Bluegrass Banjo

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William Smith “Bill” Monroe (b. 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky) was the youngest of eight children born to J. Buchanan “Buck” and Melissa Vandiver Monroe.  Buck farmed and ran a timber operation on his land at Jerusalem Ridge while Melissa kept house and reared the children.  Melissa played accordian, fiddle, and harmonica and it was she who taught the Monroe children many traditional English-American folk songs.  By the time he was 16, Bill had lost both his parents and was living with his mother’s brother, Pendleton Vandiver.  Uncle Pen, whom Bill would later immortalize in the song “Uncle Pen,” taught the boy to play guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, but Bill chose to concentrate on mastering the mandolin: the instrument he would play professionally for the remainder of his life.  In addition to his Uncle Pen, Bill often played music with Arnold Schultz, a black musician from Rosine whose blues-style guitar playing added a new musical dimension to the sounds Bill had heard growing up.  By the time he was 12, Bill Monroe was performing with Schultz or his Uncle Pen at local country dances.


After their parents died, some of Bill’s brothers had left Kentucky to live and work in the Chicago area.  Bill eventually followed them there and found a job as a laborer at a foundry.  His first professional employment as a musical performer in Chicago was as a square dancer for WLS radio’s Midwestern revival of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.  Bill had been playing mandolin and singing with his brothers Birch (fiddle) and Charlie (guitar), and in 1934 WLS offered the trio full time work.  Birch decided to give up music, but Bill and Charlie took the radio job as the Monroe Brothers.  They performed at WLS and toured throughout the South and Midwest until 1935, when they moved to North Carolina and based themselves at WBT radio in Charlotte, a 50,000 watt station.  In 1936, RCA producer Eli Oberst heard them on WBT and recorded them on the Bluebird label, an RCA subsidiary.  The next two years brought the brothers a large radio and record audience, but in 1938, personal differences caused them to go their separate ways.  Bill and his new band, the Kentuckians, moved to KARK in Atlanta, where he began to evolve the first of the musical groups that would eventually come together as the Bluegrass Boys.  It was now that Bill stopped playing as part of a musical group and began to sing lead and perform the lightning fast mandolin solos that would make him a musical legend in the years to come.

In 1939, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.  Already stars in the Carolinas and Midwest, they were hired as regular Opry performers.  Throughout the 1940’s Monroe played the Opry on weekends and ran a traveling tent show throughout the week.  During these years, Bill Monroe made musical innovations that were revolutionary for their time, but that would later become the standard for all bluegrass bands.  His high pitched vocals would become a basic element of the music that in later years would come to be called “Bluegrass.” He was the first to include banjo to complement the usual fiddle, bass, and guitar combination that played behind his mandolin.  He was the first to use the quintet of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and stand up bass as his regular instrumental line up.  It was as a Bluegrass  Boy that Earl Scruggs introduced the three finger picking style that transformed banjo playing and became the benchmark for all bluegrass music.  Monroe and his band left Bluebird in 1945 to record for Columbia.  The Columbia recordings he made in the years when Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise were in his band are now regarded as the definitive sounds of bluegrass. By 1949, he had moved from the Columbia label to Decca Records, where he continued to record successfully despite his steadfast refusal to alter his sound to increase commercial profit and would eventually make over 500 recordings in the course of his six decade career.   The 1940’s through mid 1950’s were Monroe’s golden years as a composer, for it was then that he wrote many of the songs, both sacred and secular, that have formed the canon for all bluegrass musicians.   In the mid fifties, he turned his attention to instrumental music and introduced his audiences to double and triple harmonies that had not been heard before.  Throughout the fifties, his acoustic music inspired elements of honky-tonk, country pop, and rockabilly, and his “true life” songs possessed a level of emotion that evoked Hank Williams, blues, and jazz, but Monroe himself imitated none of these.  It was Bill Monroe who wrote “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the song that would make rock and roll history as Elvis Presley’s first single for Sun Records in 1954.  Carl Perkins, himself a country music notable, claims that the first words Elvis ever said to him were, “Do you like Bill Monroe?”

In the early 1960’s, Bill Monroe began to attract the attention of urban folk music audiences.  He appeared at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and it was there that folklorist Ralph Rinzler began to promote him as the true “Daddy of Bluegrass.”  He launched his own annual festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana in 1967 where, during his concerts, he allowed members of his audience to being their instruments for an informal “Jam” session.  By 1970 he was widely recognized as the Patriarch of Bluegrass music, and in that year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Bill Monroe continued to write and to perform his music and receive honors for it until his death from a stroke in 1996.  His contribution to country music is too great to be measured, but some of the recognition afforded him during his lifetime can be noted.

In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him its Heritage Award, and in the same year his album, Southern Flavor, won the first bluegrass Grammy ever awarded   On August 13, 1986, the United States Senate passed a resolution recognizing, “His many contributions to American culture and his many ways of helping American people enjoy themselves.”   In 1991, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor.  In 1993, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an honor which placed him in the company of such artists as Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, Ray Charles, and Paul McCartney.  He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and President Bill Clinton presented him the National Medal of the Arts.  In 1997, the year after his death, with Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris as his presenters, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In the years since his death, his devoted fans conducted an ongoing effort to have his picture placed on a commemorative United States Postage Stamp issued in 2006: the required ten years after his death.  The man who used to describe himself as, “A farmer with a mandolin and a high tenor voice,” brought a new level of sophistication to what had previously been dismissed as “rural music,” and it was he who created the music we now call Bluegrass.