Bluegrass music and cannabis go way back, but their relationship is rarely acknowledged in public.

“I didn’t know Bill Monroe,” says bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings. “But I wouldn’t take him for a pot smoker.”

Fair enough. But after Monroe came generations of musicians for whom cannabis has been a creative tool, a friendly way to relax, and sometimes a helpful way to find sleep during a hectic performing schedule.

'Bluegrass and marijuana go hand in hand; they're things folks do together for fun and to escape from the trials of everyday life.'
Jacob Groopman, Front Country guitarist

“I know tons of Bluegrass musicians who are very regular smokers. Some are even big names in the genre—I’m not at liberty to name names but trust me, you’ve heard of them,” Jacob Groopman of the bluegrass quintet Front Country told me recently.  “Bluegrass and marijuana go hand in hand because they are both things folks do together for fun and to escape from the trials of everyday life.”

To touch on marijuana in bluegrass is to touch on the complex heart of America; on the social, political, economic, and generational divides between the American north and south. Bluegrass cultureremains torn on whether or not to incorporate marijuana into the genre’s public image as it straddles the line in a divided country.

Marijuana has played and continues to play an influential role in the music and, more recently, the lucrative bluegrass festival culture. Yet the stigma remains. Many of bluegrass’ finest musicians, most of whom are already known to be long-time smokers, privately acknowledged but declined to comment on the record about their own cannabis use.

That reticence can be attributed at least in part to the cultural roots of the genre.

Bluegrass and jazz musicians share a love for improvisation, and surprisingly similar views on cannabis.

Bluegrass was created when Irish, English and Scottish folk music merged with African instrumentation and rhythm during the settlement of the eastern United States. It was just known as “mountain music” until the 1940s, when a native of Kentucky, Bill Monroe, popularized the music with his “Blue Grass Boys.” He is credited with the renaming of the sound.

Cannabis usually pops up in after-hours anecdotes, or as a coded verse in a song.

As bluegrass became more popular, it formed its own specific brand. A traditional music, it was born out of and catered to the predominantly poor, white, and Christian demographic of Appalachia and other regions of the South. It’s always been a commercial advantage for bluegrass artists to cultivate a conservative image.

“There are some religious undertones in bluegrass,” said bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings. “Go into a traditional bluegrass festival, and you will hear more bands on stage singing gospel songs. And so it’s an image thing, you know, it’s about the ‘good old boys.’”

Yet looks can be deceiving. Throughout the bluegrass blogosphere and on YouTube, there’s mention of Bill Monroe, “Big Mon”, eating a pot brownie, playing the song “Dusty Miller” for 15 minutes, and going on a little too long about the Grand Ole Opry. It’s been disseminated like myth—many grass musicians still know the story and laugh about it today.

This is usually how cannabis pops up in bluegrass, in after-hours anecdotes passed on by word of mouth, or as a coded verse in a song.

Plan Ahead: Winter Bluegrass Festivals in Cannabis-Legal States

FESTIVALDATESLOCATION
Blythe Bluegrass FestivalJan 19-21, 2018Blythe, CA
Mid-Winter Bluegrass FestivalFeb 16-18, 2018Denver, CO
Joe Val Bluegrass Music FestivalFeb 16-18, 2018Framingham, MA
WintergrassFeb 22-25, 2018Bellevue, WA
Winter WonderGrassFeb 23-25, 2018Steamboat Springs, CO

When Bluegrass Met Jazz

One of the early meetings of cannabis and bluegrass came during the 1940s and 1950s, as Appalachians moved to cities in search of work generated by World War II and then America’s postwar industrial expansion. As they moved into city centers, newly urbanized Appalachians brought their bluegrass into the bars. There they rubbed shoulders with jazz musicians.

Cannabis enjoyment, of course, was already a long-established ritual in jazz culture. Fueled by improvisation, jazz musicians thought drugs could help expand the mind and improve their creativity. The time-expanding sensation provided by cannabis proved to be especially useful to artists for whom time represented both opportunity and restraint. Bluegrass musicians have a similar love of improvisation, and, as guitarist Tony Kamel, from the bluegrass band Wood & Wire, points out, a similar view on cannabis.

“Any improvisational style of music, melodic based—jazz, blues, bluegrass – any of that stuff where the musicianship is high, there’s a long history of drug use, not just weed,” he told me. “Religious, Christian gospel singers may have been preaching on Sunday and playing gospel songs, but on Saturday night they were up late drinking moonshine or hooch or whatever.”

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What Are the Odds?

Jon Weisberger, bluegrass musician and journalist, echoed Kamel’s point. As the two groups of musicians began to intermingle musically and socially, Weisberger said that it’s highly probable that a shared love for cannabis emerged as well.

