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An Introduction to Bluegrass Jamming:
Chapter 6: Lead Singing

By Tom Barnwell

Editor's Note: This excellent article is a must-read for anyone interested in Bluegrass music. For readability, we have divided the article into 10 "chapters", as follows:

Chapter 1 Preface
Chapter 2 Instruments
Chapter 3 The Structure Of A Bluegrass Song
Chapter 4 Backup
Chapter 5 Breaks
Chapter 6 Lead Singing
Chapter 7 Harmony Singing
Chapter 8 Song Selection
Chapter 9 Bluegrass Jamming Signals
Chapter 10 Jamming Etiquette

Lead Singing

When I first was attracted to bluegrass, it was the lead instruments, particularly the banjo, which captured my imagination. In contrast, I was not particularly drawn to the singing, which seemed to me sort of old-fashioned and excessively rural. At this point, my viewpoint is completely reversed. I still love bluegrass instrumentation, but I am completely addicted to bluegrass singing. To hear it is a truly spiritual experience, especially when you are singing one of the parts.

As a rule, bluegrass verses are sung by a single, lead vocalist singing solo. Traditional bluegrass singers often sing relatively high in their range and with a relatively high volume. Bluegrass music dates from the 1920’s and the days of the Kerosene Circuit, when the music was performed purely acoustically and without amplification. The singing had to be loud to be heard over the loud instruments and the instruments had to be loud to be heard without amplification. This is exactly how it is still performed in jam sessions, and the high, loud singing gives it its legendary high lonesome sound.

It is important to realize that bluegrass jam sessions are usually not "sing-a-longs". For each song, there is generally one lead singer, and that singer sings all the verses For that song, the lead singer chooses the song and the key. If you like to sing, you should learn some good songs and offer to take the lead on a song or two. As always, when a lead singer is singing a verse, your job is to support him instrumentally as best you can and if you cannot help, stay out of the way.

Notes

This article Copyright, 1997 by the SouthEastern Bluegrass Association.

The author would like to extend special thanks to Selwyn Blakely for his valuable input, and to Scott Woody, Mike Flemming and Gerald Hooke for their valuable comments.

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