Bill Monroe left behind a legacy that’s more vital and thriving than ever and a diaspora of former players and acolytes who continue to spread his music today. Bluegrass, developed from roots deep in the soil of his native Kentucky, has spread around the world. It’s evolved with each generation that’s passed since that mythic “birth of bluegrass” concert in December 1945 at The Ryman Auditorium that featured the debut of pioneering banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt.
“Every country that I’ve ever been in in my whole life, I’ve always run into somebody who’s either talked to me about bluegrass or there was a bluegrass band there, whether it was Russia, Thailand, wherever I’ve been,” Skaggs said. “It’s a huge music that’s crossed lines.”
To see a revered piece of Monroe’s legacy, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville continues to exhibit his beloved Gibson F-5 mandolin. Monroe bought the instrument in a pawn shop in Miami in the 1940s. By bringing banjo player Earl Scruggs into the mix in December 1945, along with guitarist Lester Flatt, bassist Cedric Rainwater and fiddler Chubby Wise, the definitive sound was cemented at the Ryman Auditorium during a Grand Ole Opry appearance.
Yet, well-versed bluegrass fans know that the Gibson F-5 has a rich history of its own. After a dispute with Gibson, reportedly because repairs were taking too long, Monroe scratched off the company name from the mandolin’s pearl inlay during the early 1950s. And according to the Gibson website, the instrument had to be completely restored after it “had been smashed to smithereens with a fireplace poker by an irate woman.”
At the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in downtown Owensboro, Ky., the original nameplate — scratches intact — is part of a special display honoring Monroe’s 100th birthday. The artifact is owned by John Carter Cash and Laura Cash, the son and daughter-in-law of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The Gibson mandolin that Monroe played while the F-5 was being restored is also on display. Monroe’s award for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997 (as an early influence) is part of the museum’s permanent collection. They’ve also dedicated a wall paying homage to Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — somewhere between 130 and 150 members.
William Smith Monroe was a man of few words, but he opened up to fellow bluegrass musician Alice Gerrard, who recorded him in 1969.
“I was brought up the best way that I could be brought up with what we had to do with,” Monroe said. “I could have had a better education, and I could have had better clothes to wear to school. I could have had a better chance, you know. But if I’d had the best education in the world, I might have not played music.”
Gerrard says it was hard to get Monroe to open up.
“Bill, in some ways, he was very inarticulate about his feelings. In other ways, he was very profound about his feelings,” says Gerrard. “And when you got him into a certain mood where he was being more introspective, he really could be very profound, I felt.”
Monroe grew up as the youngest of eight children on a working farm. His biographer, Richard D. Smith, says Monroe was born with a condition that left one eye crossed and his vision severely impaired. He was teased for that.
“Being the youngest, being kind of shunted off to the side, being teased — bluegrass is often known as the high lonesome sound,” Smith says. “This childhood pain came out in his music, and he really worked through it with his music.
“Bill Monroe was just 10 years old when his mother died,” Smith adds. “And in this wonderful autobiographical song, ‘Memories of Mother and Dad,’ the song begins, ‘Mother left this world of sorrow, our home was silent and so sad …’ ”
Del McCoury sang lead and played guitar with Bill Monroe in the mid-1960s. He recalls that at first he couldn’t get the lyrics right, so Monroe took him to his parents’ graves when the band was passing through Kentucky.
“So we stopped in at Rosine, and he took me there to those tombstones, and he said, ‘Now I want you to read what’s on those tombstones there,’ ” McCoury says. “And so I read it — on Mother’s, ‘Gone, but not forgotten.’ And on Dad’s, ‘We’ll meet again someday.’ That’s what it said. A lot of his songs were true life. … And they meant a lot to him.”
Smith says that Monroe is one of the great early autobiographical singer-songwriters.
“I mean, he was writing autobiographical material before Hank Williams,” Smith says. “I’m not saying he’s the first to do it, but so much of that stuff is from his life experience. I mean, he just is absolutely baring his soul.”
“I tell you, me and him played for a dance one night,” Monroe said. “We started, you know, at sundown, and the next morning at daylight, we was still playing music. All night long. ‘Course that automatically meant you’d be dancing on Sunday. But that is really the truth.”
“I think Bill Monroe is arguably the most broadly influential figure in American popular music,” says Smith. “Not only he’s the father of bluegrass — he was influential in country music, later in the folk music revival, but also … early rockers loved Monroe — Elvis [Presley], Carl [Perkins], Buddy Holly — all huge Bill Monroe fans. Maybe he doesn’t have the specific impact of a Louis Armstrong … [or a] Frank Sinatra, but over a spectrum of American music, this man was quite influential.”
Smith says that influence pervades American music to this day. Chris Thile, best known for his work in the bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, plays mandolin. He says he remembers meeting Monroe for the first time in 1992. Thile was a child prodigy playing a tune for the old master, and “Big Mon” (as Monroe was known) smiled and gave him a quarter.
“That was something he always did,” says Thile. “If he ever encountered a little kid and had the opportunity, he gave them a quarter. And so after I played for him, he gave me a quarter, which was awesome — a pretty epic experience for an 11-year-old.”
Ricky Skaggs can imagine the look his old friend Bill Monroe might have had on his face if he were alive today to see the bluegrass world celebrate his legacy.
“He would get out of the car and have that back straight as an arrow, and he’d have that hat on, and he’d be pulling it off and thanking people,” Skaggs said. “He’d really be happy about people celebrating his life.”
Monroe, who died in 1996, gave out hundreds, probably thousands of quarters over his long life. It’s as if this famous musician, who had played for four sitting U.S. presidents and won the nation’s highest honor in the arts, never forgot being that cross-eyed boy, growing up poor on a Kentucky farm.