In the late 60s, bluegrass festivals cropped up, following in the steps of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. With that came increased use of cannabis in bluegrass spaces.

“You know there are these little those stories out there of [western swing musician] Bob Wills and his guys playing with [jazz musician] Jay McShann’s band at after-hours clubs in 1940. You figure: All right, so these guys are like jamming all night, you know, so what are the odds that some number of guys got introduced to [cannabis] and there’s a sort of underground musician marijuana culture that was centered in the jazz world?” said Weisberger.

Still, there isn’t much written about marijuana use in this time. Reefer Madness propaganda was widely disseminated in the 1940s, creating real fear around the illegality and suggested immorality of marijuana, especially in the Christian South. Additionally, the racialization of marijuana—joints were very often euphemized as “jazz cigarettes,” for instance—enhanced that stigma.

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Then Came the Folk Revival

Marijuana’s influence on bluegrass remained largely underground until the audience shifted with the coming of the Folk Revival in the 1960s and 1970s. As hippies clamored for any “authentic” folk music they could find, bluegrass experienced revitalized sales and a diversified listenership.

A new scene of bluegrass festivals also cropped up, following in the steps of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. With that came increased use of marijuana and psychedelics in bluegrass spaces.

There’s a story about the banjo forefather, Earl Scruggs, as told by Paul (who asked to use his first name only) that encapsulates counterculture’s intersection with bluegrass. Apparently, as Paul was smoking a joint outside a 1970s Scruggs performance in Roslyn, New York, Earl’s son Randy Scruggs emerged.

“The Scruggs tour bus was parked nearby, and the sweet smell of the Red Lebo drifted out through the bus windows. Randy Scruggs emerged, and asked what kind of smoke I had, and thus ensued a conversation that led to sharing with the Scruggs brothers,” said Paul. “Earl joined us, introduced himself and shook my hand. [Randy’s brother] Gary passed the joint to his Dad, and he remarked, ‘I’d better not.’ He told us he preferred to wait until after the show because he had to keep up with the kids. My friend Eric remarked, ‘I think it’s so cool a guy your age gets high!’ Earl shook his head and to paraphrase, said, ‘You hippies think you invented this stuff!’”

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Bluegrass was created when Irish, English and Scottish folk music merged with African instrumentation and rhythm during the settlement of the eastern United States. It was just known as “mountain music” until the 1940s, when a native of Kentucky, Bill Monroe, popularized the music with his “Blue Grass Boys.” He is credited with the renaming of the sound.

Cannabis usually pops up in after-hours anecdotes, or as a coded verse in a song.

As bluegrass became more popular, it formed its own specific brand. A traditional music, it was born out of and catered to the predominantly poor, white, and Christian demographic of Appalachia and other regions of the South. It’s always been a commercial advantage for bluegrass artists to cultivate a conservative image.

“There are some religious undertones in bluegrass,” said bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings. “Go into a traditional bluegrass festival, and you will hear more bands on stage singing gospel songs. And so it’s an image thing, you know, it’s about the ‘good old boys.’”

Yet looks can be deceiving. Throughout the bluegrass blogosphere and on YouTube, there’s mention of Bill Monroe, “Big Mon”, eating a pot brownie, playing the song “Dusty Miller” for 15 minutes, and going on a little too long about the Grand Ole Opry. It’s been disseminated like myth—many grass musicians still know the story and laugh about it today.

This is usually how cannabis pops up in bluegrass, in after-hours anecdotes passed on by word of mouth, or as a coded verse in a song.

Plan Ahead: Winter Bluegrass Festivals in Cannabis-Legal States

FESTIVALDATESLOCATION
Blythe Bluegrass FestivalJan 19-21, 2018Blythe, CA
Mid-Winter Bluegrass FestivalFeb 16-18, 2018Denver, CO
Joe Val Bluegrass Music FestivalFeb 16-18, 2018Framingham, MA
WintergrassFeb 22-25, 2018Bellevue, WA
Winter WonderGrassFeb 23-25, 2018Steamboat Springs, CO

When Bluegrass Met Jazz

One of the early meetings of cannabis and bluegrass came during the 1940s and 1950s, as Appalachians moved to cities in search of work generated by World War II and then America’s postwar industrial expansion. As they moved into city centers, newly urbanized Appalachians brought their bluegrass into the bars. There they rubbed shoulders with jazz musicians.

Cannabis enjoyment, of course, was already a long-established ritual in jazz culture. Fueled by improvisation, jazz musicians thought drugs could help expand the mind and improve their creativity. The time-expanding sensation provided by cannabis proved to be especially useful to artists for whom time represented both opportunity and restraint. Bluegrass musicians have a similar love of improvisation, and, as guitarist Tony Kamel, from the bluegrass band Wood & Wire, points out, a similar view on cannabis.

