Monroe, William Smith (“Bill”)

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Monroe, William Smith (“Bill”)

(b. 13 September 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky; d. 9 September 1996 in Springfield, Tennessee), the “father of bluegrass music,” whose distinctive mandolin playing, high-pitched tenor voice, and songwriting skills made him a driving force in country music.

Monroe was the youngest of eight children. His father, James Buchanan “Buck” Monroe, was a step dancer as well as a farmer, and his mother, Malissa Vandiver, played the fiddle, accordion, and harmonica and sang songs and ballads. Bill’s brothers Harry and Birch played fiddle, while another brother, Charlie, and a sister, Bertha, were guitarists. Monroe began playing mandolin when he was nine years old. As a youth he was cross-eyed, and at age eleven he dropped out of school partially because of his poor eyesight. Both parents died at about this time, and Monroe moved in with his fiddle-playing uncle, Pendleton Vandiver. He began accompanying his Uncle Pen at local dances, playing the guitar. Another early influence was a local black musician, Arthur Schultz, who played blues guitar.

After their parents’ deaths, Monroe’s elder brothers moved north in search of work. Birch and Charlie ended up working in an oil refinery in East Chicago, Indiana. When he was eighteen years old, Bill decided to join them there. They worked at the refinery by day while playing musical jobs at night and on weekends. However, it was their dancing skills that first got them a full-time job. All three brothers were talented “buck” dancers, performing in the traditional flat-foot clogging style. They were hired in 1932 by the Chicago radio station WLS, sponsors of the National Barn Dance show (the major competitor to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry), to tour with the radio show’s road company as dancers. Local radio work as musicians followed, and then, in 1934, an offer came from the patent medicine makers Texas Crystals to tour in support of their product, a natural laxative. Birch retired at this point, preferring the regular refinery work to life on the road. On 18 October 1935 Monroe married Carolyn Brown; they had two children and divorced on 2 August 1960.

Now called the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill began working at a series of radio stations. In 1936 they made their first recordings for Bluebird, the budget division of RCA, and also signed up with the Crazy Barn Dance, a radio show out of Charlotte, North Carolina, sponsored by the archrival of Texas Crystals, Crazy Water Crystals. The brothers’ recordings were popular, thanks to Charlie’s relaxed, warm vocals and Bill’s lightning-fast mandolin playing and high-tenor harmonies. They recorded about sixty songs for Bluebird before 1938, when they split up. Charlie then formed his own band, the Kentucky Pardners, and Bill went out on his own.

After briefly working in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Atlanta, Monroe got his big break in 1939 when he was invited to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe’s backup band, first known as the Kentuckians, now became the Blue Grass (later Bluegrass) Boys (after Kentucky’s motto, the “bluegrass state”). The first song he sang on the Opry was his version of Jimmie Rodgers’s classic “Mule Skinner Blues”; the audience and the announcer, George D. Hay, were bowled over. Monroe remained a “member” of the radio show for the rest of his life.

Monroe participated in several Opry road tours in the early 1940s and continued to record. The war led to a break in recording and some disruptions in the personnel of Monroe’s bands, but he managed to stay on the road. He also played a role in promoting amateur baseball, often hiring musicians for their sports abilities as much as musical ones. The band would arrive in a town and challenge a local team to a contest on the baseball diamond, then entertain the crowd between innings and after the game. Monroe profited from the fees he collected as both a baseball manager and a musician. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, Monroe had a long-running relationship with Bessie Lee Maudlin, who played bass in his band. He married Delia Scivers Streeter on 24 April 1985, but the marriage only lasted until 21 November 1988. Streeter, the daughter of a man who booked dates for him in Florida, was considerably younger than Monroe.

