Country music has been examined by many authors, both in print and on the Internet, trying to explain it in intellectual terms – often with bewildering confusion. And the part of country music that has been analyzed the most is bluegrass. This is surprising since it is its pure simplicity, accompanied by outstanding musicians, which has attracted such a large audience to bluegrass. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, explained it this way: “To me bluegrass is really THE country music. It was meant for country people.” Therefore, it is surprising that bluegrass gained strong support in urban areas at a time when the trend was to popularize country music. It took a proud, stubborn man like Bill Monroe to resist the pop tide and make blugrass what it is today.
There are few performers who have had the solid country music background that William Smith Monroe had at a very early age. He was born September 13, 1911, on a farm in Jerusalem Ridge, near Rosine, Kentucky. His father, Buck, was a farmer, saw mill operator and noted step-dancer. His mother, Malissa, played fiddle, accordion and harmonica, and was a respected local singer of old-time ballads. Among his eight siblings, older brothers Harry and Birch played fiddle, and brother Charlie and sister Bertha played guitar. All of them were influenced by Bill’s uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, the “Uncle Pen” about whom he would write an important song years later. Bill once told an interviewer, “he’d bring his fiddle and he’d stay a night or so, and after supper, why, we’d get up around him and listen to him fiddle – maybe an hour, hour and a half. My father would call bedtime then.”
At the age of nine, Bill learned to play the mandolin, because no one else in the family knew how to play it. He also leamed to play the guitar. His mother died when he was ten years old, and his father died soon thereafter. As a result, he went to live with his Uncle Pen. Thafs when his real music education began. “Maybe if I hadn’t heard him,” said Bill years later, “I’d never have learned anything about music at all. Learning his numbers gave me something to start on.” Soon the two started playing guitar together at local dances. Bill also played with Arnold Schultz, a black blues musician, who became another major influence on his future music. He was given the chance to play guitar in Schultz’s band, thus incorporating something new into his awareness – the blues. “[Arnold] was a real musician,” reminisced Monroe, “and I thought it was an honor to get to play with him. There’s no colored man could play the blues with him, nobody in the world could play blues with that man.”
By the time he reached the age of 18, Bill Monroe was already an accomplished musician. In the summer of 1929,he joined his brothers, Birch and Charlie, working at the Sinclair refinery in Whiting, Indiana. At one time, during the Depression, Bill was the only one who was working, and the three brothers would play as a trio at local square dances and parties. They also worked six days a week doing shows on WJKS in Gary, Indiana – for 11 dollars a week.
Their “big break” came in 1934 when they were offered a job touring for Texas Crystals, a patent-medicine purgative. Birch decided not to join them, but Bill and Charlie started a duet act called the Monroe Brothers. Bill was married to Carolyn Brown in 1935, and soon the Monroe Brothers were making radio appearances in Iowa, Nebraska and the Carolinas. ln l936,the pair worked for Crazy Water Crystals, the larger rival of the company for whom they had previously worked, on the Crazy Barn Dance at WBT. They made their first recordings on RCA’s Bluebird label, recording some 60 tracks there. Then, in 1938, the two brothers decided to go their own ways. Charlie stayed at RCA and formed his band, the Kentucky Pardners, and Bill started his first band, the Kentuckians, at KARK in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Things didn’t go too well for his band, though. So he moved to Atlanta and got work with the popular Crossroad Follies.It was at this time that Bill Monroe formed his first Blue Grass Boys band. The band was made up of Cleo Davis (guitar and lead vocal), Art Wooten (fiddle), and Bill (mandolin). In Asheville, North Carolina, John Miller (iug player) was added. Miller was replaced by Amos Garin (bass) in Greenville. The band auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in October of 1939. They were hired then, and they never left.
The early 1940′s showed Monroe’s band to be quite similar to other string bands, such as Mainer’s Mountaineers. However, by the middle of the decade, his driving mandolin and his high tenor singing became the dominant style of the band, setting the Blue Grass Boys apart from all the other bands. The band’s personnel changed much over the years, but the classic bluegrass group was formed by Bill Monroe in the winter of 1945, when a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs, and guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, joined the band. Scruggs three-finger banjo style would become the standard for future bluegrass groups. It was when Flatt and Scruggs were in the band that Monroe first recorded the song “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Flatt and Scruggs advanced to other string bands in the spring of 1948 and formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. It Bill Monroe was still the heart of the band and his confident leadership kept him at the top of the bluegrass genre. Looking back, the list of former members of his band looks like an all-star team of musicians: Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wisemano Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Gordon Terry, Sonny Osbome, Chubby Wise, Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, Vassar Clements, etc.
