock, and more.
#29 – America’s Music – Bluegrass: A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers
Barry R. Willis
Divided into 26 chapters, America’s Music – Bluegrass is a mammoth resource guide compiled by Barry R. Willis to survey the history of roots music. Accented with 400+ black-and-white and color photographs, the book passionately highlights the genre’s pioneers, including women like Hazel Dickens. Willis also discusses bluegrass record companies, instruments, festivals, and its projected future.
#30 – Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music
Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs wrote Kentucky Traveler with Eddie Dean to narrate his 45-year career starting with the Clinch Mountain Boys at just 16. Told from the fine fiddler’s perspective, the autobiography lovingly compiles songs that shaped Skaggs’ life, such as “Country Boy” and “Cajun Moon.” Readers ride along as Skaggs’ story progresses from Cordell, Kentucky, to the Grand Ole Opry stage.
Traveling to events like the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival isn’t the only way to immerse yourself in the twangy string-band culture of American folk music. These 30 great books about bluegrass music will give you a backstage pass into the musicians’ writing processes and personal lives.
See also: 50 Great Books About Country Music