William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996) was an American mandolinist who helped create the style of music known as bluegrass. The genre takes its name from his band, the “Blue Grass Boys“, named for Monroe’s home state of Kentucky. Monroe’s performing career spanned 60 years as a singer, instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. He is often referred to as The Father of Bluegrass.
Monroe was born on his family’s farm near Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of eight children of James Buchanan “Buck” and Malissa (Vandiver) Monroe. His mother and her brother, Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, were both musically talented, and Monroe and his family grew up playing and singing at home. Bill was of Scottish heritage. Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie already played the fiddle and guitar, Bill Monroe was resigned to playing the less desirable mandolin. He recalled that his brothers insisted he should remove four of the mandolin’s eight strings so he would not play too loudly.
Monroe’s mother died when he was ten, followed by his father six years later. As his brothers and sisters had moved away, after bouncing among uncles and aunts, Monroe settled in with his disabled uncle Pendleton Vandiver, often accompanying him when Vandiver played the fiddle at dances. This experience inspired one of Monroe’s most famous compositions, “Uncle Pen”, recorded in 1950, and the 1972 album, Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen. On that album, Monroe recorded a number of traditional fiddle tunes he had often heard performed by Vandiver. Uncle Pen has been credited with giving Monroe “a repertoire of tunes that sank into Bill’s aurally trained memory and a sense of rhythm that seeped into his bones.” Also significant in Monroe’s musical life was Arnold Shultz, an influential fiddler and guitarist who introduced Monroe to the blues.
In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery with his brothers Birch and Charlie, and childhood friend and guitarist William “Old Hickory” Hardin. Together with a friend Larry Moore, they formed the “Monroe Brothers”, to play at local dances and house parties. Birch Monroe and Larry Moore soon left the group, and Bill and Charlie carried on as a duo, eventually winning spots performing live on radio stations— first in Indiana and then, sponsored by Texas Crystals, on several radio broadcasts in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and North Carolina 1934 to 1936. RCA Victor signed the Monroe Brothers to a recording contract in 1936. They scored an immediate hit single with the gospel song “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?” and ultimately recorded 60 tracks for Victor’s Bluebird label between 1936 and 1938.
After the Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the group only lasted for three months. Monroe then left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia, to form the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist Amos Garren. Bill had wanted “Old Hickory” to become one of the original members of his “Blue Grass Boys”, however William Hardin had to decline. In October 1939, he successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic performance of Jimmie Rodgers‘s “Mule Skinner Blues“. Monroe recorded that song, along with seven others, at his first solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940; by this time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
While the fast tempos and instrumental virtuosity characteristic of bluegrass music are apparent even on these early tracks, Monroe was still experimenting with the sound of his group. He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor recordings, often preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the Monroe Brothers. A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion, soon dropped from the band. Most importantly, while Monroe added banjo player David “‘Stringbean” Akeman to the Blue Grass Boys in 1942, Akeman played the instrument in a relatively primitive style and was rarely featured in instrumental solos. Monroe’s pre-1946 recordings represent a transitional style between the string-band tradition from which he came and the musical innovation to follow.
The “Original Bluegrass Band” and Monroe’s heyday as a star
A key development occurred in Monroe’s music with the addition of North Carolina banjo prodigy Earl Scruggs to the Blue Grass Boys in December 1945. Scruggs played the instrument with a distinctive three-finger picking style that immediately caused a sensation among Opry audiences. Scruggs joined a highly accomplished group that included singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, and would soon include fiddler Chubby Wise, and bassist Howard Watts, who often performed under the name “Cedric Rainwater”. In retrospect, this lineup of the Blue Grass Boys has been dubbed the “Original Bluegrass Band”, as Monroe’s music finally included all the elements that characterize the genre, including breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmony arrangements, and impressive instrumental proficiency demonstrated in solos or “breaks” on the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. By this point, Monroe had acquired the 1923 Gibson F5 model “Lloyd Loar” mandolin which became his trademark instrument for the remainder of his career.
The 28 songs recorded by this version of the Blue Grass Boys for Columbia Records in 1946 and 1947 soon became classics of the genre, including “Toy Heart”, “Blue Grass Breakdown”, “Molly and Tenbrooks“, “Wicked Path of Sin”, “My Rose of Old Kentucky”, “Little Cabin Home on the Hill”, and Monroe’s most famous song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky“. The last-named was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954, appearing as the B-side of his first single for Sun Records. Monroe gave his blessing to Presley’s rock-and-roll cover of the song, originally a slow ballad in waltz time, and in fact re-recorded it himself with a faster arrangement after Presley’s version became a hit. Several gospel-themed numbers are credited to the “Blue Grass Quartet”, which featured four-part vocal arrangements accompanied solely by mandolin and guitar – Monroe’s usual practice when performing “sacred” songs.
