Singer, mandolin player
Bill Monroe is affectionately known as the “father of bluegrass music,” the architect of a unique new brand of American sound. The whole genre of blue-grass is named after Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, because that band—and especially Monroe—originated the particular blend of vocal harmonies and instrumental riffs that have come to characterize traditional bluegrass. In The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music, Rick Marschall writes of Monroe’s groundbreaking group: “All of a sudden America had a new music. It had evolved, yes, and its roots were easily traceable. But Bill Monroe’s [Blue Grass Boys] were playing something new. It was driven, intense music. It exploded with brilliant solos. It was an integrated ensemble of string instruments that had never actually been combined heretofore. The singing was bluesy, the instrumentation was jazzy, and the name was Blue-grass. The development of bluegrass was logical, but its synthesis was by no means inevitable; it took Bill Monroe’s taste and vision to bring it into being.”
Bill C. Malone, the author of Country Music U.S.A., also feels that Monroe has been the primary force behind the creation of the bluegrass genre. Malone calls Monroe “a man of rugged independence and intense, almost stubborn pride” whose “quiet resolve to be unique, coupled with brilliant musicianship, made him one of the most respected and influential performers in country music history.”
Monroe’s “rugged independence” began in early childhood. He was born near Rosine, Kentucky, in 1911, the youngest son of a hardworking farmer. Plagued by poor eyesight and considerably younger than his eight siblings, he grew up reclusive, taciturn, and serious. In The Stars of Country Music, Ralph Rinzler comments: “The musics Bill heard in early childhood were important formative forces, but equally significant was the work ethic he absorbed from his parents…. Thrawn,’ the Scots would say—set, determined, obstinate, thriving on hard work.” Monroe actually enjoyed driving a plow or engaging in other solitary tasks that would give him an opportunity to practice singing out of earshot of his family. When he was ten he began to play the guitar and mandolin, following with interest the stringband and square dance music of his region.
Monroe had several strong influences on his playing and singing style. The first was his uncle Pendleton Vandiver, a fiddler much in demand for local dances and socials. Monroe told Rinzler: “Maybe if I hadn’t of heard him, I’d have never learned anything about music at all. Learning his numbers gave me something to start on. One thing that he learnt me how to do was to keep time, and the shuffle that he had on the bow was
Full name, William Smith Monroe; born September 13, 1911, in Rosine, Ky.; son of James Buchanan (a farmer, sawmill operator, and coal miner) and Melissa (a farmer; maiden name, Vandiver) Monroe; married Caroline Brown, October 18, 1935 (divorced); children: Melissa, James.
Began performing professionally with uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, c. 1925; played mandolin in trio with brothers Charlie and Birch, 1929; performed in duo The Monroe Brothers with brother Charlie, 1934-38; formed band The Kentuckians, 1938; leader of band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1939—.
Awards: Named to Country Music Hall of Fame, 1970; given a presidential citation for “contributions to American culture,” 1984; Grammy Award for best bluegrass recording, 1989, for album Southern Flavor.
Addresses: Office –c/o Buddy Lee Attractions, 38 Music Sq. East, Suite 300, Nashville TN 37203.
the most perfect time that you ever heard. I give him credit for all of my timing.”
Another influence was Arnold Shultz, a black musician who played both country and blues guitar. Monroe wanted his own music to have a blues sound, so he imitated the runs Shultz played and applied them to traditional Appalachian melodies in innovative ways. Vocally, Monroe was at least in part indebted to shape-note singing—a type of gospel music dependent upon spare, strident harmonies done in full voice. Monroe sang in both the Methodist and Baptist churches in Rosine, memorizing his parts because he could not see to read the notes. By the age of thirteen he was accompanying his uncle Pen, Arnold Shultz, or his older brothers as they made their dance band rounds. He settled on the mandolin primarily because it was the instrument his brothers did not play.
In 1929 Monroe went north to Indiana to join his brothers in an automobile manufacturing plant. The three Monroes performed together in their off-hours for several years, and in 1934 Bill and Charlie decided to make music their full-time profession. As The Monroe Brothers, the two men landed a contract with Texas Crystals and eventually settled into radio shows in the Carolinas. Malone notes that as a duet team, “The Monroe Brothers set a standard of performing excellence that is still remembered by older country fans…. The harmony of their music performances, however, was not always matched by a similar consonance in their brotherly relations. They fought both physically and verbally, and their musical partnership was therefore terminated in 1938.” Each brother went his own way and formed his own band. Bill’s, the Blue Grass Boys, began performing on the “Crossroad Follies” in Atlanta. In 1939 the group auditioned successfully for the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry’s founder, George D. Hay, was particularly delighted with Monroe’s clear, high tenor and spirited arrangements. Monroe has been a regular on the Grand Ole Opry since then—half a century and counting.
Malone writes: “Until 1945 the Blue Grass Boys gave the surface appearance of being merely a string band…. They were a string band, however, with a crucial difference: Bill Monroe. The listener was always aware that, despite the particular vocal or instrumental style conveyed, Monroe was the driving cog and all other musicians revolved around him. With his mandolin setting the beat and rhythm for the band, Monroe also did most of the singing, taking most of the solo parts and generally sweeping up to a high tenor harmony on the choruses. Monroe’s tenor singing—now often described as the ‘high, lonesome sound’—set a standard for which most bluegrass musicians have striven.”
