The American singer, instrumentalist, bandleader, and songwriter Bill Monroe (1911–1996) is widely recognized as the creator of bluegrass music. During his long career touring and performing, he established himself as an influential figure in the folk-music revival of the mid-20th century.
Bill Monroe's profile among 21st-century music listeners is small: his few singles rarely made the music charts and never reached number one. On online streaming services, his most popular songs have notched play totals only in the hundreds of thousands, as compared with the multi-millions for musicians in mainstream genres. Yet Monroe reshaped the landscape of rural American music by developing the genre that eventually became known as bluegrass. This style was named for his band, the Blue Grass Boys, and since the late 1940s bluegrass bands have followed the same basic configuration of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass.
Monroe's original compositions also remain fundamental to the genre, and his powerful “high lonesome” tenor vocals are instantly identifiable to anyone familiar with his work. As an instrumentalist, he set a new standard of sophistication among rural American musicians. His music had ramifications beyond the bluegrass genre as well: rock-and-roll pioneer Elvis Presley recorded his composition “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and was strongly influenced by the propulsive forward rhythms of the slap bass used in Monroe's band.
William Smith Monroe was born on his family's farm near Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911. The area was not, strictly speaking, part of Kentucky's bluegrass region, but it abutted it and had a similar landscape of rolling hills and farms. Monroe's father, James Buchanan (J.B.) Monroe, rose from his sharecropper roots by purchasing parcels of adjoining land and his large farm eventually employed many local workers. Even after his musical career took off, son Bill would also maintain a farm in the area. Monroe's mother, Malissa (sometimes spelled “Melissa”) Vandiver Monroe, was of Dutch and Irish ancestry and had a strong interest in traditional Scottish and English balladry and dancing. Her brother, Pendleton Vandiver, was a successful fiddler and would be memorialized by Monroe in his song “Uncle Pen.”
Growing up in a musical family that included his older brothers, musicians Charlie and Birch, Monroe was also influenced by local guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz.
Schultz played in local bands and often appeared at the Monroe home to jam with the older Monroe boys. Eventually, the young Bill mastered the mandolin and joined in; the five-string instrument was not often heard in rural American music, but the older Monroe brothers wanted to keep the prominent fiddle and guitar parts for themselves. Monroe later attributed the blues tinge in his band's sound to Shultz's influence.
By the time Monroe reached his mid-teens, both his parents were dead, and in 1929 he joined Charlie Monroe at the Sinclair Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The work was difficult and included janitorial tasks and unloading unwieldy oil drums from railroad cars. Monroe supplemented his income by joining his brothers and playing for dances in northwest Indiana, and he was eventually able to afford surgery in Chicago to correct a crossed eye. Following the surgery, his confidence as a performer improved. In the early 1930s, the Monroe Brothers landed several live 15-minute slots on radio stations in Gary and Hammond, Indiana; were booked into Chicago's Palace Theater for a show; and appeared in square-dance segments on the National Barn Dance, a program broadcast on Chicago's WLS radio.
These successes propelled the Monroe Brothers to further radio appearances and tours outside the Chicago area, first in Iowa and Nebraska and then, in 1935 on the powerful Charlotte, North Carolina, radio station WBT. The mid-1930s were the heyday of brother duets in country music, and the Monroe Brothers stood out due to their intense high harmony singing, complemented by Bill's increasingly brilliant mandolin solos. They soon came to the attention of RCA producer Victor Eli Oberstein, who signed them to the label in 1936. Their RCA recordings were issued on the company's budget Bluebird line and Bill Monroe's 1935 gospel composition “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” became a moderate hit. Charlie Monroe left the group in 1938 due to disagreements with his siblings, and Bill formed a new band, the Blue Grass Boys, and headed to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1939.
Granted a single evening slot on the Grand Ole Opry, which served as a national showcase for country-music talent, Monroe impressed the crowd with his hard-driving performance of Jimmie Rodgers's country classic “Mule Skinner Blues” and was called back for three encores. The Blue Grass Boys became a permanent part of the Opry cast, and the group used this powerful new platform (the Opry then aired in 38 states) to launch a series of tent shows that mixed music by the Blue Grass Boys and old-time stars Sam and Kirk McGee with comedy acts. Although Monroe was notoriously incompetent in business affairs, by 1943 these tent shows were grossing about $200,000 per year.
