Bill Monroe Biography

William Smith Monroe, 13 September 1911, on a farm near Rosine, Ohio County, Kentucky, USA, d. 9 September 1996, Springfield, Tennessee, USA. The Monroes were a musical family; his father, known affectionately as Buck, was a noted step-dancer, his mother played fiddle, accordion and harmonica, and was respected locally as a singer of old-time songs. Among the siblings, elder brothers Harry and Birch Monroe both played fiddle, and brother Charlie Monroe and sister Bertha played guitar. They were all influenced by their uncle, Pendleton Vanderver, who was a fiddler of considerable talent, and noted for his playing at local events. (Monroe later immortalized him in one of his best-known numbers, ‘Uncle Pen’, with tribute lines such as ‘Late in the evening about sundown; high on the hill above the town, Uncle Pen played the fiddle, oh, how it would ring. You can hear it talk, you can hear it sing’).

At the age of nine, Monroe began to concentrate on the mandolin; his first choice had been the guitar or fiddle, but his brothers pointed out that no family member played mandolin, and as the baby, he was given little choice, although he still kept up his guitar playing. His mother died when he was 10, followed soon after by his father. He moved in to live with Uncle Pen and they were soon playing guitar together at local dances. Monroe also played with a black blues musician, Arnold Schultz, who was to become a major influence on his future music. After the death of his father, most of the family moved away in their search for work. Birch and Charlie headed north, working for a time in the car industry in Detroit, before moving to Whiting and East Chicago, Indiana, where they were employed in the oil refineries. When he was 18, Bill joined them, and for four years worked at the Sinclair refinery. At one time, during the Depression, Bill was the only one with work, and the three began to play for local dances to raise money.

In 1932, the three Monroe brothers and their girlfriends became part of a team of dancers and toured with a show organized by WLS Chicago, the radio station responsible for the National Barn Dance programme. They also played on local radio stations, including WAE Hammond and WJKS Gary, Indiana. In 1934, Bill, finding the touring conflicted with his work, decided to become a full-time musician. Soon afterwards, they received an offer to tour for Texas Crystals (the makers of a patent purgative medicine), which sponsored radio programmes in several states. Birch, back in employment at Sinclair and also looking after a sister, decided against a musical career. Bill married in 1935, and between then and 1936, he and Charlie (appearing as the Monroe Brothers) had stays at various stations, including Shenandoah, Columbia, Greenville and Charlotte. In 1936, they moved to the rival and much larger Crazy Water Crystals and, until 1938, they worked on the notedCrazy Barn Dance at WBT Charlotte for that company. They became a very popular act and sang mainly traditional material, often with a blues influence. Charlie always provided the lead vocal, and Bill added tenor harmonies.

In February 1936, the brothers made their first recordings on the Bluebird Records label, which proved popular. Further sessions followed, and in total they cut some 60 tracks for the label. Early in 1938, the brothers decided that they should follow their own careers. Charlie kept the recording contract and formed his own band, the Kentucky Pardners. Since he had always handled all lead vocals, he found things easier and soon established himself in his own right. Prior to the split, Bill had never recorded an instrumental or a vocal solo, but he had ideas that he wished to put into practice. He moved to KARK Little Rock, where he formed his first band, the Kentuckians. This failed to satisfy him, and he soon moved to Atlanta, where he worked on the notedCrossroad Follies; at this point, he formed the first of the bands he would call the Blue Grass Boys. In 1939, he made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, singing his version of ‘New Muleskinner Blues’, after which George D. Hay (the Solemn Old Judge) told him, ‘Bill, if you ever leave the Opry, it’ll be because you fire yourself’ (over 50 years later, he was still there).

During the early 40s, Monroe’s band was similar to other string bands such as Mainer’s Mountaineers, but by the middle of the decade, the leading influence of Monroe’s driving mandolin and his high (some would say shrill) tenor singing became the dominant factor, and set the Blue Grass Boys of Bill Monroe apart from the other bands. This period gave birth to a new genre of music, and led to Monroe becoming affectionately known as the Father of Bluegrass Music. He began to tour with the Grand Ole Opry roadshows, and his weekly network WSM radio work soon made him a national name. In 1940 and 1941, he recorded a variety of material for RCA - Victor Records, including gospel songs, old-time numbers and instrumentals such as the ‘Orange Blossom Special’ (the second known recording of the number). Wartime restrictions prevented him from recording between 1941 and early 1945, but later that year, he cut tracks for Columbia Records.

