By Courtney E. Smith
Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” has got to be 2013’s most unlikely hit.
With the intention grabbing the attention of casual dance music fans and general listeners, the superstar DJ fused EDM with elements of bluegrass. Avicii’s attempt at broadening his audience paid off: “Wake Me Up” was the No. 2 most-streamed song of 2013 on Spotify, the No. 2 most-tagged song globally on Shazam this year, and has clocked 24 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 so far (peaking at No. 4).
While Avicii’s bold move left some scratching heads, it makes more sense through a wider lens of musical trends in the last couple of years. Bluegrass and banjos have become normalized within pop music through a type of act almost as surprising as a Swedish DJ/model: a British folk band.
Mumford & Sons tapped into one of the same specific sources of inspiration as Avicii: the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Marcus Mumford and co. have publicly acknowledged the 2000 movie’s music, which was led by its hit single, a cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the film’s fictional band the Soggy Bottom Boys. And it was lead Soggy Bottom Boy — bluegrass great Dan Tyminski — along with another unlikely collaborator (Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger) who helped Avicii find his inner twang on True, the album featuring “Wake Me Up.”
All this left us wondering: What does the bluegrass community make of all this, and how does it fit into the genre’s lengthy history?
With insight from bluegrass and country music legend Ricky Skaggs, we defined bluegrass and traced its roots, drawing a direct line from Irish Kaylees to the Beverly Hillbillies to The Beatles to vintage country to today’s hits. Chris Stapleton of the SteelDrivers told us how bluegrass is the new rock and roll, and Emily Robinson and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks told us about being too country for country music when they wanted to incorporate bluegrass elements into their hit single “Wide Open Spaces.”