In 1951, Bill Monroe bought some land at Bean Blossom in Brown County, Indiana. Here he established a country park, which soon became the home for many bluegrass shows. A severe car accident in 1953 prevented him from performing for several months. But, throughout the 1950′s, he toured extensively. “Scotland” was a chart success in 1958. In the song he used Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks on twin fiddles to simulate the sound of bagpipes – a tribute to his Scottish heritage.
Bill Monroe was a strong-willed person with stubborn ideas, and it was not always easy for his co-workers to achieve the perfect arrangement. In 1959, he refused to play a major event in Carnegie Hall because he thought that the organizer was a communist. He was not trustful of the press and he rarely gave interviews. However, in 1962, he became friends with Ralph Rinzler, a writer (and former member of the Greenbriar Boys), who later became his manager.
The 1960′s were a period of “rediscovery” for Bill Monroe as the Father of Bluegrass. He made his first college appearance at a folk festival at the University of Chicago in early 1963. As folk festivals proliferated, Rinzler and Carlton Haney put together the prototype festival – the First Annual Blue Grass Music Festival at Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. Then, in 1967, Bill started his own festival at Bean Blossom. During the 1960′s there were many young musicians whose careers were helped by being members of his band. Such musicians included Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, James Monroe, Byron Berline, Roland White and Del McCoury, among others. ln 1969, Bill Monroe was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel.
In 1970, Bill Monroe was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. His plaque reads: “The Father of Bluegrass Music. Bill Monroe developed and perfected this music form and taught it to a great many names in the industry.” He was not only an excellent performer, but he also wrote many songs, several being recorded under the pseudonyms of Albert Price, James B. Smith and James W. Smith. In fact, the Nashville Songwriters Association elected him to their Hall of Fame in 197l. One of his proudest moments came in 1979,when he appeared on the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC at a televised concert for then President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter sat beaming as Bill and the Blue Grass Boys performed “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Monroe kept a hectic schedule throughout the 1970′s, but in 1981, he was stricken with cancer. Nevertheless, he survived treatment and continued a schedule that would have challenged younger men. He always followed his own path, and he never bowed to commercial pressure. His contribution to country music is inestimable. On August 13, 1986, one month before his 75th birthday, the United States Senate passed a resolution, which recognized “his many contributions to American culture and his many ways of helping American people enjoy themselves.” It also stated that, “As a musician, showman, composer and teacher, Mr. Monroe has been a cultural figure and force of signal importance in our time.”
For a singer whose music, bluegrass, is supposed to have merely a cult following, Bill Monroe has had an amazingly broad influence over the years. His 1985 album, Bill Monroe and Friends, had some of Nashville’s biggest stars fighting to get put on it. He still remained unique in many ways. Actually, he had only a few certified hits, his preference being to produce a consistent series of steadily selling albums. And, unlike many of his peers, he refused to rely on remakes of old favorites for TV packages and did not restrict his touring to only a few large concerts. In 1986, in celebration of his 50th year in the music business, Bill took off on an exhausting, 50-state tour – travelling by car and bus as he had always done. Monroe’s signature song, “Blue Moon of Kenfucky,” was also named an official state song by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1988.
Bill Monroe built himself a legend. He didn’t just attract fans – he made disciples. People have named their kids after him; mandolin players brought their instruments for him to bless; families planned their vacations to attend his annual gatherings at Bean Blossom. When he was asked about how he felt about being called The Father of Bluegrass Music, he replied, “Well, I don’t mind that. That’s really the truth, you know. I accept that, I guess, as well as any man could. I think it’s a great honor to originate a music – something to be proud of.” He once said of bluegrass, “It’s got a hard drive to it. It’s Scotch bagpipes and old-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you.”
In 1991, Bill was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.He was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1993, and was presented with the National Medal of the Arts in 1995 by President Clinton. He performed as recently as March 1995 at the Grand Ole Opry. Opry president Hal Durham called Monroe “the epitome of the stately, Southern gentleman, a shy and generous man who was justly proud of the acceptance of bluegrass music.”
He suffered a stroke in April of 1996 and was hospitalized in both Baptist Hospital in Nashville and Tennessee Christian Medical Center in Madison. Sadly, he passed away at Northcrest Home & Hospice in Springfield, Tennessee on September 9, 1996, just four days short of his 85th birthday. His funeral took place appropriately at the old Ryman Auditorium, where he had graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for decades. He was buried in Rosine, Kentucky, where he was born.
Bill Monroe, the only American to have single-handedly invented an entirely new genre of music, will be missed greatly. But his legacy to the world – the bluegrass music he created and shared and taught to so many during his lifetime – will never die.
Bill Monroe's mother died when he was just ten years old, and his father died soon thereafter. As a result, he went to live with his Uncle Pen. That's when his real music education began. “Maybe if I hadn’t heard him,” said Bill years later, “I’d never have learned anything about music at all. Learning his numbers gave me something to start on.” Soon the two started playing guitar together at local dances.