Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bill Monroe, circa 1970. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz — at least that's what he said. The reality is a whole lot more complex and a lot messier. In fact, we can almost never name the creator of a musical genre, much less identify the date when it started. We can with bluegrass music. The man was Bill Monroe and the date was December 1945, when a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs joined Monroe's band, already called The Bluegrass Boys, for the first time.
William Smith Monroe was born in Rosine, Ky., on Sept. 13, 1911. He formed a popular duo with his brother Charlie, often augmented by their fiddle-playing brother Birch. Singing in close harmony, the way that seemingly only brothers can, they achieved popularity — first on the radio and later on record. From the very beginning, their music had that special kind of drive that later came to characterize bluegrass.
The brothers split in 1938, with Charlie opting for a more "mainstream" country style. Bill, however, was looking for something else. Initially, his Bluegrass Boys featured, like so many country bands of the time, a comedian, who played banjo in the old-time clawhammer style. Ironically, the band also featured an accordion player, especially in the recording studio.
When his banjo-playing comic relief left, Monroe recruited Scruggs, who played in a more modern and complex style, and the sound that was bluegrass was complete. Monroe was not only the music's founder, but his band also became the training ground for generations of bluegrass musicians to follow. Banjo players like Don Reno, Tony Ellis, Sonny Osborne and Don Stover came and went. Monroe shared singing duties with great voices like Lester Flatt, Clyde Moody and Mac Wiseman. The fiddle chair was occupied by Kenny Baker, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements and so many others. When the 1960s dawned, he was the first to hire "Northerners" — products of the folk revival like William "Brad" Keith and Peter Rowan.
Monroe's creation has been called "Hillbilly Jazz," but he described it this way: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddling. It's Methodist, and Holiness, and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."
Artists In This Mix
Eddie Adcock • Red Allen • Alvin and Andy, The Bressler Brothers • Kenny Baker • Butch Baldisarri • Bryon Berline • Audie Blaylock & Redline • Blue Highway • The Bluegrass Album Band • The Boys Fom Middle Creek • Dale Ann Bradley • Gary Brewer & The Kentucky Ramblers • Hylo Brown & The Timberliners • Sam Bush • Cadillac Sky • Mary Chapin Carpenter • Vassar Clements • Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper • The Dreadful Snakes • Joe Drumwright • Dry Branch Fire Squad • Glen Duncan • Jim Eanes & His Shenandoah Valley Boys • Tony Ellis • Lester Flatt • Howdy Forrester • The Grascals • Richard Greene • David Grisman • Tom T. Hall • Bobby Hicks • Lonnie Hoppers • Randy Howard • Vic Jordan • Bill Keith • Lewis & Kallick • Tommy Magness • Benny Martin • Jimmy Martin • Del McCoury • The Million Dollar Quartet (Presley, Cash, Lewis & Perkins) • Barry Mitterhoff • Clyde Moody • Bill Monroe • James Monroe • Monroe Brothers • Monroe Crossing • David Mosher • Nashville Bluegrass Band • Newgrass Revival • Tim & Molly O'Brien • Old And In The Way • Bobby Osborne • Joan Osborne • Sonny Osborne • Peter Ostroushko & The Mando Boys • Dolly Parton • Elvis Presley • Don Reno • John Rieshman & The Jaybirds • Butch Robins • Peter Rowan • Earl Scruggs • Scott, Steffey, Stafford, Ickes, Hayne & Isaacs • The Seldom Scene • Ricky Skaggs • Red Smiley • Jim Smoak • Buddy Spicher • Art Stamper • Carter Stanley • Carl Story & His Rambling Mountaineer • Don Stover • Chris Stuart & Backcountry • Clarence "Tater" Tate • Gordon Terry • Thile & Daves • IIIrd Tyme Out • Niall Toner • Jack Tottle • Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys • Rhonda Vincent • Doc Watson • Roland White • The Wildwood Valley Boys • Robin & Linda Williams • Chubby Wise • Mac Wiseman