Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering Bill Monroe

It is time to take a look back and remember the life of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music. Bill was born on September 13, 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky. He passed away on September 9, 1996, several months after suffering a series of strokes. This Tuesday will be the 100th anniversary of his birth and the Grand Ole Opry, which owes much of it's success to Bill and the followers of bluegrass music, has nothing planned to mark the occasion. Instead, the Opry is doing an 80th birthday salute to George Jones. Nothing against George, but he is seldom at the Opry (in fact, this will be his 1st appearance of the year), while Bill was a mainstay of the Opry's cast. He belonged to the Opry for over 50 years. What I would like to know is where are his followers? I am talking about Opry members such as Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Bobby Osborne, Patty Loveless and Jesse McReynolds. Many of these individuals owe their success to Bill Monroe and bluegrass. Did any of these folks go to Pete Fisher and ask for a tribute show for Bill Monroe? If they did, were they rebuffed? I sure would like to know.

The following was written by John Rumble of the Country Music Hall of Fame:

"As a singer, songwriter, bandleader, showman, and instrumentalist, no individual is so closely identified with an American musical style as Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music. For more than half a century he shaped bluegrass with his forceful mandolin playing; high, lonesome singing; and mastery of his band, the Blue Grass Boys. In doing so he gave older country sounds new life; gave the mandoline a new role as a lead instrument in country, pop, and rock; and set standards for musicians as diverse as the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, George Jones, and rock star Jerry Garcia.

William Smith Monroe was the youngest of eight children born to James Buchanah 'Buck' Monroe, a prosperous farmer who also ran timber and mining operations, and Melissa Monroe, who kept house and helped pass along dance steps and British-American folksongs to her children. Other musical influences of Bill's youth include the old-time fiddling of his Uncle Pendleton 'Uncle Pen' Vandiver and the bluesy guitar playing of Arnold Shultz, a black musician with whom Bill and Uncle Pen sometimes worked local dances.

Bill lost both his parents by age sixteen and then followed some of his brothers north to the Chicago area, where they worked in a Sinclair Oil refinery. He also performed as a square dancer on Chicago's WLS National Barn Dance, and sang and played mandolin with brothers Charlie and Birch. Charlie soon left the trio and Bill and Charlie decided to pursue music full time as the Monroe Brothers, first gaining exposure on stations in Iowa and Nebraska. The Monroes really hit their stride after moving in 1935 to the Carolinas, where they based themselves mainly in Charlotte, North Carolina's 50,000-watt WBT. Their popularity soon equaled that of any of the era's many duos and they distinguished themselves by their hard-driving tempos, piercing harmony, and Bill's lightning-fast mandolin solos. In 1936 RCA producer Eli Oberstein recorded them for the first time. Their early releases sold well and the duo soon had a sizeable regional following. However the Monroe Brothers feuded as brothers will, and the act broke up in 1938. Bill would record two more sessions for RCA with his new band, the Blue Grass Boys, named for Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.

After rehearsing his group and working Carolina radio, Monroe headed for Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, WSM's George D. Hay, Harry Stone, and David Stone, impressed with Monroe's talent and star power, hired him in October 1939 on the strength of his performance of his trademark 'Muleskinner Blues,' formally a hit for Jimmie Rodgers. WSM's 50,000-watt transmitter and guest spots on the Opry's NBC network portion quickly made Monroe's name a household word. By 1943 he was grossing some $200,000 a year from show dates, many of them staged as part of his own Opry tent show, which combined music and comedy in delightling rural and small-town audiences throughout the South. While no one was yet calling Monroe's style 'bluegrass' (this would not come until the mid-1950s), many of its basic elements were already present, including its pulsing drive and the intensity of Monroe's high-pitched vocals. During World War II he added the banjo, first played by Stringbean (David Akeman), and experimented briefly with the accordion and harmonica, which complimented the basic mandolin-guitar-fiddle-bass combination Monroe would always retain. In 1945 he added the revolutionary three-finger banjo picking of Earl Scruggs, who provided bluegrass with its final building block. Monroe's late 1940s recordings for Columbia, made with Scruggs and Lester Flatt, his singer-guitarist at the time, are now widely regarded as definitive.

In 1948 Scruggs teamed with Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, and by the early 1950s several bands were playing their own variations of the bluegrass style, including the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and Reno & Smiley. Monroe made his band sound higher, bluer, and more lonesome than ever, with help from singer-guitarist Jimmy Martin and other expert sidemen, some of whom launched bluegrass bands of their own. As ever, Monroe's repertoire included both sacred and secular material as well as both songs and instrumentals, and he composed much of his material himself or with members of his band.

Through the 1950s and beyond, Monroe's acoustic sound provided an alternative to honky-tonk, country-pop, and rockabilly. By 1963 he began to attract the attention of the urban folk music audience, with help from folklorist and promoter Ralph Rinzler, who promoted Monroe as the true Daddy of Bluegrass to listeners who thought bluegrass began and ended with Flatt and Scruggs. The year 1965 saw the first multiday bluegrass festival making Monroe the centerpiece, and in 1967 he launched his own annual festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana. By 1970, when he won election to the Country Music Hall of Fame, he had become the acknowledged patriarch of the bluegrass movement, a cult figure to hordes of fans for whom bluegrass was akin to a religion.

