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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 622

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This is the grave of Bill Monroe.

Born in 1911 outside of Rosine, Kentucky, Monroe grew up in a musical family. His uncle Pendleton Vandiver was a major regional fiddler, for example. Being a younger child, he was forced to take what was considered the feminine instrument in the family band–the mandolin. He spent the rest of his life turning that into the centerpiece of his music. His parents had both died by the time he was 16 and he then lived with Vandiver, accompanying him in the local dances where the older man was so popular. In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work in a refinery where his brothers were also working. They started reforming the family band. Soon though, it was just Bill and his older brother Charlie Monroe. They became an important regional country act. They moved around, settling in the Carolinas, where they became quite popular. They signed to RCA Victor and released 60 tracks between 1936 and 1938 for the label, including their early hit “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?”

In 1938, the two brothers ended their professional partnership. By this time, Monroe was moving beyond the old-time music of his heritage. It would always be a huge part of him. But although bluegrass music now has the cultural signifier of looking to the past, when Monroe basically invented it in the late 30s and early 40s, it was a tremendously modern music. Basically, Monroe took the mountain music of his youth and early career and combined it with jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and blues. I used to know a musician who claimed that Monroe was also influenced by Mexican music blasting across the border that he heard while working in Texas, where he was for a brief time. I confess that I don’t really hear the influence but then I am not a musician either. Anyway, Monroe wanted to make a commercially popular music that highlighted his own strengths while doing something completely different for the country radio market that was already a big part of southern life. To say the least, it worked.

Monroe began forming the first modern bluegrass bands after his breakup with Charlie. He moved around a bit, first to Little Rock and then to Atlanta, putting together short-lived bands. Then, in October 1939, he auditioned to play on the Grand Ole Opry, where he blew George D. Hay away with his version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” He became a regular. But this was not really bluegrass yet. Monroe rarely sang except for the high parts on harmonies. It was still pretty well old-time music. He even brought an accordion in for awhile. The banjo, played by String Bean Ackerman, was still plucked in the old-time way. This was good music, but it was also transitional music.

The real invention of bluegrass came at the end of 1945, when Monroe added the great guitarist Lester Flatt and the young banjo phenom Earl Scruggs to his band. This would become the classic version of the Blue Grass Boys, Monroe’s legendary band. Flatt and Scruggs, especially the latter with his more commercial three-fingered picking style, would set the stage for the explosion of bluegrass in years to come. While no one was calling him this in 1946, the Father of Bluegrass basically did invent this music at this time, in collaboration with his great band. They didn’t really have much in the way of immediate hits, but of course “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the B-side of the first Elvis single, in case anyone was questioning his massive influence over young southern musicians in these years. They only recorded 28 songs together over the next two years, but those included classics such as “Toy Heart,” “Molly and Tenbrooks,” and “Wicked Path of Sin.” In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs left to start their own band, but Monroe was able to hire another great set of musicians, including the guitarist Jimmy Martin, later known as The King of Bluegrass, Don Reno on banjo, and Vassar Clements. Over the next few years, as some of these greats went in and out of the Blue Grass Boys, Monroe continued recording classics such as “Uncle Pen,” honoring his legendary uncle, “Memories of Mother and Dad,” and “My Little Georgia Rose.” In terms of the charts, Monroe never did all that well. He reached #3 on the country charts in 1946 with “Kentucky Waltz,” #5 the same year with “Footprints in the Snow,” and #11 twice in 1948, with “Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong” and “Little Community Church.” That’s as good as it got.

In fact, for much of Monroe’s career, finances were a struggle. He had his Opry slot but he never really reached the commercial success he wanted. His own personality was a big problem here. There was a reason people went in and out of his band by the month. He was a real jerk. He ensured that Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers, and other bluegrass acts would not get Opry gigs. He was notoriously bitter that his former partners had a lot more commercial success than he did. Even in the early 1960s, when Flatt & Scruggs were making serious money on the folk circuit, itself leading to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song that really made them bank, Monroe was both bitter and refused to make himself available to do the same kind of thing. He was also a real jerk toward women, as were many of the early bluegrass singers. This was a world of really over the top toxic masculinity. After Monroe’s death, John Hartford recorded a song about him called “Cross-Eyed Child.” In it, he sings a bit and then tells various stories about Monroe he learned from becoming friends with him over the last decade of his life. One of them is that he was so competitive than when he was matched in a song contest, he decided the final winner by getting into a boxing match with the guy. He just refused to lose or give in and that could have some very negative downsides when applied to things other than song contests. On the other hand, Hartford noted in another verse that he was the only person he ever knew who tuned his instrument to his own voice. A brilliant, but difficult man.

Finally, the folklorist Ralph Rintzler kind of took over Monroe’s publicity and forced him onto the stage for new audiences, where, not surprisingly, he was really charismatic. Rintzler set up a Sing Out! interview for Monroe in 1963, where the article first called him “The Father of Bluegrass.” With the folkie movement deeply concerned with authenticity, this placed Monroe on the fast track with them. He began playing on the folk festival circuit (there’s an excellent 3-disc collection from the Newport Folk Festival bluegrass performances from this era that compiles some of this; the 3-disc blues collection is equally outstanding). Monroe was also open to hiring the talented young musicians out of this movement, including Bill Keith, Roland White, and Peter Rowan, which also got the attention of other young musicians and fans. Seeing a good opportunity here, Monroe started his own bluegrass festival, Bean Blossom, in Indiana in 1967. This remains one of the most important bluegrass festivals in the nation today. He continued to play until 1996. He died that year of a stroke, four days before he turned 85.

It’s sad what has happened to bluegrass today. It’s now an unshakable genre, in the sense that it will have a limited amount of hardcore fans, but the creative paths are seriously restricted. What was once a vibrant and new music has now become so tainted with the authenticity brush that any real innovations are not acceptable to fans. Instead, you have what is often a very slick and soulless music based around standards and virtuostic solos that follow a very clear path. There were some excellent young bands that did appear during the second folk revival of the late 90s that revolved around the Americana movement and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack who did some interesting things, but they have largely disappeared today. The other alternative is the jamgrass stuff that has so influenced the hippie music scene, I just don’t like much of this, though at least it is trying to do something new(ish), or was when it began in the 1970s.

But of course Monroe doesn’t deserve any blame for any of this. Let’s listen to some of his work:

Bill Monroe is buried in Rosine Cemetery, Rosine, Kentucky.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. Many thanks!! If you would like this series to visit other bluegrass greats, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lester Flatt is buried in Sparta, Tennessee and Clarence White is in Lancaster, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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