“Any improvisational style of music, melodic based—jazz, blues, bluegrass – any of that stuff where the musicianship is high, there’s a long history of drug use, not just weed,” he told me. “Religious, Christian gospel singers may have been preaching on Sunday and playing gospel songs, but on Saturday night they were up late drinking moonshine or hooch or whatever.”

RELATED STORY
5 Bold Bluegrass Albums to Listen to While High

What Are the Odds?

Jon Weisberger, bluegrass musician and journalist, echoed Kamel’s point. As the two groups of musicians began to intermingle musically and socially, Weisberger said that it’s highly probable that a shared love for cannabis emerged as well.

In the late 60s, bluegrass festivals cropped up, following in the steps of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. With that came increased use of cannabis in bluegrass spaces.

“You know there are these little those stories out there of [western swing musician] Bob Wills and his guys playing with [jazz musician] Jay McShann’s band at after-hours clubs in 1940. You figure: All right, so these guys are like jamming all night, you know, so what are the odds that some number of guys got introduced to [cannabis] and there’s a sort of underground musician marijuana culture that was centered in the jazz world?” said Weisberger.

Still, there isn’t much written about marijuana use in this time. Reefer Madness propaganda was widely disseminated in the 1940s, creating real fear around the illegality and suggested immorality of marijuana, especially in the Christian South. Additionally, the racialization of marijuana—joints were very often euphemized as “jazz cigarettes,” for instance—enhanced that stigma.

Then Came the Folk Revival

Marijuana’s influence on bluegrass remained largely underground until the audience shifted with the coming of the Folk Revival in the 1960s and 1970s. As hippies clamored for any “authentic” folk music they could find, bluegrass experienced revitalized sales and a diversified listenership.

A new scene of bluegrass festivals also cropped up, following in the steps of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. With that came increased use of marijuana and psychedelics in bluegrass spaces.

There’s a story about the banjo forefather, Earl Scruggs, as told by Paul (who asked to use his first name only) that encapsulates counterculture’s intersection with bluegrass. Apparently, as Paul was smoking a joint outside a 1970s Scruggs performance in Roslyn, New York, Earl’s son Randy Scruggs emerged.

“The Scruggs tour bus was parked nearby, and the sweet smell of the Red Lebo drifted out through the bus windows. Randy Scruggs emerged, and asked what kind of smoke I had, and thus ensued a conversation that led to sharing with the Scruggs brothers,” said Paul. “Earl joined us, introduced himself and shook my hand. [Randy’s brother] Gary passed the joint to his Dad, and he remarked, ‘I’d better not.’ He told us he preferred to wait until after the show because he had to keep up with the kids. My friend Eric remarked, ‘I think it’s so cool a guy your age gets high!’ Earl shook his head and to paraphrase, said, ‘You hippies think you invented this stuff!’”

RELATED STORY
Leafly List: The Best Cannabis Locations in North America, Winter 2017-2018

Billy Strings: Cannabis 'has been a part of the process of writing every song I’ve written.'

David Grisman & Uncle Jerry

As it turns out, many of the original members of the Grateful Dead were also in the New Riders of The Purple Sage, including Jerry Garcia. In 1964, Garcia met Grisman at a bluegrass festival on the East coast and the two struck up a friendship. Garcia revealed his deep love of Bill Monroe, the banjo, and eventually asked Grisman to lay down some mandolin tracks on the Dead’s iconic American Beauty.

Garcia, left, and Grisman: ‘Just play music.’

In about 1973, a few years after playing together in New Riders and on American Beauty, Grisman and Garcia started the straight-ahead bluegrass group, Old and in the Way.

“Jerry could go to David’s house and know that the only thing he was going to be partaking in would be marijuana because that’s all David did,” said Craig Miller, David Grisman’s long-time manager. “So, he could come over and know he’d have relaxed atmosphere. No gawkers, no nothing. They’d have a nice relaxing time and just play music.”

Bluegrass Moves Into Newgrass

Thus, the Folk Revival becomes the locus where hippies are introduced to bluegrass, but also where bluegrass musicians find their place in the folk and hippie world. Players like Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, and David Grisman, major beacons of the second generation of bluegrass, began to meld traditional bluegrass with the psychedelia of the day.

Their “New Grass” collectives, like New Grass Revival and New Riders of the Purple Sage, experimented with the tradition’s rules by using some electric instruments, more harmonic complexity, and less rural-focused lyrical content. They also threw out the suit-and-tie look, grew out their hair, and appeared much more casual on stage.

The song “Panama Red”, released by the New Riders, is a good example. The song is a fairly standard-sounding bluegrass number, but with a story thick in metaphor about popular sativa strain. In it, Peter Rowan croons, “The judge don’t know when Red’s in town/He keeps well-hidden underground/But everybody’s acting lazy/Falling out and hangin’ ‘round.” And in place of the typical album cover of a bluegrass band dressed in suits, is a picture of a cartoon character holding a smoking blunt.

