Courtesy of the artist.
Country legend Bill Monroe.
Country legend Bill Monroe. Courtesy of the artist.
Bill Monroe was a relentlessly independent, often solitary, musician. He
emerged from the backwoods of Kentucky to fashion a new kind of country music that came to be called bluegrass. But one of the songs he wrote served as a bridge to places beyond his rural culture. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was adopted by musicians of various style from Elvis Presley to Ray Charles. Bill Monroe called them true songs that could almost be prototypes for the confessions of today's singer-songwriters. Monroe's true songs reflected his personal misfortunes. He was born with poor eyesight, ignored as a child and he was often troubled in his relationships with women. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was one of Monroe's first true songs. Tom Ewing, who played guitar and sang with The Bluegrass Boys, says these songs also reflected Monroe's firsthand
knowledge of country life.
"It was the earliest communicating with the down-to-earth country listener who was familiar with things like `blue moons,' in other words, a second full moon happening in a month. Country folks were more familiar with that concept. And that touched them, that an artist or a performer would communicate with them that way. In folk tradition, a blue moon, as with almost any anomaly, is often thought of as a harbinger of bad luck. The song was just the opposite. Monroe's first recording of it in 1946 proved popular not just because it referred to one particular piece of folklore but because it drew on all of the sources around Monroe, as he explained in a 1983 NPR interview.
"It's got Baptists and Holiness and Methodists singing in it and Scotch bagpipe and the old Southern blues and the—a lot of different ideas in it. It really touches your heart, and it's a good, clean music."
While folk music is created collectively, it's generally agreed that
Monroe did have a singular vision, that he's as responsible as anyone else, if
not more so, for creating bluegrass music. In the late 1930s, Bill Monroe
sought out musicians who could realize his vision. Until then, string bands
were often loose ensembles that featured one soloist. Monroe wanted each of the
instruments to take solos as in a jazz band, and he wanted each instrument to
have its clearly established role in melody or backup.
"I didn't want it to be copying somebody," Monroe said. "I thought that'd be wrong, you know, to copy somebody when I was real young and I wanted music of my own. So that was what I came up with. And there was a lot of different ideas in it, and it's got a wonderful drive to the music. It's wonderful for the five-string banjo and the fiddle, you know."
In 1939, The Bluegrass Boys landed a spot on the WSM Grand Ole Opry. Their performances captivated radio listeners nationwide with high singing, carefully worked out fiddle parts and Monroe's fierce, jazzy mandolin playing.
Among the radio listeners who heard "Blue Moon of Kentucky" were Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Perkins played an up-tempo version of it in his early live shows. In the summer of 1954, Elvis Presley was trying to launch his career. He was in the Sun Studios in Memphis recording his first commercial single. Richard Smith, the author of a Monroe biography titled "Can't You Hear Me Calling?" says Presley was having trouble figuring out what to play for the flip side of "That's All Right Mama."
"Scotty Moore, the guitarist, started vamping and kind of playing around on an up-tempo—a 2/4 version of Bill Monroe's famous waltz, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." And Elvis, of course, knew the song, he loved it and fell right in with it."
Smith says Sun producer Sam Phillips was crazy about what he heard.
"After they recorded this version, Phillips exulted them in the control room. `That's fine. Hell, that's different. That's a pop song not an early ballad.' And what Presley had done, obviously, is he had taken this plaintive waltz of Monroe's and really jazzed it up into a 2/4 version."
Presley had a hit, and he soon had a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Fearful of Monroe's reaction to his version of the song, he sought out the older Opry star backstage and apologized to him for taking such liberties. But former Bluegrass Boy Tom Ewing says Monroe reacted with generosity.
"Bill recognized what Elvis Presley was doing with his song, and he was going with it. And it was very, very admirable, I think, of him to pick up on that, and to tell Elvis that he was for him 100 percent if it would give him a start in his career."
For his part, Monroe later admitted Presley's version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" gave him very powerful songwriters royalty checks. Understanding the momentum Presley had created, Monroe quickly went back into the studio himself. Biographer Richard Smith says that in September of 1954, Monroe devoted a session exclusively to re-recording 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.'"
"This is a fascinating example of the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n' roll, influencing each other. Because Monroe re-recorded it, the first half, very similar to what he had done as a waltz, and then segued into an up-tempo 2/4 version, kind of like Presley. But Monroe was a supremely competitive artist. He was always going to go everyone one better. So instead of just having a single fiddle player on this one, he brought in not twin-harmony fiddles, but triple-harmony fiddles to play on this recording. The 2/4, up-tempo version was done slightly faster than Presley had done. So Monroe was really acknowledging and springboarding off the success Presley had had with his version, but really going him one better."
Monroe performed it this way for the rest of his life. He also encouraged other artists to get on the bandwagon. He spoke to The Stanley Brothers, and they recorded "Blue Moon of Kentucky." So did Patsy Cline. And even Ray Charles, himself a country music fan, came out with a version in 1965.
"Blue Moon of Kentucky" reached across cultures and styles. Robert Cantwell, who wrote the book "Bluegrass Breakdown," says part of the reason is the song's imagery and structure.
"To me, there is something about the way things come together. The opening lines of the song, the way Monroe's voice attacks the opening lines of the song, and that very singular, very vivid image of a Kentucky moon."
Biographer Richard Smith says another reason for the song's success lies a little further in.
"When he gets to the line about `It was on a moonlit night, the stars were shining bright,' it kicks up into this other chord. It lifts the listener's attention. There's something—you want to know more about what's going on here. There's something that's compelling about it. It's a very simple song, and yet it just seems to grab you."
Simplicity sums it all up for ex-Bluegrass Boy Tom Ewing, who says he never played a live show with Monroe that didn't include "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
"I don't want to say that there's nothing to it. I just want to, you know, say that it's a very simple song that reaches out, like "This Land Is Your Land," for example. Something that doesn't have an extremely wide range, that everyone can sing with ease. There's nothing really challenging or difficult about it. It's just a good easy song to sing and clap along with and enjoy."
But the power and universal appeal of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" helped undo Bill Monroe's career in the late 1950s. In the hands of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, the song helped moved American musical tastes toward the modern country and rock sounds of electric guitars, drums and heavy orchestration. The high, lonesome, all-acoustic sound of bluegrass was pushed to the edge of the stage until the folk music revival of the mid-1960s.