In 1946, Monroe gained his first hits when his own song, ‘Kentucky Waltz’, reached number 3, and his now-immortal recording of ‘Footprints In The Snow’ reached number 5 in the US country charts. By 1945, several fiddle players had made their impact on the band’s overall sound, including Chubby Wise, Art Wooten, Tommy Magness (b. 1920, d. 5 October 1974), Howdy Forrester and in 1945, guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs joined. Stringbean had provided the comedy and the banjo playing since 1942, although it was generally reckoned later that his playing contributed little to the overall sound that Monroe sought. Scruggs’ three-finger style of playing was very different, and it quickly became responsible for not only establishing his own name as one of the greatest exponents of the instrument, but also for making bluegrass music an internationally identifiable sound. It was while Flatt and Scruggs were with the band that Monroe first recorded his now-immortal song ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. By 1948, other bands such as the Stanley Brothers were beginning to reflect the influence of Monroe, and bluegrass music was firmly established.

During the 40s, Monroe toured with his tent show, which included his famous baseball team (the reason for Stringbean’s first connections with Monroe), which played against local teams as an attraction before the musical show began. In 1951, he bought some land at Bean Blossom, Brown County, Indiana, and established a country park, which became the home for bluegrass music shows. He was involved in a very serious car accident in January 1953, and was unable to perform for several months. In 1954, Elvis Presley recorded Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ in a 4/4 rock tempo and sang it at his solitary appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. A dejected Presley found the performance made no impact with the Grand Ole Opry audience, but the song became a hit. It also led to Monroe re-recording it in a style that, like the original, started as a waltz, but after a verse and chorus featuring three fiddles, it changed to 4/4 tempo; Monroe repeated the vocal in the new style. (N.B. Paul McCartney’s 1991 Unplugged album features a version in both styles).

Monroe toured extensively throughout the 50s, and had chart success in 1958 with his own instrumental number, ‘Scotland’. He used the twin fiddles of Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks to produce the sound of bagpipes behind his own mandolin - no doubt his tribute to his family’s Scottish ancestry. By the end of the decade, the impact of rock ‘n’ roll was affecting his record sales and music generally. By this time, Flatt and Scruggs were firmly established with their own band and finding success on television and at folk festivals. Monroe was a strong-willed person and it was not always easy for those who worked with him, or for him, to achieve the perfect arrangement. He had stubborn ideas, and in 1959, he refused to play a major concert in Carnegie Hall, because he believed that Alan Lomax, the organizer, was a communist. He was also suspicious of the press and rarely, if ever, gave interviews. In 1962, however, he became friendly with Ralph Rinzler, a writer and member of the Greenbriar Boys, who became his manager. In 1963, Monroe played his first folk festival at the University of Chicago. He soon created a great interest among students generally and, with Rinzler’s planning, he was soon busily connected with festivals devoted solely to bluegrass music. In 1965, he was involved with the major Roanoke festival in Virginia, and in 1967, he started his own at Bean Blossom. During the 60s, many young musicians benefited from their time as a member of Monroe’s band, including Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Byron Berline, Del McCoury, and Roland White.

In 1969, Monroe was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel, and in 1970, was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. The plaque stated: ‘The Father of Bluegrass Music. Bill Monroe developed and perfected this music form and taught it to a great many names in the industry’. Some of the biggest names in country music started as members of Monroe’s band before progressing to their own careers. In addition to the names already mentioned, these included Clyde Moody, Jim Eanes, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Carter Stanley, Sonny Osborne, and his own son James Monroe. Monroe wrote many songs, including ‘Memories Of Mother And Dad’, ‘When The Golden Leaves Begin To Fall’, ‘My Little Georgia Rose’, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ and countless others. Many were written using pseudonyms such as Albert Price, James B. Smith and James W. Smith. In 1971, his talent as a songwriter saw him elected to the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International Hall Of Fame. Amazingly, bearing in mind his popularity, Monroe’s last chart entry was ‘Gotta Travel On’, a Top 20 country hit in March 1959.

Monroe kept up a hectic touring schedule throughout the 70s, but in 1981, he was diagnosed with cancer. He survived after treatment and, during the 80s, maintained a schedule that would have daunted much younger men. In 1984, he recorded the albumBill Monroe And Friends, which contains some of his songs sung as duets with other artists, including the Oak Ridge Boys (‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’), Emmylou Harris (‘Kentucky Waltz’), Barbara Mandrell (‘My Rose Of Old Kentucky’), Ricky Skaggs (‘My Sweet Darling’) and Willie Nelson (‘The Sunset Trail’). Johnny Cash, who also appeared on the album, presumably did not know any Monroe songs because they sang Cash’s own ‘I Still Miss Someone’. Monroe continued to play the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1989, he celebrated his 50th year as a member, the occasion being marked by MCA recording a live concert from the stage. The subsequent album became his first ever release on the new CD format. He underwent surgery for a double coronary bypass on 9 August 1991, but by October, he was back performing and once again hosting his normal Grand Ole Opry show. His records continued to be collected, with the German Bear Family Records label releasing box sets on compact disc of his Decca Records recordings. (Between 1950, when he first recorded for Decca and 1969, he made almost 250 recordings for the label.) The acknowledged ‘father of bluegrass music’ died a few days before his 85th birthday in 1996.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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