During the last twenty-five years of his life Monroe propagated the gospel of bluegrass to worldwide audiences in all fifty states and Canada as well as tours of Japan, England, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, and Israel. He recorded more than 500 songs during his career. Monroe also won recognition for his accomplishments. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts gave him its prestigious Heritage Award, and in 1988 he won a Grammy for his album Southern Flavor-the first bluegrass Grammy ever bestowed. A 1991 inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor, Monroe was also a 1992 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

A stroke suffered in April 1996 ended Monroe's career as a touring artist and hastened his death on September 9 of that year. Memorial services at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and later in Monroe's native Rosine, Kentucky, where he is buried, united hundreds of friends and fellow musicians who continue to nurture his legacy as one of country music's great historical personalities."

It is no secret that Bill Monroe was not one of the easiest people to know or to get along with. His feuds were famous and pretty much included anyone who ever was a Blue Grass Boy. The Flatt & Scruggs feud was among the longest. And it was his personality and his inability to get along with many of his fellow bluegrass performers that allowed Flatt & Scruggs, along with a few others, to move to the forefront of the bluegrass revival movement in the 1960s, that left Bill behind and catching up.

As these other bluegrass performers became more successful, things got tougher for Bill. It got so bad in the 1950s and early 1960s that Bill had to disband his band and play with local players when he went out on the road.

Many of the new Opry performers over the years have said that they were afraid to approach Bill at the Opry because of his personality. But, in his later years, he mellowed and changed. I think one of the telling quotes from Bill was after he suffered his stroke in 1996, he told a visitor, "I didn't know until I was sick that people cared for me as much as they do."

His last Opry show was on March 15, 1996, a Friday Night. They next day he was rushed to the hospital, never to perform again. I can't begin to tell you everything about Bill Monroe, but if you want to read an excellent biography, I recommend "Can't You Hear Me Calling", The Life of Bill Monroe, written by Richard D. Smith. It tells the good and the bad, but I believe it is excellent.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe and in memory of his death, 15 years ago, here is the line-up from the Friday Night Opry, March 15, 1996, his final appearance.

7:30: Porter Wagoner (host); Jeanne Pruett; Ray Pillow; Jan Howard; Brother Oswald
8:00: Bill Monroe (host); Bill Carlisle; Skeeter Davis; Del Reeves
8:30: Jimmy Dickens (host); Wilma Lee Cooper; Billy Walker; Stu Phillips
9:00: Grandpa Jones (host); Connie Smith; Charlie Walker
9:30: Bill Anderson (host); Charlie Louvin; Jean Shepard; Justin Tubb; 4 Guys
10:00 Ricky Skaggs (host); The Whites
10:30: Jim Ed Brown (host); Jeannie Seely; Jack Greene; Johnny Russell


  1. Fred in Bismarck here:

    Nice job, Byron, as always -- thank you. You are our calendar and almanac of country music.

    Yes, the Smith book on Monroe is excellent, on both the (difficult) man and the music.

    One theory I have always had, but never seen formally confirmed, is that by the time Monroe arrived at Decca in 1950 he had decided he would be responsible for his vocal as well as instrumental sound.

    No more lead singing, except on the occasional gospel number, by a Lester Flatt or Mac Wiseman, who -- Bill paying as poorly as he did, and sidemen being a revolving door anyway -- were liable to leave and start their own group.

    Indeed, I think one of the things (besides Earl's banjo) that let Flatt & Scruggs eat Bill's lunch in the 1950s is that people were already used to, from Bill's records, Lester's masterful lead vocals.

    I believe Bill's "Knee Deep in Bluegrass", from about 1958, is credited with being the first bluegrass album recorded AS an album (unlike a compilation of Flatt & Scruggs singles in 1957). On that baby, Bill sings not just lead but all by himself on 11 of the 12 tracks.

  2. Fred, I'll echo you on Byron--a great job. I also think it's criminal that the Opry hasn't announced any commemoration, and it's about as criminal that we haven't heard from Ricky Skaggs in particular, but the others who cite Mr. Monroe's influence.

    One of the interesting things about the Smith biography--I believe I read it there--is how he didn't feud with Lester and Earl until they came to the Opry. Before that, he really didn't have a problem with them, or at least a major problem.

  3. Fred here again:

    Couldn't agree more, Michael and Byron. Gaylord can't have people like Ricky Skaggs, et al., who have a life beyond the Opry, quaking in their boots for the sake of their union-scale checks. I wonder what gives.

  4. Mike, thanks for the comments on the facebook page of the Opry. I agree 100%. No excuse for them to do nothing to honor Bill Monroe. Not even a mention until today.