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22 Top Bluegrass Duos

Jul 8, 2019

22 Top Bluegrass Duos

Everyone knows that in the early days of bluegrass, before that term was even coined, all you needed to make a “band” was two people and two instruments. Fiddle and banjo? Sure. But in those days, they’d take whatever they could get. Duos are still a strong presence in the music today, in brother/sibling duos, spouse-led bands, and legendary collaborations.

Check out these twenty-two bluegrass pairings — and their accoutrement — on BGS:

Bill & Charlie Monroe

Before Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, made his indelible mark on the genre (quite literally giving it its name), he was already a popular performer with his brothers Charlie and Birch. Birch left The Monroe Brothers in the mid-1930s, and Charlie and Bill went on to enjoy success on the road, in the studio, and on the radio — until rising tensions and a fateful fight in 1938 caused them to split ways. But, without that fight, we may not have “bluegrass” at all.

Flatt & Scruggs

December 1945. The Ryman Auditorium. Nashville, Tennessee. Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys stepped on stage for the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs among their ranks for the very first time and bluegrass as we know it today was born. Flatt & Scruggs left Monroe in 1948 to join forces and went on to become one of the few ubiquitous, household names of bluegrass.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

Undeniably trailblazers, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard are widely regarded as the first women in bluegrass to capture the “high lonesome” sound popularized by Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and others. They toured across the U.S., often supporting causes that benefited forgotten, downtrodden people from all backgrounds and walks of life. They were inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

The Stanley Brothers

Natives of the music-rich southwest corner of Virginia, Carter and Ralph Stanley were prolific recording artists and touring musicians in bluegrass’s first generation. Countless songs written and/or popularized by the Stanley Brothers and their backing band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, are staples of the genre today. Carter passed in 1966 and Ralph continued until his death in 2016 with the Clinch Mountain Boys — who still tour today with Ralph’s son, Ralph II.

Don Reno & Red Smiley

Unsung trailblazers of the first generation of bluegrass pickers, Reno & Smiley were tireless innovators with a jovial, sometimes silly flair to their songs and instrumental prowess. Their duets are simply some of the best in all of bluegrass. The duo performed together off and on from the early 1950s to the 1970s — but both passed away much too young, Smiley in 1972 at the age of 46 and Reno in 1984 at the age of 58. Reno’s frenetic, electric and pedal steel guitar-infused licks remain unmatched in banjo picking today.

Jim & Jesse McReynolds

With matching suits and impeccable pompadours brothers Jim and Jesse McReynolds often brought rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, mainstream country and pop sensibilities to their take on sibling harmonies and bluegrass brother duos. Jesse’s crosspicking on the mandolin was — and continues to be — absolutely astonishing. Jim passed in 2002, Jesse continues to perform on the Grand Ole Opry to this day. At the time of this writing, he is ninety years old.

Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum

Laurie Lewis often takes top billing — as leader of the Right Hands and before that, the Bluegrass Pals, and others — but since 1986 her musical partner Tom Rozum has almost constantly been at her side on the mandolin and harmonies. Their duo recording, The Oak and the Laurel, was nominated for a Grammy in 1995. Here is the album’s title track:

Bill Monroe & Doc Watson

What is there to say? Two of the folks who paved the way for this genre, laying a foundation so strong and far-reaching that we still can’t fully comprehend its impact. Bill and Doc collaborated on more than one occasion and we, as fans and disciples, are lucky that so many of these moments are captured in recordings and videos.

Del McCoury & David “Dawg” Grisman

At face value, an unlikely combo, but their friendship goes back to the early 1960s and their musical endeavors together began soon after. As Del slowly but surely became a bastion for traditional bluegrass aesthetics applied broadly, Dawg embraced jammy, jazzy, new acoustic sounds that sometimes only register as bluegrass-adjacent because they come from the mandolin. Opposite sides of the same coin, their duet makes total sense while at the same time challenging everything we think we know about the music. In this clip, Dawg sings tenor to Del — not many would be brave enough to try!

Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley

They got their start together in the Clinch Mountain Boys with Ralph Stanley, making some of the best recordings in the history of the band’s many iterations. Before they both struck out on wildly successful, mainstream careers they recorded a seminal duo album together, Second Generation. It remains one of the most important albums in the bluegrass canon — especially as far as duos/duets go.

Norman & Nancy Blake

Norman is well known for his flatpicking prowess, which has graced recordings by John Hartford, Bob Dylan, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and so many others. He and his wife, Nancy, were married in 1975 after having begun their musical forays together a year or so earlier. Nancy’s command of many instruments — cello, mandolin, and fiddle among them — balances neatly with Norman’s jaw-dropping, singular style on the flattop. Their inseparable harmonies and timeless repertoire are merely icing on the cake.

