Some of the most fun music you’ll ever hear is bluegrass. It’s a style that, when you hear it, makes you feel better, even if you resist the urge to tap your toes to it.
Many outfits have come and gone over the years since the birth of bluegrass in the 1930s. A few have risen to the top and made themselves integral parts of it.
In this post, we’ll take a look at 19 of the greatest and most famous bluegrass bands to hit the music industry. Read on!
1. Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys
You simply can’t have a list like this that doesn’t have Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys at the top. Monroe, a Kentucky native, is credited with inventing bluegrass, so it makes sense that his band would occupy the top slot.
It is a strain of country music with fast tempos, tight harmonies, and chops. If you aren’t a real musician, bluegrass wouldn’t be for you, as you can’t fake it.
Monroe played live on the radio and at dance halls for years. Elvis Presley even recorded a song of his.
The national revival of interest in folk music in the ‘60s revived Monroe’s popularity, and anyone who was anyone in bluegrass wanted to play with him. Without Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, there would not be such a thing as bluegrass.
2. Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
With seven Grammys to their name, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder have become the imminent heirs to the Bill Monroe legacy. Skaggs sings and plays the mandolin, and though his name is on the marquee, the rest of the band members are accomplished players too.
Skaggs began a music career playing more mainstream country with Emmylou Harris, but in the 1980s, he transitioned to a solo career that moved toward bluegrass. This culminated in the founding of Kentucky Thunder in 1997.
Over the years, Kentucky Thunder has shuffled personnel, but they have kept on pickin’, winning seven Grammys and a number of Instrumental Group of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
3. Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs—guitar and banjo, respectively—left Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to form their own act. The pair had a backing band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, in which many big names played, and for the 25 years they performed together, they made a huge mark.
Most notably, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was a hit in 1949, and the instrumental has won two Grammys. Furthermore, the theme song to the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies was a Flatt & Scruggs piece and went to #1 on the country charts.
An acrimonious split in 1969 had the pair not speaking for ten years, and while they made up after ten years, Flatt passed away before they could reunite musically.
4. Alison Krauss & Union Station
When she was 16, Alison Krauss released an album. Two years later, in 1989, she joined forces with Union Station, and since then, Alison Krauss & Union Station has been a bluegrass and country mainstay.
Despite the band members’ musicianship, the outfit still sometimes gets overshadowed by its frontwoman. Known for her ethereal voice as much as for her fiddle playing, Krauss has 27 Grammys. Until recently, she was the most decorated female in the history of the awards (Beyoncé now has 28).
Vocal dysphonia sidelined Krauss in the early 2010s, and while she has recorded with Robert Plant, her work with Union Station still seems to be on hold.
5. Osborne Brothers
Born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, Bobby and Sonny Osborne were playing bluegrass as young adults, but not together. The end of the Korean War brought Bobby home from Asia in one piece, and the brothers decided to form a band.
Since Sonny was playing with Bill Monroe while Bobby was serving in the army, their music ended up being bluegrass. They had their first hit with 1956’s “Ruby Are You Man” and followed it with a string of successes, including “Rocky Top,” which arguably became their signature piece.
Their popularity eventually led them to a membership at the Grand Ole Opry, where they performed for several years. Bobby still plays bluegrass with his sons, but Sonny sadly passed away in 2021.
6. Yonder Mountain String Band
After “Blue Grass Boys,” “Yonder Mountain” might be the most bluegrass-sounding phrase ever. Yonder Mountain String Band hails from Colorado and has been reinventing and revitalizing bluegrass music for many years.
By the time they recorded their 1999 debut album, they already had a huge and dedicated following due to their sound and the respect they earned as a jam band. A bluegrass jam band was unheard of, but so was combining rock elements with hints of punk sensibilities with bluegrass, which they perfected.
Yonder Mountain gained even more fame for their string of top-five albums from 2003 until 2022. Their albums are a fun listen, but live performances are this band’s true strength.
7. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Doyle Lawson was still in his teens when he started playing banjo and mandolin for some big names in bluegrass back in the ’60s. By 1979, he had formed Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
Lawson himself won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, and the act was continually honored by the International Bluegrass Music Association from 1990 to 2012.
The group headlined the eponymous Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina for 40 years, and with Lawson planning to retire soon, they’ve just recently bequeathed the festival to the Malpass Brothers.
8. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
While many may consider the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a country-rock act, the group had its first successes playing with bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff.
Their bluegrass project was the 1972 triple-Platinum album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and its follow-up Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two. The latter received an Album of the Year from the Country Music Association Awards and two Grammy Awards.
Soon after, they became just the Dirt Band and played more contemporary country music, but though they were considered California longhairs when they started, they’re still a band with roots in folk and bluegrass music.
9. New Grass Revival
From the time they formed in 1971 up until the group’s last performance in 1989, New Grass Revival pushed limits and actively worked to expand the horizons of what bluegrass music could be and do.
In that vein, they played bluegrass versions of songs by the Beatles and Bob Marley, served as the backing band for Leon Russell for a time, and wrote original music like “You Plant Your Fields.”
The best of the original fare was composed by banjo living legend Bela Fleck who, before forming the Flecktones, played with New Grass for most of the 1980s.
10. Country Gentlemen
As one of the first progressive bluegrass acts, the Country Gentleman were doing in the 1950s what the New Grass Revival did in the ’70s and ’80s—try to bring bluegrass to new audiences and open the genre up for exploration.
With names like Doyle Lawson and Eddie Adcock playing as part of the act at different times, the band was a collection of shin-kicking players who also knew how to entertain audiences with more than just the songs. They brought humor and personality to live shows.
Appearances on national vehicles like Johnny Carson’s iteration of The Tonight Show pushed their brand awareness to the national level, and they played with various lineups until frontman Charlie Walker’s passing in 2004.
