American Folk Music Artists You Should Know

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Here are five American folk music artists you should know, from traditional balladeers to contemporary singer-songwriters.

The Carter Family

The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group from the Appalachian Mountains who recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a significant influence on bluegrass, country, gospel, and rock music. The group was founded by A. P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and her cousin Maybelle Carter.

The group’s history

The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop, and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. culture. The original group consisted of A.P., his wife SaraDougherty Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter. The three were from the Maces Spring area of Virginia’s Grayson County, Virginia near the Tennessee border.

The group’s sound

The Carter Family was an American old-time music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978), and his cousin Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979). Sara’s husband, Ezra “Eck” Carter, was not a member but frequently performed and recorded with the group. The family’s style of music had a significant impact on the development of country music and popular music through the 20th century.

The band’s repertoire consisted primarily of American folk songs, including ballads and hymns, as well as Appalachian songs and blues.MaybelleCarter’s distinctive guitar style, which used her thumb to pluck the bass strings while simultaneously fingerpicking the treble strings, became a hallmark of country music. The group mostly recorded traditional songs but also included some original compositions by A.P., such as “The Storms Are on the Ocean” and “Single Girl, Married Girl”.

The Stanley Brothers

One of the most influential groups in bluegrass and country music, the Stanley Brothers were born and raised in rural Virginia. Their music was a mix of old-time fiddle tunes, traditional ballads, and original songs that reflected the hardships of life in the Appalachian Mountains. The Stanley Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

The group’s history

The Stanley Brothers were an American bluegrass duo from Rubles Mill, Virginia. The group’s music is often described as being “rebel” in nature, as they were known to sing about controversial topics such as murder, taxes, and religion. However, the brothers were also known for their gentle ballads and love songs.

The group was founded in 1946 by Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter Stanley. The duo was originally known as “The Clinch Mountain Boys”, and they quickly gained a reputation for their skillful guitar playing and high-quality harmonies. In the 1950s, the group began recording for various labels, including Mercury Records and Columbia Records.

The group continued to tour and record throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but sadly Carter Stanley died in 1966 at the age of 41. Ralph Stanley continued to perform and record as a solo artist after his brother’s death, but he eventually reformed “The Clinch Mountain Boys” with new members.

The group continued to tour and release new albums until Ralph Stanley’s retirement in 2001. The Stanley Brothers left a lasting legacy on American music, and they continue to be revered by bluegrass fans all over the world

The group’s sound

The Stanley Brothers were an American bluegrass duo that consisted of brothers Carter Stanley (1925-66) and Ralph Stanley (1927-2016). They were both born and raised in Southwest Virginia, and their music was heavily influenced by the region’s mountain music and folk traditions. The Stanley Brothers’ distinctive sound was characterized by Carter’s high, lonesome tenor lead vocals and Ralph’s powerful banjo playing, as well as their close harmony singing. They were one of the first bluegrass bands to use electric instruments, which helped them to stand out from their more traditional acoustic counterparts.

The group was highly prolific, releasing over 600 songs during their career. Some of their most well-known songs include “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Rank Stranger,” and “O Death.” The Stanley Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and Ralph Stanley was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.

Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe is often called the “Father of Bluegrass Music.” He was born in Rosine, Kentucky in 1911 and was exposed to music at an early age by his mother and uncle. By the time he was a teenager, he was already playing the mandolin and fiddle in local dance halls. In the 1930s, he formed his own band, The Blue Grass Boys, and began touring the country. His music was a mix of old-time music, blues, and country, and it quickly gained popularity.

The artist’s history

William “Bill” Monroe was born in 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky. Monroe’s interest in music began at an early age; he was taught to play the mandolin by his Uncle Pen Vandiver, and his first performance was at a family gathering when he was just six years old. In the years that followed, Monroe learned to play the guitar and banjo from other family members and local musicians. He cited folk and gospel music as his main musical influences growing up.

