Monroe, Bill (1911-1996)
Monroe, Bill (1911-1996)
Seldom can a particular genre of music be credited to the vision and influence of a lone individual as is the case with Bill Monroe and Bluegrass. In a career spanning over half a century, "The Father of Bluegrass" created, popularized, and trained numerous practitioners in this distinctly American style of music. While sobriquets such as "Creator of the Blues" lavished on W. C. Handy or "King of Rock and Roll" bestowed upon Elvis Presley are gleefully denounced by musicologists, few, if any, scholars challenge Monroe's supremacy in the development of the "high and lonesome sound," a blending of Anglo-Scottish-Irish fiddle tunes, Southern gospel singing, and the stylings of African-American bluesmen. Born in the isolated community of Rosine, Kentucky, Monroe combined these elements of his local culture into a new form of music, which would attract fans world wide.
For many people in rural areas, music served a dual function of preserving a heritage and providing entertainment. Monroe was clearly a product and eventually a practitioner of this aesthetic. As the youngest child in a noticeably musical family, Monroe was reared in a world of melodies and ballads. His mother sang and played the accordion and the fiddle. His siblings developed similar skills on an assortment of stringed instruments. From his own explanation, Monroe identified his greatest influence as his mother's brother, Pendleton Vanderver. Monroe was orphaned during his adolescence, and Vanderver functioned both as guardian and teacher, instructing his nephew in the intricacies of old-time fiddle music. Years later, "Uncle Pen" would be commemorated in one of Monroe's most endearing songs. An additional influence during Monroe's formative years was Arnold Schultz, an African-American railroad worker who exposed the youth to country blues guitar.
Although Monroe initially played guitar behind Uncle Pen's fiddling at local dances during the mid-1920s, his emergence as a professional musician coincided with his switch to the mandolin and the formation of a band with brothers Charlie (on guitar) and Birch (on fiddle) in 1927. By 1930 the trio was performing on the radio in Indiana, and by 1936 The Monroe Brothers (sans Birch) had secured a recording contract with Bluebird Records. Possessing a repertoire of sacred and secular material, the duo recorded 60 songs between 1936- 1938. Although this partnership enjoyed a notable popularity with titles such as "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?," stylistically there was little to set the Monroe's apart from their peers. "Brother acts," a format characterized by limited instrumentation and an emphasis on vocal harmonies, were commonplace among country music practitioners during the 1930s. By late 1938, the Monroe brothers had gone their separate ways.
In 1939 Bill Monroe assembled a new band he named The Bluegrass Boys. During the same year, he joined the staff of the Nashville-based radio show "The Grand Ole Opry," which resulted in a greater degree of commercial exposure. During this period, Monroe's music was clearly undergoing a transformation—moving from the old time string band and the brother duos into something new, but not fully defined. The definition arrived in 1945 when Earl Scruggs, a 20-year-old banjo player from North Carolina, joined the Monroe organization. Scruggs' pioneering approach to his instrument provided the Bluegrass Boys with a relentless tempo and driving complexity that immediately distinguished the outfit from any of its contemporaries.
The band which emerged in 1945—Scruggs, Lester Flatt (guitar and vocals), Cederic Rainwater (bass), Chubby Wise (fiddle) and Bill Monroe (vocals and mandolin)—would be revered by aficionados into the late 1990s as the ultimate bluegrass outfit. During the next three years, this version of the Bluegrass Boys created the sound that would remain the model for generations of imitators. By the late 1940s, other artists were beginning to record cover versions of Monroe's compositions, and bluegrass was a recognizable genre within country music. The music of Monroe and his associates was multifaceted and far more complex than a casual listen suggests. The most immediately audible characteristic was the emphasis on breathtaking musicianship. On recordings such as "Bluegrass Breakdown" and "Bluegrass Special," the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle all functioned as lead instruments, soloing in a modernistic fashion that emphasized not only speed and dexterity, but also emotion and composure.
Titles such as "Little Cabin Home on the Hill" and "Kentucky Waltz" were nostalgic remembrances of a past simplicity of time and place. The production of such pastorals coincided with the wartime migration of many Appalachian families into the urban centers of America. For displaced mountaineers, the music of the Bluegrass Boys and subsequent artists provided a comforting link with a life they had left behind.
In 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe to form their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. Ironically, their popularity greatly out-shone their mentor. During the next 20 years, Flatt and Scruggs fronted their own radio program, frequently guest starred on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, provided music for the Hollywood film Bonnie and Clyde, and even dabbled in creating Bluegrass versions of rock 'n' roll songs. Their recordings of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" became perhaps the most widely known standards in the Bluegrass songbook throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
Although Monroe retained a contract with Decca Records and a permanent spot on the Grand Ole Opry, during the 1950s and much of the 1960s his position as a performer was largely overshadowed by that of Flatt and Scruggs. Despite this lack of recognition, Monroe persevered. A prolific composer, he authored dozens of songs and instrumental pieces. Perhaps more importantly, Monroe kept his vision of bluegrass alive via an endless schedule of live performances. While financial constraints conspired against maintaining a permanent touring band, Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys were an enduring institution. Meticulously attired in matching suits, the Monroe group navigated the highways and backroads of America graciously performing for fans.
Such determination eventually paid off. As the audiences for folk music expanded during the 1960s, Bluegrass enjoyed an increased popularity. Monroe's role in the music's creation was reexamined, and his persona as "The Father of Bluegrass" assumed a deeper meaning with each passing year. Despite advancing age and periodic health problems, Monroe remained a dedicated showman well into his 80s. Although often remembered as a fiercely competitive musician, his career is best summarized by his role as a teacher. Regardless if he were training the latest Bluegrass boy or jamming with amateurs after a performance, Monroe played an active role in transmitting his music to countless fans thereby insuring its permanence in American culture. Bill Monroe died in Nashville shortly before his 85th birthday.
—J. Allen Barksdale
Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1968.
Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.
——, compiler. Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Nashville, Country Music Foundation Press, 1974.