~ Hall of ~
Smith "Bill" Monroe, enshrined in SPBGMA's Preservation
Hall of Greats in 1984, fittingly became the first person to
be so honored. He was made a "Kentucky Colonel" in
1969, inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970,
and voted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's
(IBMA) Hall Of Honor in Owensboro, Kentucky in September, 1991,
along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Called "Mister
Bluegrass," and the originator of the "High Lonesome
Sound," but the title that fits this musical giant the
best is, "THE FATHER OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC." Bill is
one of those rare individuals that can honestly say they have
created a new style of music. Bluegrass music can be attributed
to only one man, Bill Monroe.
Bill was born September 13, 1911 in Ohio County Kentucky, near
the small town of Rosine to James Buchanan Monroe, (1857-1928),
known by the names "J. B." or "Buck," and
Melissa Vandiver Monroe, (1870-1921). Buck was a fine dancer.
Bill attributed "The Kentucky Backstep," a dance he
often used, to his father. Melissa played the fiddle, as did
her brother, Pendleton Vandiver, whom Bill would later immortalize
with the song, "Uncle Pen."
Bill held his parents in great respect. After them he named
his son, James, born in 1941, and his daughter, Melissa, born
in 1936. The Monroe Family mined coal, cut timber, and tended
their farm, earning their living by many hours of hard work.
Bill credited his energy and long years of life to the way he
was raised. He told of his feelings in an interview many years
"I was raised in the old pioneer way and we worked hard,
and I still like to work. I keep horses on my farm in Tennessee,
and I love to plow behind those horses. I'm not afraid to work,
set a post hole, build a fence, plow the fields, anything like
that. I can work hard in the field, lay right down there in
the plowed ground, sleep a little bit, and go right ahead and
work some more.
The hardscrabble way of life brought many tragedies into families.
The Monroes proved no exception. Bill's mother passed away when
he was ten years old and his father when he was sixteen. These
tragic events in Bill's life added much to his music, however.
He lived with his "Uncle Pen," the one individual
who had the greatest influence on Bill's music. Bill played
the guitar with his Uncle at dances around Rosine. The liner
notes for the MCA-500 album, Bill
Monroe's Uncle Pen, read
A WONDERFUL UNCLE-He was one of Kentucky's finest old-time
fiddlers, and he had the best shuffle of the bow I've ever
seen, and kept the best time, that's one reason people asked
him to play for the dances around Rosine, Kentucky. His later
years in life he was a crippled man, he had been thrown by
a mule, therefore he had to use crutches the rest of his life.
My last years in Kentucky were spent with him, he done the
cooking for the two of us, we had fat back, sorghum molasses
and hoe cakes for breakfast, followed up with black-eyed peas
with fat back, and corn bread and sorghum for dinner and supper.
I can remember those days so very well, there were the hard
times, and money was scarce, but also there were the good
times. If it was to do over, I'd live them again. REST IN
PEACE, WILL SEE YOU LATER, Your Nephew, Bill Monroe.
also played with an African-American man named Arnold Schultz
who, according to Bill, was a great guitarist and fiddle player.
Schultz taught Bill to appreciate the blues feeling that is
now in Bluegrass music. Bill started playing at age nine, and
his first choice of an instrument was the guitar, but his brother
Charlie and his sister Bertha played guitar, while another brother,
Birch played the fiddle. Bill was assigned the mandolin in the
family band, but was allowed only four strings instead of the
usual eight, to avoid his making "too much noise."
While Bill was still in his teens, Charlie and Birch moved to
Detroit, Michigan to seek work in the factories. They later
moved to East Chicago, then to Whiting, Indiana where they found
jobs in an oil refinery. Letters to Bill back in Kentucky led
him to follow his brothers, and he found work in the barrel
house of the Sinclair Oil Refinery. When Birch and Charlie were
forced out of work during the economic depression years of the
1930s, Bill became the main support of his family. He kept his
job for more than five years. During this period of time, Bill
and his brothers continued to play music, usually at people's
homes for dances and other gatherings. Their talents as very
good dancers led them into the entertainment business in 1932.
Tom Owens, who had a troupe of dancers, noticed the three brothers,
their girl friends, Larry Moore and his wife at a dance. He
offered the four couples jobs as dancers. They accepted and
became members of the WLS radio tour out of Chicago.
Maintaining his day job along with the dancing grew very difficult,
and in 1934 Bill decided he wanted to be a full time musician.
Birch chose to stay on his job, so Bill and Charlie became The
Monroe Brothers, and made their mark as one of the all-time
great brother duets. They went to work for the Texas Crystals
Company, beginning in Shenandoah, Iowa, then moving to Omaha,
Nebraska. When they lost that company as a sponsor of their
radio programs, they went to work for a larger company selling
a similar product, The Crazy Waters Crystals Company.