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The Origins of Jamgrass

With their experimentation and proximity to the Grateful Dead, these groups also planted the seeds of another form in the progressive bluegrass niche, jamgrass. Jamgrass experiments with the bluegrass tradition in a different way than other iterations of “progressive bluegrass.” Where New Grass stays fairly close to the tradition, jamgrass cuts classic bluegrass with funk grooves, rock n’ roll, and extended sections of improvisation, as well as the drug-friendly concert culture of the jam band world.

When Grisman and Garcia played together, two crowds met at the stage: Grisman's bluegrass fans and Garcia's Deadhead spinners.

“For years and years and people would come backstage or people will throw pot on the stage,” said Miller. “They know what the scene is. But when David and Jerry started working together we had a problem. People were coming to the shows because of the association with Jerry and not because of David’s music. There were two types of people coming to the shows. There were David’s fans and there were ‘the spinners,’ the people who spin around and make a lot of noise and are not listening to anything. There were a ton of acid heads, but eventually that sort of petered out and we were left with the potheads.”

In the modern bluegrass era, progressive bluegrass and its “potheads” have grown into a large and lucrative wing of the genre. Experimental bluegrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and String Cheese Incident have been popular enough to hook novice bluegrass listeners, and Colorado’s cannabis-friendly Telluride Bluegrass Festival has become a craze of people searching for acoustic music and the neo-hippie festival experience.

A recent article on CBCNews reported that “Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado lets people bring in their own pot but asks them to smoke it on the outskirts.” A Telluride Festival spokesperson told Colorado Public Radio that they expected close to 12,000 attendees at their 2016 festival. The Colorado Tourism Board estimated the total economic impact of the festival at around $34.7 million, making it one of the largest and most lucrative bluegrass festivals in the country

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In Appalachia, It’s Another Story

Cannabis has yet to see this sort of widespread acceptance in bluegrass’s birthplace of Appalachia, despite the potential economic benefits a legalized crop could bring to one of the poorest regions in the United States. (To say nothing of the area’s intricate network of underground marijuana growers.) As Business Insider reported, “estimates of the value of Appalachia’s marijuana crop run into more than $1 billion dollars each year.”

A similar article in the Washington Post implied that cannabis industry jobs could replace coal jobs, stating, “the marijuana industry will create upward of a quarter of a million jobs in the United States, more than manufacturing is expected to create.”

“The farther south you get or in the Bible Belt,” said Craig Miller, they more the locals “think that if you take one hit of joy you’re going to be on heroin in 24 hours.”

“But if you look at the history of medicine,” Miller added, “before the prohibition of pot they were putting THC tinctures into” common pain remedies.

Strummers May Be Patients Too

Many bluegrass musicians also use cannabis as medicine, whether legal or not, arguing that it’s safer than drinking. There are legends about older artists like John Hartford using cannabis during the last cancer-ridden years of his life. The new generation, including Kamel, Miller, Groopman, and 25-year-old bluegrass star Billy Strings, praise cannabis for helping their health and music in a variety of ways.

How so? There’s near-universal agreement that it helps them wind down and sleep while on tour. Even more importantly, they point out its ability to make them focus more deeply on the music, relax during more challenging songs, and enhance creativity for songwriting.

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I’m Getting in Tune

Recently, even Dave Grisman came out about his use of cannabis and its influence on his newly released song, “Cinderella’s Fella,” with Tommy Emmanuel.

“‘Cinderella’s Fella’ was written after sampling a fine strain of weed grown by my late friend Jerome Schwartz in Petaluma,” Grisman said. “He called it ‘Cinderella’ and thus I became her ‘fella’ after inspiration took hold in the form of this airy dawg/jazz waltz.”

If I smoke a little bit, I'm like 'Where's my guitar?'
Billy Strings

“The psychoactive effects can put you more in tune with what’s going on, and musically, with the rhythms and faster songs,” said Kamel.

“You know if I smoke a little bit, I’m like Where’s my guitar?” said Strings, “Today I’ll smoke and then I’ll just grab my guitar and sit and play. Not to say I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t smoke, but it definitely it always makes me want to pick up my guitar.”

Perhaps bluegrass’s attitudes towards cannabis will shift with the rise of this younger generation. Strings is a perfect example. It’s nothing for him to talk about weed, publically smoke it, or play cannabis-friendly festivals and events like the MI Medical Country Fair Cannabis Cup in Michigan. In fact, sharing his experience with it is, for him, just a form of more honest self-expression as an artist.

Strings has incorporated cannabis into his brand in a way that few other bluegrass artists have. It sometimes makes him nervous, he admits, but “it’s been a part of the process of writing every song I’ve written,” he said.