In 1945 Monroe put together the classic form of his Blue Grass Boys. The guitarist Lester Flatt and the banjo player Earl Scruggs (later famous as Flatt and Scruggs), along with the fiddler Chubby Wise and the bass player Howard Watts (known by his stage name of Cedric Rainwater), joined Monroe in a five-piece ensemble that became the model for all bluegrass bands to follow. Monroe’s instrumental virtuosity met its match in the playing of Earl Scruggs, who pioneered what came to be known as bluegrass banjo picking, or three-finger style. Monroe signed with Columbia Records, and beginning in 1946 the band enjoyed several country hits, including “Kentucky Waltz” (which reached number 3), the classic “Footprints in the Snow” (number 5), and Monroe’s most famous song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The piece was originally recorded in waltz time, but Elvis Presley made it famous as a rollicking piece of country boogie when he recorded it in 1954 and performed it on the Grand Ole Opry in his sole appearance there. Monroe approved of Elvis’s version and thereafter introduced the song in waltz time and ended it in Elvis’s souped-up manner.

The late 1940s was a period of change for Monroe. Flatt and Scruggs left in 1948 to form their own group, modeled closely after Monroe’s band. He was so angry that he refused to speak to them for decades afterward, although eventually they reconciled. Annoyed when Columbia signed a similar-sounding group, the Stanley Brothers, to their roster, Monroe left the label in 1950, signing with Decca Records, where he remained for the balance of his career. The singer and guitarist Jimmie Martin joined the band about this time, and through the 1950s Monroe nurtured the careers of several future bluegrass talents, including Martin, Sonny Osborne, Vassar Clements, and Kenny Baker. In 1951 Monroe bought some land in rural Indiana near Bean Blossom, developed it as a recreational area, and held annual bluegrass festivals there beginning in 1967. In 1953 he was seriously injured in an automobile accident and had to stop performing for a time. After his recovery Monroe worked steadily through the 1950s, both on the Opry and on the road. He scored his last Top 30 country-chart hits with the lively instrumental “Scotland” (1958) and the vocal “Gotta Travel On” (1959).

The folk-music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave a boost to Monroe’s career. The mandolinist Ralph Rinzler, who played with a folk-revival bluegrass group called the Greenbriar Boys, convinced Monroe to allow him to be his manager. Rinzler arranged for Monroe to play at urban folk festivals, beginning with a festival held in 1963 in Chicago. He also arranged for Monroe’s 1950s-era recordings (many issued only on 45s) to be reissued on LP albums. Younger musicians, including the banjo player Bill Keith and guitarist Peter Rowan, joined Monroe’s band during this period. In 1969 Monroe recorded a classic album in honor of his Uncle Pen. Featuring the fiddle tunes he had learned as a youth, it was perhaps the best work of his later career.

Numerous honors came to Monroe in the last decades of his life. In 1969 he was made an honorary Kentucky colonel for his contributions to his home state’s culture. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a year later and elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1982 he received a National Heritage Fellowship and in 1989 won the first Grammy awarded for bluegrass music. In 1985 he made a cameo appearance in the music video for Ricky Skaggs’s hit “Country Boy,” flat-foot clogging on a New York City subway train. In 1995 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Monroe continued to perform and tour despite failing health. In 1980 he successfully battled cancer, and in 1991 he had a double coronary-bypass operation. After suffering a stroke in spring 1996, however, he was placed in a hospice, where he died the following September. Monroe is buried in Rosine, Kentucky.

Monroe virtually created bluegrass music. His bands from 1946 onward defined its instrumentation, repertoire, and overall sound. Moreover, he wrote many of the songs that have become bluegrass classics, from “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to such classic instrumentals as “Rawhide,” “Scotland,” and “Wheel Hoss.” Steadfast in his convictions, he refused to record with slick strings or fancy vocal accompaniments. Despite changing styles in country music, he remained a popular and admired entertainer until his death.

A full biography is Richard D. Smith, Can’t You Hear MeCallin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass (2000). Jim Rooney’s Bossmen (1971) features a large section on Monroe, mostly based on firsthand interviews. One chapter of The Stars of Country Music (1975), edited by Bill C. Malone and Judith McCullogh, is devoted to Monroe. Neil V. Rosenberg compiled a discography of Monroe for the Country Music Foundation in 1974. Ralph Rinzler conducted an extensive interview that was published as “Bill Monroe: The Daddy of Blue Grass Music” in Sing Out! 13, no. 1 (1963), which helped introduce him to a new audience. Bear Family Records of Germany has issued Monroe’s complete recordings from 1950 to 1980 in three large boxed sets, including some documentation of his life and career. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Sept. 1996).

Richard Carlin