Personalities | Bill Monroe | Bluegrass | Country
Few genres are as closely identified with one person as bluegrass is with Bill Monroe (vocals, mandolin, 1911–96). Monroe not only defined the style’s instrumentation, style and repertoire, he also hired most of its major figures and gave the music its name – taken from his group, The Blue Grass Boys.
Raised on his father’s 650-acre farm in western Kentucky, Bill Monroe was a shy boy, thanks to his poor eyesight and dominating older brothers. When the family played together, little Bill was stuck with the mandolin – the small, eight-string Italian instrument – because the more popular fiddle and guitar were already claimed.
But Bill would switch to guitar when he accompanied the fiddling of his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, or local coal miner Arnold Schultz at local dances. From his ‘Uncle Pen’ (later the title of one of Monroe’s most popular songs) the youngster learned the Anglo-Celtic repertoire of local whites and from Schultz the blues repertoire of local blacks.
Like many young men of their generation, Bill Monroe and his brothers Birch (fiddle, 1901–82) and Charlie (vocals, guitar, 1903–75) left the farm during the Great Depression to move north. After work at an oil refinery near Chicago, they performed as dancers and musicians for their fellow immigrants from the rural South. Charlie was the leader, and he modelled the group on his favourite string bands and brother duos of the 1920s and 1930s. But his kid brother was not content to merely strum rhythm; Bill poured all his frustrations (orphaned at 16, displaced from home at 18, overshadowed by his brothers) into a mandolin style so fast and so aggressive that it was unprecedented.
Blue Grass Boy
Birch dropped out in 1934, but Charlie and Bill continued as The Monroe Brothers, recording some memorable sides for Bluebird Records. By 1938, however, the act could no longer accommodate the heated sibling rivalry, and Bill ventured out on his own. The following year, he debuted his quartet, Bill Monroe And The Blue Grass Boys, on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. By 1945 he had assembled the line-up of banjoist Earl Scruggs, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Cedric Rainwater, a quintet that changed the history of country music. Monroe scored seven Top 20 country hits between 1946 and 1949.
He never lost his unerring ear for good musicians. After Flatt And Scruggs departed acrimoniously in 1948, Monroe hired one virtuoso after another. Carter Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Benny Martin, Vassar Clements, Mac Wiseman, Sonny Osborne, Bobby Hicks, Don Reno, Don Stover, Kenny Baker, Buddy Spicher, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Bill Keith, Richard Greene, Jim Eanes, Carl Story, Roland White, Lamar Grier, Byron Berline, Butch Robins and Glen Duncan all served an apprenticeship with the ‘father of bluegrass’ before venturing out to establish their own careers.
He mellowed in the 1980s and 1990s as he relaxed into the role of living legend...
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