During that period of time, the radio was the main form of entertainment
for families, particularly in rural areas. The musicians would
play a radio show in the early morning or at noon, advertising
where they would make personal appearances at a school or other
buildings in the listening area of their station. They had to
put up posters for future shows, play the scheduled show that
evening, then return for a few hours sleep, and do it all over
again the next day. While this was a hard life, it was considered
much better than farm or factory work, plus the gain of fame,
of being a radio star, made these jobs most attractive. When
the fans began to dwindle in number at the personal appearances,
the area was said to be "played out," and the band
would move to another radio station. The Monroe Brothers moved
to Columbia, South Carolina, then to Charlotte, North Carolina,
where they recorded for RCA's Bluebird Label on February 17,
1936. Charlie did all the lead singing with Bill playing background
and breaks on the mandolin, then singing tenor on the choruses
of the songs. Charlie's guitar work, particularly the runs,
are still used by many of the rhythm guitarists in today's Bluegrass
When the Monroe Brothers split at Raleigh. North Carolina in
1938, Bill went to Little Rock, Arkansas to try his own musical
ideas. He formed his first band, briefly called The Blue Cross
Boys, then changed the name to The Kentuckians. The Little Rock
area did not prove to be productive enough, so Bill moved to
Atlanta, Georgia, where he formed a new group called, Bill Monroe
and his Blue Grass Boys, the band name he used throughout the
remainder of his career. The instruments in the new band in
addition to Bill's mandolin were guitar, fiddle and a jug. The
band practiced for six weeks and then moved to Asheville, North
Carolina staying three months. There Bill added a bass fiddle
to the group, replacing the jug. Bill's first groups were playing
the string music of those days, but Bill began to emphasize
the fiddle and the blues.
The group played a variety of songs, instrumentals and gospel
music, laying the groundwork for the new style. Already their
sacred quartets demonstrated all the exciting hallmarks of bluegrass
singing. The bass player usually did the comedy routines, a
throwback to the minstrel days of the medicine shows, with another
member acting as the "straight man." Bill moved once
again, to Greenville, South Carolina, and at this point began
to feel good about the music his band was creating.
The moving of the Blue Grass Boys from one area to another ceased
when Bill took them to Nashville, Tennessee to audition for
the Grand Ole Opry in October. 1939. Bill recalls, "I went
in to audition and Harry Stone, Manager of the Opry and George
D. Hay, The Solemn Old Judge, were going out to lunch, but they
told me they would be right back. When they came back, we played
some tunes for them, and they hired me right there. They told
me, 'if you ever leave the Opry, you'll have to fire yourself.'
Bill was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for almost fifty eight
Bill joined the Grand Ole
Opry on October 26, 1939. He and his band quickly became one
of the most popular acts on the Opry, and being a member of
this cast gave them the opportunity to be heard every Saturday
night throughout most of North America. Bill made the first
recording with his own band at the Kimball Hotel in Atlanta,
Georgia on October 7, 1940 for Victor Records. One of the songs
recorded was "Muleskinner Blues," the first song Bill
sang on the Grand Ole Opry, his first recorded solo, and the
only time he played guitar on a recording. Clyde Moody, who
usually played guitar, played mandolin, Tommy Magness played
fiddle and took all the instrumental breaks and Bill Westbrook,
who played the comic character,
"Cousin Wilbur," on the stage shows, played bass fiddle.
The late Jimmy Rodgers had written and recorded "The Muleskinner
Blues" as "Blue Yodel # 8."
Bill had heard "Snuffy" Jenkins play the three finger
style of banjo in the Carolinas, but he chose David Akeman,
known as "The Kentucky Wonder, String Bean," who played
the two-finger and clawhammer styles, as his first banjo player.
Wilene Forrester, who used the name, "Sally Ann,"
played accordion with the Blue Grass Boys from 1942 until 1945.
She was the wife of "Howdy" Forrester, who had played
fiddle with Bill briefly in 1942 before entering military service.
Bill hired Jim Shumate as the new fiddle player. Shumate yielded
to Forrester after the war, but Howdy soon joined Roy Acuff,
with whom he stayed for many years. Bill Monroe then engaged
Robert R. "Chubby" Wise to play the fiddle.
