Immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland arrived in Appalachia in the 18th century, and brought with them the musical traditions of their homelands. These traditions consisted primarily of English and Scottish ballads which were essentially unaccompanied narrative and dance music, such as Irish reels, which were accompanied by a fiddle. Many older Bluegrass songs come directly from the British Isles. Several Appalachian Bluegrass ballads, such as Pretty Saro, Barbara Allen, Cuckoo Bird and House Carpenter, come from England and preserve the English ballad tradition both melodically and lyrically. Others, such as The Twa Sisters, also come from England; however, the lyrics are about Ireland.
Some Bluegrass fiddle songs popular in Appalachia, such as "Leather Britches", and "Pretty Polly", have Scottish roots. The dance tune Cumberland Gap may be derived from the tune that accompanies the Scottish ballad Bonnie George Campbell. Other songs have different names in different places; for instance in England there is an old ballad known as "A Brisk Young Sailor Courted Me", but exactly the same song in North American Bluegrass is known as "I Wish My Baby Was Born".
In Bluegrass, as in some forms of jazz, one or more instruments each takes its turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment; this is especially typified in tunes called breakdowns. This is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment. Breakdowns are often characterized by rapid tempos and unusual instrumental dexterity and sometimes by complex chord changes.
Bluegrass music has attracted a diverse following worldwide. Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe characterized the genre as: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."
Exactly when the word bluegrass itself was adopted to label this form is not certain, but is believed to be in the late 1950s, and was derived from the name of the seminal Blue Grass Boys band, formed in 1939 with Bill Monroe as its leader. Due to this lineage, Bill Monroe is frequently referred to as the "father of bluegrass", although his style drew upon the country, gospel, and blues music with which he had grown up.
Monroe's 1946 to 1948 band, which featured banjo prodigy Earl Scruggs, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts (also known as "Cedric Rainwater"—sometimes called "the original bluegrass band"—created the definitive sound and instrumental configuration that remains a model to this day. By some arguments, while the Blue Grass Boys were the only band playing this music, it was just their unique sound; it could not be considered a musical style until other bands began performing in similar fashion. In 1948, the Stanley Brothers recorded the traditional song "Molly and Tenbrooks" in the Blue Grass Boys' style, arguably the point in time that Bluegrass emerged as a distinct musical form. As Ralph Stanley himself said about the origins of the genre and its name:
"Oh, (Monroe) was the first. But it wasn't called bluegrass back then. It was just called old time mountain hillbilly music. When they started doing the bluegrass festivals in 1965, everybody got together and wanted to know what to call the show, y'know. It was decided that since Bill was the oldest man, and was from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky and he had the Blue Grass Boys, it would be called 'bluegrass.'
The nickname Bluegrass State was given to Kentucky because of the grazing grass there named Poa pratensis In the 1930s, according to the historian of the American language H. L. Mencken, the word was spelled blue-grass