Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe, The Father of Bluegrass, was often regarded as the only person who could claim to have invented an entire style of music. He always trod his own musical path, never bowing to commercial pressure, and his contribution to country music has been inestimable. A kind of rural mountain jazz, of his beloved bluegrass, he once said: ‘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 good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you.’ Over the years, bluegrass music has gone from the pickin’ parlours and mountain gatherings to develop a significant audience. Its impact is evident on a number of fronts—from a substantial radio presence to a large concert circuit, in addition to the near-fanatical outdoor festival scene.

Born on a farm near Rosine, Kentucky on September 13, 1911, William Smith Monroe was the youngest of eight children. He learned the mandolin as a child because no other family members played that particular instrument. After both his parents passed away, young Bill went to live with his Uncle ‘Pen’, a rated local fiddler, who was later immortalised in the song of the same name. Another early influence was a black musician, Arnold Shultz, who had an unrivalled feel for the blues. When he was 18, Bill followed his older brothers, and moved to East Chicago, Indiana, where they all worked as manual labourers by day and played at dances and parties at night. Bill teamed up with brother Charlie to form the Monroe Brothers in 1935 and found local radio work around the Carolinas. Signed to Victor Records, they cut some historically important mountain duets, pioneering a distinctive style in which then-advanced mandolin and guitar techniques were coupled with a high clear, recognisable vocal sound. In 1938, they went their separate ways and Bill formed the Kentuckians, which within a couple of years had become the Blue Grass Boys.

Signed to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Bill experimented with different musical sounds throughout the early 1940s. At one time he was utilising accordion and banjo, but finally in 1945 he settled on the classic bluegrass line-up of Earl Scruggs’ driving banjo, Lester Flatts solid acoustic guitar runs, Monroe’s own mandolin, along with Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on upright bass. Often referred to as the real beginnings of bluegrass music, this line-up remained intact for three years and recorded some classic sides for Columbia Records, including Blue Moon Of Kentucky, I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling and Will You Be Loving Another Man. Bill left Columbia in 1949, because he objected to them signing the Stanley Brothers, a rival bluegrass group. He joined Decca Records (later MCA), with whom he remained for the rest of his life. The early 1950s turned out to be a golden era for Monroe and his music. He wrote and recorded such classics as Footprints In The Snow, Kentucky Waltz, Uncle Pen, Roanoke, Scotland, Walking In Jerusalem and I’m Working On A Building. A young Elvis Presley chose to sing a cover of Blue Moon Of Kentucky when he auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in 1954 and recorded the song for his first Sun Records single. Presley later apologised to Mr. Monroe for changing the arrangement of his song.

By the end of the decade, bluegrass was in decline due to the onset of rock’n’roll, but the 1960s saw a folk revival and Monroe discovered hordes of students eager to embrace indigenous rural white folk music. In 1963 he made his first college appearance at the University of Chicago and later that same year he played the Newport Folk Festival. During his latter years Monroe began to receive the accolades he so richly deserved from outside of the tight confines of bluegrass. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1970, with induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame a year later. He became the recipient of the first bluegrass Grammy ever awarded for his SOUTHERN FLAVOR album in 1989, and received the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He also became the first inductee into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame that same year. He continued to perform (mainly on the Opry) and record right up until a few weeks before he passed away September 9, 1996.

As a singer, musician, songwriter and bandleader, Bill Monroe has been, and continues to be, a major influence on modern music. He was always a musical disciplinarian and it showed in his live performances and his recordings. His magical mandolin captured the beauty of every note, especially on the self-penned Celtic tinged Scotland, the old-time flavoured Kentucky Waltz and the driving Wheel Hoss. The various line-ups of the Bluegrass Boys (a virtual bluegrass who’s who) provided superb and innovative accompaniment that kept you on your toes, ears a buzzing throughout. In spite of the ethnic rough edges, every note was previously accounted for and you knew that Monroe had dictated every last phrase. Although every note was a hallmark of perfection, it lost none of the earthiness or beauty of American music. He never once let you forget that he was a superb craftsman in every sense and the sheer brilliance of his musical prowess and overall musical leadership was, at times, quite overpowering.

Recommended Listening

Bill Monroe & Friends (MCA '83)
Southern Flavour (MCA '88)
Bluegrass 1950-58 (box set 1989 Bear Family)
Bluegrass 1959-69 (box set 1991 Bear Family)
Mule Skinner Blues (Monroe Brothers’ recordings 1991 RCA)
Bill Monroe: 16 Gems (Columbia 1996)
Gotta Travel On - An Introduction to Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys
(Universal Music 2003)
Bill Monroe
My Last Days On Earth (Bear Family box set 2007)
Bill Monroe
Far Across The Blue Water: Bill Monroe In Germany1975 & 1989
(Bear Family box set 2004)