Both Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe’s band in early 1948, soon forming their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1949, after signing with Decca Records, Monroe entered what has been called the “golden age” of his career with what many consider the classic “high lonesome” version of the Blue Grass Boys, featuring the lead vocals and rhythm guitar of Jimmy Martin, the banjo of Rudy Lyle (replacing Don Reno), and fiddlers such as Merle “Red” Taylor, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements. This band recorded a number of bluegrass classics, including “My Little Georgia Rose”, “On and On”, “Memories of Mother and Dad”, and “Uncle Pen”, as well as instrumentals such as “Roanoke”, “Big Mon”, “Stoney Lonesome”, “Get Up John” and the mandolin feature “Raw Hide”. Carter Stanley joined the Blue Grass Boys as guitarist for a short time in 1951 during a period when the Stanley Brothers had temporarily disbanded.
On January 16, 1953 Monroe was critically injured in a two-car wreck. He and “Bluegrass Boys” bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were returning home from a fox hunt north of Nashville. On highway 31-W, near White House, their car was struck by a drunken driver. Monroe, who had suffered injuries to his back, left arm and nose, was rushed to General Hospital in Nashville. It took him almost four months to recover and resume touring. In the meantime Charlie Cline and Jimmy Martin kept the band together.
By the late 1950s, however, Monroe’s commercial fortunes had begun to slip. The rise of rock-and-roll and the development of the “Nashville sound” in mainstream country music both represented threats to the viability of bluegrass. While still a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe found diminishing success on the singles charts, and struggled to keep his band together in the face of declining demand for live performances.
The folk revival
Monroe’s fortunes began to improve during the “folk revival” of the early 1960s. Many college students and other young people were beginning to discover Monroe, associating his style more with traditional folk music than with the country-and-western genre with which it had previously been identified. The word “bluegrass” first appeared around this time to describe the sound of Monroe and similar artists such as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Jim and Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers. While Flatt and Scruggs immediately recognized the potential for a lucrative new audience in cities and on college campuses in the North, Monroe was slower to respond. Under the influence of Ralph Rinzler, a young musician and folklorist from New Jersey who briefly became Monroe’s manager in 1963, Monroe gradually expanded his geographic reach beyond the traditional southern country music circuit. Rinzler was also responsible for a lengthy profile and interview in the influential folk music magazine Sing Out! that first publicly referred to Monroe as the “father” of bluegrass. Accordingly, at the first bluegrass festival organized by Carlton Haney at Roanoke, Virginia in 1965, Bill Monroe was the central figure.
The growing national popularity of Monroe’s music during the 1960s was also apparent in the increasingly diverse background of musicians recruited into his band. Non-southerners who served as Blue Grass Boys during this period included banjo player Bill Keith and singer/guitarist Peter Rowan from Massachusetts, fiddler Gene Lowinger from New York, banjo player Lamar Grier from Maryland, banjo player Steve Arkin from New York, and singer/guitarist Roland White and fiddler Richard Greene from California.
Even after the folk revival faded in the mid-1960s, it left a loyal audience for bluegrass music. Bluegrass festivals became common, with fans often traveling long distances to see a number of different acts over several days of performances.
In 1967 Monroe himself founded an annual bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom in southern Indiana, a park he had purchased in 1951, which routinely attracted a crowd of thousands; a double LP from the festival featuring Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, and Jim and Jesse was released in 1973. The annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is now the world’s oldest continuously running annual bluegrass festival.
Monroe’s compositions during his later period were largely instrumentals, including “Jerusalem Ridge”, “Old Dangerfield” (originally spelled Daingerfield after town in East Texas), and “My Last Days on Earth”; he settled into a new role as a musical patriarch who continued to influence younger generations of musicians. Monroe recorded two albums of duets in the 1980s; the first featured collaborations with country stars such as Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, and the Oak Ridge Boys, while the second paired him with other prominent bluegrass musicians. A 1989 live album celebrated his 50th year on the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe also kept a hectic touring schedule. On April 7, 1990, Monroe performed for Farm Aid IV in Indianapolis, Indiana along with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and with many other artists.
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Monroe suffered a stroke in April 1996, effectively ending his touring and playing career. He died on September 9, 1996, only four days before his 85th birthday.