The music of Bill Monroe showed many changes in the early days
of it's development. These changes sometimes derived from the
changing personnel or Bill's constant searching for the sound
he wanted to achieve. Bill always showed great judgment in the
use of members of his band., allowing them to develop their
individual talents, and spending many hours instructing them
in his style of music. This would usually find them leading
their own band when they left the Blue Grass Boys. Bill explains:
"You know, they only stay with the Blue Grass Boys for
about three years, and they get to be heard on the Opry, and
I call their name when they play or sing, and that's good for
them. They get to be known, and they can use that when they
go on to their own bands."
The musical combination of Bill Monroe, mandolin, Chubby Wise,
fiddle, Lester Flatt, guitar, Earl Scruggs, banjo and Howard
Watts (Cedric Rainwater) bass fiddle, have become known as the
"Classic Bluegrass Band." The first recording session
for this group took place on September 16, 1946 in Castle studios,
Nashville, Tennessee, with eight songs waxed. The addition of
Earl Scruggs' hard driving three finger style of banjo playing,
to Bill's soaring tenor over Lester's lead, and the "bluesy"
fiddling of Chubby Wise, all combined to produce the style copied
by Bluegrass bands around the world.
Oddly, Don Reno was all set to become Bill's banjo player in
1943, but he could not accept the job as he had to enter military
service. The following story was often told by Lester Flatt:
"Bill told me he had an eighteen year old boy he wanted
to audition as a possible replacement for Stringbean. Now String
was a great fellow, and a good friend of mine, but his timing
would just drag you down on a song, so
I didn't want Bill to hire
another banjo player. I told Bill to tell that feller to keep
his banjo in the case, but when I heard Earl Scruggs pick the
banjo, that all changed."
The debate about when Bluegrass
Music really began could continue infinitely. Some people believe
Bluegrass started in 1934 when Bill and Charlie Monroe initiated
their professional careers, while others believe Bill started
it when he recorded "Muleskinner Blues" in 1940. It
must be recognized, however, that when Scruggs, Flatt, Wise
and Watts joined Bill's band, they created a sound that has
been maintained, vocally and instrumentally, in all of Bill's
bands ever since. Bill
Monroe's mandolin case had the following printed on it for many
Blue Grass Since 1927." Who are we to argue with the man
who put it all together?
Bill Monroe purchased The Brown County Jamboree Park in Bean
Blossom, Indiana in 1951, and his brother, Birch managed it
for several years. Through the 1950s shows were held that featured
all the major stars of Country Music. The first Bluegrass Festival
held there in June, 1967 started a tradition that continues
today as the world's best known Bluegrass festival. Bill renamed
the park, "The Bill and James Monroe Festival Park and
Campground" in 1992, after the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and
Museum and the cabin Bill lived in with his Uncle Pen had been
moved there from Kentucky.
The Grand Ole Opry held a very special celebration in October,
1989, to commemorate Bill Monroe's fiftieth anniversary. Hal
Durham, Manager of the Opry, presented Bill a "one of a
kind" mandolin that had Bill's likeness carved into the
headstock. Larry Cordle sang "Kentucky King," a song
he had co-written with Jim Rushing, and Grant Turner served
as emcee for the show. Emmylou Harris was a special guest and
sang "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and other songs with
The news that Bill Monroe had undergone coronary bypass surgery
on August 9, 1991 shocked Bluegrass fans throughout the world.
Relief spread through the industry when Bill appeared on the
TV show "The Opry Backstage" on Saturday, August 24,
just seventeen days after the surgery, and though he did not
play on the Opry, he was dressed in his usual "Southern
Planter" white suit, and he had his mandolin.
A story claims that during an interview Bill Monroe was asked
the question; "Who is going to lead Blue Grass Music into
the Twenty First Century? Bill reportedly answered with no hesitation;
"I am. " Unfortunately,
Bill Monroe did not live to see the year 2,000. Bill passed
away in Springfield, Tennessee on September 9, 1996, after a
long illness. Bill would have been eighty five years old on
September 13. Services were held in the Ryman Auditorium in
Nashville, Tennessee, and at the Rosine Methodist Church in
Rosine, Kentucky. While Bill may not be with us in person, his
spirit will lead Bluegrass Music forever. Every band participating
in Bluegrass should place a symbolic pair of shoes on the stage
at every show, and make the following announcement: "No
one will ever be big enough to fill the shoes of the Father
of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe!"
The following are the closing lines of an editorial written
by Peter V. Kuykendall, Editor and General Manger of Bluegrass
Unlimited, for the Silver
Anniversary issue, July, 1991: "One notably moving moment
that sums up a lot of what makes my journey through this music
and my life worth it all, occurred this past year. Bill Monroe's
daughter, Melissa, passed away, in Tennessee [December 3, 1990].
At the viewing. I turned to notice Mr. Monroe leading two friends
to the casket, Earl and Louise Scruggs. We all are, of course,