In the late 1920s, Monroe left Rosine to pursue a career in music. He performed with several different groups over the next few years, including the Tennessee Buckaroos and the Kentucky Pardners. In 1934, he formed his own group, called Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. The Blue Grass Boys included several notable musicians over the years, including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Homer Stokes.

In 1940, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys recorded “Wicked Path of Sin”, which is widely considered to be the first bluegrass song. The following year, they released their first album, entitled “Mule Skinner Blues”. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Monroe continued to release successful albums and singles; some of his most popular songs include “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (1947), ��Rawhide” (1951), and “Uncle Pen” (1950).

In 1965, Monroe was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry; he continued to perform regularly until his health began to decline in the early 1990s. He died in 1996 at the age of 84.

The artist’s sound

In the world of American folk music, Bill Monroe is considered the “Father of Bluegrass.” A singular innovator, Monroe developed a revolutionary new sound by blending the traditional music of his Appalachian upbringing with the jazz and blues he heard on African-American radio stations. The result was a high-energy, fast-paced style of country music that came to be known as bluegrass.

Though Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, featured some of the most talented musicians of their generation—including banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and guitar wizard Lester Flatt—it was the artist’s fiery mandolin playing and distinctive vocals that set him apart from other bands of the day. In addition to his work as a performer, Monroe penned some of bluegrass’ most enduring songs, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Mule Skinner Blues.”

A true original, Bill Monroe’s groundbreaking style helped to shape American folk music for generations to come.

Flatt and Scruggs

Lester Flatt (1914-1979) and Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) were an American bluegrass duo who helped to popularize the genre in the 1940s and 1950s. They are best known for their hit song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.

The group’s history

Flatt and Scruggs were an American bluegrass duo composed of Earl Scruggs (banjo, vocals) and Lester Flatt (guitar, vocals). The duo joined Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band in the mid-1940s, where they quickly became one of the most popular acts in country music. After leaving Monroe’s group in 1948, they began a long and successful recording and touring career that lasted until 1969. During their time together, Flatt and Scruggs released over 30 albums and became one of the most influential groups in the history of country music.

After splitting up in 1969, both members continued to have successful solo careers. In 1985, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 1988 they received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

The group’s sound

Flatt and Scruggs’ sound was characterized by Scruggs’ rapid banjo playing backed by flatt’s rhythm guitar. This musical duo became well known for popularizing bluegrass music through their appearances on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, as well as with their hit songs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”.

The Byrds

One of the most influential American folk rock bands of the 1960s, the Byrds helped pioneer the genre with their unique blend of folk, rock, country, and blues. The band’s signature sound – often referred to as the “Byrd sound” – was characterized by prominent harmonies and jangly 12-string guitar. The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

The group’s history

The Byrds were an American rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1964. The band underwent multiple lineup changes throughout its existence, with frontman Roger McGuinn (known as Jim McGuinn until mid-1967) remaining as the sole consistent member. The Byrds are credited with helping to pioneer the genre of folk rock, melding the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion bands with contemporary and traditional folk music. As the 1960s progressed, the band embraced country music and psychedelic rock to create their signature sound.

The Byrds achieved commercial success with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which reached number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 charts in 1965. Their cover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (to Everything There Is a Season), issued as a single in late 1965, was also an international hit, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early 1966. Following “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the Byrds released eight more top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1966 and 1967, including three originals which were included on their debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), and Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome”, which they recorded as part of their support for the civil rights movement; this latter song peaked at number 39 in early 1968, giving them their final top 40 hit. With the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), country rock became prevalent in their sound before they disbanded at year’s end due to internal tensions over creative differences regarding drug use among members of the group.

The group’s sound

The Byrds’ sound was characterized by bright, jangly 12-string electric guitar playing, McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 360/12 and later, Gene Clark’s Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, bassist Chris Hillman’s scruffy harmonies, and Michael Clarke’s distinctive drumming. They were also known for their close vocal harmonies, often in three- or four-part harmony.

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