Monroe now began to experiment with the sound of his core band, adding the banjo of David “Stringbean” Akeman and, briefly, an accordion. In 1945, banjoist Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys, adding a new virtuoso element with a three-finger picking style that could stand up to Monroe's flights of mandolin virtuosity. The classic Blue Grass Boys lineup of Monroe, Scruggs, guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise, and bassist Howard Watts signed that year with the Columbia label. Almost without exception, the songs they recorded over the next three years—“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” and “Molly and Tenbrooks,” among others—became bluegrass classics and were recorded by countless other bands. Monroe composed most of them (“Molly and Tenbrooks” was adapted from an earlier African-American source), and for the first time he performed lead vocals. He recognized the seriousness and depth of his accomplishment, insisting that band members dress in coat and tie rather than the hayseed outfits that had been the norm in his tent shows.
In 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Annoyed, Monroe refused for decades to speak to Scruggs, and he left the Columbia label when it signed the rival Stanley Brothers, whom Monroe regarded as imitators of his style. (Notoriously thin-skinned, Monroe also had a reputation as a womanizer.) In the 1950s he began recording for Decca, remaining with that label and its successor MCA for the remainder of his career. Monroe's band was eclipsed in popularity for a time by Flatt & Scruggs, and the rise of rock and roll in the mid-1950s dented country music's popularity. Still, the sound of this new genre was so closely connected to Monroe that when record distributors sought to describe it, they called it “Blue Grass” music and the name was soon compressed into a single word.
Monroe's popularity got a boost in 1954 when Elvis Presley recorded his song “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Rockabilly singer Carl Perkins later recalled that when he first met Presley, the latter's first question was whether he liked Bill Monroe. His career was in flight again by the early 1960s, as northeastern college students discovered bluegrass music as part of the so-called Folk Revival. Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were booked into outdoor, staged performances by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, an early proponent of the bluegrass festival as it is known today: a multi-day event, typically held at a campground or other outdoor rural venue, that featured local bluegrass acts with one or more of the genre's top names as headliners. Monroe also adopted the idea when, in 1967, he launched the Bean Blossom Festival at a park he owned in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The festival—renamed the Bill Monroe Memorial Festival after its founder's death—has remained one of the top bluegrass festivals in the United States. In 1970, Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
As his popularity grew among non-Southern audiences, Monroe added younger musicians to the Blue Grass Boys. These included future rock slide guitar star Ry Cooder (who played banjo for Monroe), singer-songwriter Peter Rowan, and fiddler Richard Greene. Northern or Southern, the musicians who passed through Monroe's band would form the backbone of bluegrass music for decades to come. Another major Monroe alumnus was Del McCoury, arguably the biggest bluegrass “purist” star of the 1990s and 2000s.
Monroe's Country Music Hall of Fame nod was followed by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, due to his stature as an early influence on rock music. Other major honors included a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, a Grammy Award in 1988 for his album Southern Flavor, induction into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor in 1991, and a prestigious 1993 Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Over his career, Monroe recorded 19 albums, and numerous compilations of his work exist.
Monroe married Caroline Brown in 1935; the marriage ended in divorce but produced two children, Melissa and James. James Monroe, born in 1941, played guitar and upright bass with the Blue Grass Boys and recorded two albums with his father, later operating Bill Monroe's substantial business empire. The elder Monroe remained a popular festival draw in old age but retired after suffering a stroke in March of 1996. One of the many songs written in tribute to him, folksinger John Hartford's “Cross Eyed Child,” recalled how Monroe pitched new song ideas to visitors even when hospitalized. He died in Springfield, Tennessee, on September 9, 1996.
Rosenberg, Neil V., and Charles K. Wolfe, The Music of Bill Monroe, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Smith, Richard D., Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, Little, Brown, 2000.
Billboard, September 21, 1996, Chet Flippo, “Industry Mourns Father of Bluegrass,” p. 6.
Guardian (London, England), September 11, 1996, Tony Russell, “Founding Father with the Bluegrass.”
New York Times, August 10, 2000, Jon Pareles, “Good and Bad in the Creator of Bluegrass,” p. E9.
Country Music Hall of Fame, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/bill-monroe (December 12, 2017), “Bill Monroe.”
Indiana Historical Bureau, http://blog.history.in.gov/?p=307 (December 12, 2017), “Bill Monroe in Indiana.”
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/bill-monroe (December 12, 2017), “Bill Monroe.”□