Monroe, Bill (actually, William Smith)

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Monroe, Bill (actually, William Smith)

Monroe, Bill (actually, William Smith),American bluegrass singer, mandolin player, and songwriter; b. near Rosine, Ky., Sept. 13, 1911; d. Springfield, Tenn., Sept. 9, 1996. Monroe developed his own musical subgenre, the bluegrass style of country music, from folk music, Appalachian music, and gospel. It was played on acoustic string instruments—guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass—usually at fast tempos and in high keys, and was characterized by rapid, improvised solos and keening harmony vocals, the whole achieving a “high, lonesome sound” that influenced the evolution of country music and rock ’n’ roll. Monroe wrote many of the songs he performed, including such standards as “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Kentucky Waltz.”

Monroe’s father, James Buchanan Monroe, was a farmer, logger, and coal miner; his mother, Melissa Vandiver Monroe, sang and played fiddle, accordion, and harmonica. Monroe took up the mandolin at about the age of ten, under the instruction of Hubert String-field. He also learned from and played with guitarist and fiddler Arnold Schultz, and with his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, a fiddler whom he accompanied at local performances. His older brothers, Charlie, a guitarist, and Birch, a fiddler, went north looking for work; he joined them around 1929, working at an oil refinery and living near Chicago. The brothers also played music together, and they appeared in a road show sponsored by the WLS Barn Dance radio series as square dancers, starting in 1932. Later they performed on local radio in Ind.

In 1934, Birch Monroe dropped out of the group. Bill and Charlie, performing as the Monroe Brothers, continued to play full-time on radio and in live performances for extended periods in Iowa, Nebr., N.C., and S.C. over the next two years. In 1935, Monroe married Caroline Brown; they had two children, Melissa and James, both of whom later performed with their father; the couple divorced in 1960.

The Monroe Brothers made their recording debut for the Bluebird label of RCA Victor Records on Feb. 17, 1936. Their first single was “What Would You Give in Exchange (For Your Soul)?” (music and lyrics by F. J. Berry and J. H. Carr). They broke up in 1938, and by 1939 Monroe was leading a quartet featuring mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and bass, billed as Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. On Oct. 28, 1939, he made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry; he remained a regular performer on the popular radio series for the rest of his career.

Monroe recorded for RCA Victor in 1940 and 1941 and signed to Columbia Records in 1942, but he was unable to record again until 1945 due to the musicians’ union recording ban of 1942–44. He expanded his group to include a banjo player and an accordionist and organized a tent show that toured the South during the week, returning to Nashville for the weekly Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. By the end of 1945 he had assembled what was considered the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup, featuring Lester Flatt on guitar and lead vocals and Earl Scruggs on banjo and vocals. He reached the Top Ten of the country charts in March 1946 with his own composition “Kentucky Waltz” and returned to the Top Ten in December with “Footprints in the Snow” (music and lyrics by Boy d Lane). Also in 1946, he first recorded his song “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to form their own band; Monroe added new players and continued, moving to Decca Records in 1949. Among his many recordings for the label was his 1950 disc “Uncle Pen” (music and lyrics by Bill Monroe), which memorialized his musical mentor. Other artists scored hits with Monroe’s compositions during the 1950s: Eddy Arnold topped the country charts in May 1951 with a revival of “Kentucky Waltz”; Elvis Presley released “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the B-side of his debut single in July 1954; and Porter Wagoner reached the country charts with a revival of “Uncle Pen” in May 1956. Monroe’s career was in decline, however, until the early 1960s, when he gained a new audience as part of the folk music revival, playing the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 1963. He launched his own annual bluegrass festival at his music park in Bean Blossom, Ind., in 1967.

Monroe was still performing and recording regularly by the 1980s when the New Traditionalist movement in country music again brought him to the fore. Ricky Skaggs topped the country charts in October 1984 with a revival of “Uncle Pen.” Monroe remarried in 1985, but the marriage was short-lived. He earned his first Grammy Award nomination in 1987 for Best Country Instrumental Performance for the track “The Old Brown Country Barn” (music by Bill Monroe) on the album Bluegrass ’87, and in 1988 he won the first Grammy Award given out for Best Bluegrass Recording for the album Southern Flavor. He was again nominated for the Bluegrass Grammy in 1989 for Live at the OpryCelebrating 50 Years on the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1988, Kentucky named “Blue Moon of Kentucky” the officiai state song, displacing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” Monroe continued to perform in the 1990s, despite declining health. He suffered a stroke in early 1996 and died shortly before his 85th birthday.


The Music of Bill Monroe (ree. 1936–94); The Essential (ree. 1945–49); Country Music Hall of Fame (ree. 1950–91); Live Recordings (ree. 1965–69); Beanblossom (1973); Bluegrass ’87 (1987); Southern Flavor (1988); Live at the Opry (1989); Cryin Holy unto the Lord (1991).


J. Rooney, Bossmen: B. M. and Muddy Waters (N.Y., 1971); N. Rosenberg, B. M. and His Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (Nashville, Term., 1974).

—William Ruhlmann

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Monroe, Bill (actually, William Smith)