Their bluegrass music continued, however, as his son Randy stepped in, and the group still performs as Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen.
11. Del McCoury Band
Del McCoury started life in North Carolina but came of age as a bluegrass banjo picker in Pennsylvania. What became the Del McCoury Band started out as Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals. Lineup changes and other shifts eventually gave way to the name we now know.
That solidification took decades, as McCoury started the group in 1967. They started getting national props in the ‘80s and eventually won a Grammy in 2006 for their album The Company We Keep.
Nowadays, the Del McCoury Band performs in their annual DelFest—a bluegrass festival at the Allegany County Fairgrounds, Cumberland, Maryland—along with other bluegrass acts.
12. Seldom Scene
Former Country Gentlemen players Tom Gray (bass) and John Duffey (mandolin) were part of the 1971 inception of the Seldom Scene. Starting at that time meant being part of the progressive bluegrass movement, so they played pop covers in addition to bluegrass classics.
Progressive bluegrass was a movement that made traditionalists bristle. Still, the players in the Seldom Scene were bluegrass experts who were all exceptionally good at playing their instruments, so it was hard for any critics to find fault with the group other than, “I don’t like it.”
Based on the group’s Grammy nomination for their album Scenechronized, their performance for the US Olympic team at the White House in 2008, and their continuous touring to this day, they obviously succeeded in their endeavor.
13. Blue Highway
Formed in 1994 in Tennessee, Blue Highway made an immediate splash in the bluegrass world. The band’s first album, 1995’s It’s a Long Long Road, caught the critics’ ears, at which point said critics inaugurated them as the “next big thing in bluegrass.”
The International Bluegrass Music Association named it Album of the Year in 1996 and honored dobro player Rob Ickes as the best of the year. They would honor him 11 more times in the coming years.
Since then, Blue Highway has released 14 more albums. Seven of them have reached the top ten on the bluegrass music charts, and Original Traditional, their 13th album, gained a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.
14. The Grascals
Put together as a project in Nashville in 2004, the Grascals probably wanted to play the Grand Ole Opry. They probably never dreamed of playing with Dolly Parton.
But both of those dreams came true, with Parton recording and performing “Viva Las Vegas” with the upstarts. They played as Parton’s opening act for a time and have continued making great bluegrass music.
The International Bluegrass Music Association named banjo picker Kristin Scott Benson Banjo Performer of the Year for four straight years, and in 2018, she won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize.
15. J. D. Crowe And The New South
Banjo legend J. D. Crowe formed the New South in 1971. Over the years, the band endured myriad personnel changes, though Crowe remained the stalwart leader until his passing at 84 in 2021.
Playing musical chairs with its members made the New South a temporary home for some amazing musicians, including Doyle Lawson, Keith Whitley, Paul Adkins, Ricky Skaggs, and Scott Risner.
The band played bluegrass standards but also adapted Fats Domino songs for the beginning of the progressive bluegrass genre.
16. Lonesome River Band
The Lonesome River Band has exactly zero original members left in it, but it seems every bluegrass player born after 1980 has been in the group or guested with them.
Currently led by Samy Shelor on banjo, the Lonesome River Band has played with such country music luminaries as Luke Bryan, Earl Thomas Conley, Alan Jackson, and Lee Ann Womack.
Their 2016 album Bridging the Tradition is their highest rating, ranking #2 on the bluegrass chart. That same year, Shelor received the Steve Martin Banjo Prize while appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman.
17. Infamous Stringdusters
As a 21st-century bluegrass act, Infamous Stringdusters play the kind of progressive bluegrass that Yonder Mountain String Band does—lots of jamming, some rock elements thrown in, and consummate musicianship towering over it all.
Critics collectively lost their minds with the release of Infamous Stringdusters’ 2007 debut album, Fork in the Road, calling them a future supergroup. After winning three awards for this album from the International Bluegrass Music Association, critics were proved right.
Ten years later, the band was a Grammy-winning act for their album Laws of Gravity. Their latest album, A Tribute to Bill Monroe (2021), was nominated as well for Best Bluegrass Album in 2022.
18. The Kentucky Colonels
From 1954 to 1967, the Kentucky Colonels capitalized on the renewed interest in folk music that swept the States and, in particular, their native California in the 1960s.
Roland, Clarence, and Eric White were three brothers playing cute country music as kids, but when they discovered bluegrass as they got a little older, they shifted their focus. As it turns out, it’s a good thing they did because Clarence would go on to have a significant influence on the entire genre.
He was a guitar player, and with his virtuosic ability, he brought the flatpicking technique to bluegrass. Those blistering acoustic guitar solos you hear on great bluegrass records can be traced directly back to Clarence White’s influence.
19. Trampled By Turtles
When you have four #1 albums (Palomino, Stars, and Satellites, Life Is Good on the Open Road, and Alpenglow), you’ve got some street cred, and Trampled by Turtles has just that. Formed in 2003 in Minnesota, the band has become a festival darling, and not just bluegrass festivals.
Trampled by Turtles has played in a lot of places you might not expect to find a bluegrass act, and you might, including Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, and various music festivals.
Their music has appeared in mainstream video games, TV shows, and movies. The group is still active in the industry, having just released their 10th album, Alpenglow, in 2022.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Bluegrass Bands
As you can see, there are different kinds of bluegrass out there, from traditional to more modern tunes. These bands have proved that even with the change of times, bluegrass can be versatile to suit new audiences.
So on the off chance you come across some bluegrass music, you don’t like, you can probably find another style of it that is more to your preference.
However, this list of ours is far from complete. Have we missed a bluegrass band that should be on here? Let us know and we’ll add them!