Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 13 September 1911, Rosine KY; d 9 September 1996, Springfield TN) Singer, mandolinist, bandleader in traditional style: one of the giants of country music; father of the bluegrass genre which in fact was named after his band, the Blue Grass Boys. He began playing mandolin as a child because nobody else in the family played it; after his father died he lived with his uncle, fiddler Pendleton Vandiver, later immortalized in 'Uncle Pen', and was influnced by square-dance guitarist/ fiddler Arnold Shultz as well as black musicians: the best bluegrass, like jazz, has plenty of room in it for individual self-expression.

He played in aband with brothers Birch (on fiddle) and Charlie (guitarist, b 4 July 1903; d 1975) on radio '29-34; Birch quit, Bill and Charlie made about 60 sides for Victor and split up '38, Charlie forming his own successful band, the Kentucky Pardners. Bill had started writing ('Kentucky Waltz' '34), sang only harmony until now, formed the Kentuckians, then the Blue Grass Boys, played on Grand Ole Opry from '39 (opened with 'Mule Skinner Blues'; for the first time the Opry audience demanded an encore). At various times the group included David 'Stringbean' Akeman on banjo (as rhythm only), Sally Ann Forrester on accordion, but the classic band had Howard Watts (better known as Cedric Rainwater) on bass, Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs playing a five-string banjo in three-fingered Appalachian style, and fiddler Chubby Wise (d 6 January 1996 aged 80; co-wrote 'Orange Blossom Special' with Erwin Rouse). This lineup recorded for Columbia from '45; Monroe and Flatt co-wrote 'My Rose Of Old Kentucky', 'Will You Love Another Man?', 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' (later covered by Elvis Presley) etc. Flatt and Scruggs left '48 to form their own band (see their entry) and Monroe was hurt by their defection; he found good replacements for them but never featured the banjo so heavily again.

He switched to Decca '50 as Jimmy Martin joined on lead vocals and guitar, his high-pitched voice fitting the style perfectly (Martin b 10 August 1927, Sneedville TN; d 14 May 2005, Nashville). Monroe wrote what he called 'true' songs: 'Uncle Pen', 'A Letter From My Darling', 'When The Golden Leaves Begin To Fall', etc; instrumentals such as 'Pike County Breakdown' and 'Scotland' (tributes to the jigs and reels that formed part of the basis of traditional country music); religious songs such as 'Walking To Jerusalem'. Just as the country music business thought that bluegrass was pretty old-fashioned, the rest of the country realized its value as heritage: Monroe played the Newport Folk Festival '63, then for crowds in NYC, e.g. at New York U's Law School Auditorium: 'There's people from Japan, Europe, country people, tarheels, rednecks, college graduates ... It's honest music, bluegrass is. It feels good to play it' (Monroe quoted by Melvin Shestack). Other alumni of Monroe's groups included Mac Wiseman, Don Reno, daughter Melissa (b 1936) and son James (b 1940), who also led his own band, the Midnight Ramblers. The fiddler from 1968 to 1984 was Kenny Baker (b Kenneth Clayton Baker, 26 June 1926, Burdine KY; d 8 July Gallatin TN). The style has long since entered the repertoire of folk music, nowadays called roots music.

Monroe finally received honours including a Grammy for Southern Flavor '88 on MCA, same year a Grammy for lifetime achievement, continued performing on the Opry and recording until a few weeks before his death. More than 20 albums in print in USA on MCA; historical reissues include two-disc Feast Here Tonight on Bluebird (RCA, duets with Charlie) and a Columbia Historic Edition of the Bluegrass Boys; seven others including three by Charlie available from the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville. Compilations have included two four-CD sets on Bear Family (1950-69 work); The Essential two-CD set on Columbia Legacy (1945-9), The Music Of Bill Monroe four-CD set on MCA (1936-94), also Live In Concert on Smithsonian/Folkways, etc.