Jimmy Martin & Ralph Stanley

How their first album together, First Time Together (cough), is not more well-known is truly impossible to understand. The King of Bluegrass and the Man of Constant Sorrow twining their extraordinary voices must have been ordained by a higher power. It’s a good thing they answered the call. Be careful, Jimmy’s percussive G-runs feel like a slap in the face — in the best way.

Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien

Their live albums together and their co-written masterpieces belong in every museum and shrine to roots music around the world. Both of these triple threat (Quadruple? Quintuple? When do we stop counting?) musicians are rampantly successful in their own right, but together they are simply transcendent. Their cut of “Brother Wind” deserves a listen right this instant and “House of Gold” gives you the harmony acrobatics gut punch you need every time. It was nearly impossible to choose just one, but here’s a hit that was recorded once by a little group called the Dixie Chicks.

Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice

Again, words fail. Skaggs & Rice is a desert island record. Each and every time these two have graced a recording or a stage together, magic has been made, from their days with J.D. Crowe & the New South and on. We only wish that they could have done more together.

Vern & Ray

Vern Williams and Ray Park were California’s original bluegrass sons. Though they were both born and raised in Arkansas, they relocated to Stockton, California, as adults. They’re often credited with “introducing” bluegrass music to the West Coast. They disbanded in 1974 (both passed in the early 2000s), but their influence is palpable to this day, even if they’re sorely unheard of east of the Mississippi. This deserves correction! Immediately!

Eddie & Martha Adcock

Eddie is a pioneering banjo player who’s a veteran of both Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and The Country Gentlemen, two decidedly legendary and influential acts. His style is somewhat wacky, certainly singular, but effortlessly bluegrass and traditional as well. He married Martha in the late 1970s and the pair have toured prolifically as a duo. In 2008, Eddie underwent brain surgery to correct debilitating hand tremors. He was kept awake, playing the banjo during the procedure — and there is jaw-dropping film of this online!

Dailey & Vincent

When Dailey & Vincent burst onto the scene in the mid-aughts after both having notable careers as sidemen, the bluegrass community rejoiced at the reemergence of a wavering art form within the genre — traditional duo singing. However, Jamie and Darrin, whether they knew it at the time or not, had their sights set much higher. Now more of a full-blown stage show than a bluegrass band, their recordings and concerts are a high-energy, charismatic, and downright entertaining mix of classic country, Southern gospel, quartet singing, and yes, bluegrass.

Kenny & Amanda Smith

Husband and wife Kenny and Amanda first recorded together in 2001, going on to win IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year award two years later. They’ve now cut eight albums together, all clean, clear, crisp modern bluegrass that centers on Amanda’s impossibly bright vocals, which maintain a personal, country hue alongside Kenny’s fantastic flatpicking. SON!

Tom T. & Dixie Hall

Two of the most recent inductees into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, Tom T. and Dixie Hall wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs cut by country, bluegrass, and Americana artists alike. Tom T.’s reputation and chart-topping originals tend to eclipse Dixie, but he is unyielding in his efforts to point that same spotlight at his beloved wife instead, who passed away in 2015. Though she never performed — definitely not to the extent that Tom T. did — the marks she left on bluegrass, country, and her partnership with her husband are indelible. This number was co-written by the pair:

The Louvin Brothers

Recipients of IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1992, the Louvin Brothers are another example of early bluegrassers who enjoyed the amorphous, primordial days of the genre before it became more and more sequestered from mainstream country and country radio. Their duets are iconic, with counter-intuitive contours and lines that bands and singers still have difficulty replicating to this day. Their most famous contribution to the American music zeitgeist, though, might not be their music, but the spectacular cover art for their 1959 album, Satan Is Real. If you haven’t seen it, Google it right now.

Delia Bell & Bill Grant

Natives of Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, Delia Bell and Bill Grant met through Bell’s husband, Bobby, in the late 1950s. Between their band, the Kiamichi Mountain Boys, and their duo project they recorded more than a dozen albums together through the 1980s. Famously, Emmylou Harris became a fan when she heard their cut of “Roses in the Snow,” which Harris went on to record on her eponymous bluegrass record. Bell died in 2018.

The Osborne Brothers

Though they popularized a style of three-part harmony that had never been heard before — the infamous “high lead” harmony stack — their band, no matter who it may have included over the years, was undeniably helmed and anchored by Bobby and Sonny. (Which does explain the name.) You may remember “Rocky Top” and “Ruby” first and foremost in their discography, but the hits they’ve contributed to the bluegrass songbook are innumerable. Here’s one such classic.

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22 Top Bluegrass Duos
22 Top Bluegrass Duos