Monroe’s band began its major stylistic moves in the mid-1940s. First Monroe added a finger-picking banjo player to the group, even though the banjo was traditionally considered a comic instrument. Then he withdrew from the limelight somewhat, allowing other band members to do solo riffs and help with the singing. When the Blue Grass Boys greeted postwar America with a combination of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass—and a rousing blend of traditional, blues, and instrumental tunes—the dynamic sound known as bluegrass was born.
The personnel of the Blue Grass Boys changed almost constantly, and it reads like a “Who’s Who” of the genre: Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Vassar Clements, Mac Wiseman, and Jimmy Martin were only a few of the musicians who worked with Monroe. Likewise, the list of songs Monroe either wrote or performed contains numerous bluegrass favorites, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Little Georgia Rose,” “Footprints in the Snow,” “Orange Blossom Special,” “Muleskinner Blues,” “Rawhide,” and “Panhandle Country.”
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, and Monroe’s music soon drew legions of imitators—some of whom became temporarily more popular than their mentor. By the early 1950s so many bands were performing in Monroe’s style that disc jockeys and fans began asking for “that blue grass music.” The name was combined and used to describe a sound that was no longer identifiable as country or string band, although it seemed more traditional than either. Monroe himself experienced a lull in popularity in the late 1950s, watching in frustration as his proteges Flatt and Scruggs took center stage.
Monroe was rediscovered, however, as part of the folk revival of the 1960s and has been nearly worshipped ever since. Bluegrass itself has diverged dramatically from country-western music; Monroe’s sound has become a favorite in the Northern industrial states, among college students and professionals as well as descendents of hill country folk. It is often performed outdoors at festivals, and one of the biggest is the yearly Bean Blossom Festival near Monroe’s home, where the entertainer offers advice and encouragement to would-be pickers.
Malone notes that over the years Monroe “has mellowed significantly, becoming more open with interviewers and accepting his role as the patriarch of bluegrass.” Never one to analyze his style or success, Monroe is quoted in The Best of the Music Makers as saying of his work: “If a man listening will let it, blue-grass will transmit right into your heart. If you love music and you listen close, it will come right into you…. If you really love bluegrass music it will dig in a long ways. If you take time to listen close to the words and the melody, it will do something for you.”
Knee Deep in Blue Grass, Decca, 1958.
I Saw the Light, Decca, 1958.
Mr. Blue Grass, Decca, 1961.
The Great Bill Monroe, Harmony, 1961.
The Father of Bluegrass Music, Camden, 1962.
Blue Grass Ramble, Decca, 1962, reissued, MCA, 1980.
My All Time Country Favorites, Decca, 1962.
Blue Grass Special, Decca, 1963.
Bill Monroe—Songs with the Blue Grass Boys, Vocation, 1964.
I’ll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning, Decca, 1964.
The Best of Bill Monroe, Harmony, 1964, reissued, MCA, 1980.
Bluegrass Instrumentals, Decca, 1965, reissued, MCA, 1980.
The High Lonesome Sound, Decca, 1966; reissued as The High and Lonesome Sound of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, MCA, 1980.
Bill Monroe’s Greatest Hits, Decca, 1968.
Early Blue Grass, RCA, 1969.
Bill Monroe and Charlie Monroe, Decca, 1969.
A Voice from on High, Decca, 1969, reissued, MCA, 1980.
Kentucky Blue Grass, Decca, 1970.
Sixteen All-Time Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1970.
Bill Monroe’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Decca, 1971.
Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen, Decca, 1972.
Bill Monroe and James Monroe: Father & Son, MCA, 1973.
Bean Blossom, MCA, 1973.
Blue Grass Time, MCA, 1973.
Bill Monroe Sings Country Songs, MCA, 1973.
Bluegrass for Collectors, RCA, 1974.
Road of Life, MCA, 1974.
Weary Traveler, MCA, 1976.
Bill Monroe Sings Bluegrass Body and Soul, MCA, 1977.
Bill and James Monroe: Together Again, MCA, 1978.
Bean Blossom ’79, MCA, 1979.
Blue Grass Style, MCA, 1980.
Master of Bluegrass, MCA, 1981.
Bill Monroe and Friends, MCA, 1983.
Bill Monroe, Columbia Historic Editions, 1984.
Classic Bluegrass Instrumentals, Rebel [Canada], 1985.
Bill Monroe and the Stars of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, MCA, 1985.
Bluegrass ’87, MCA, 1987.
Southern Flavor, MCA, 1988.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCullogh, editors, The Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Marschall, Rick, The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music, Exeter, 1985.
Rooney, James, Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters, Dial Press, 1971.
Rosenberg, Neil V., Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography, Country Music Foundation Press, 1974.
Simon, George T., The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Journal of American Folklore, July-September, 1965; April-June, 1967.
New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970.
—Anne Janette Johnson