Bill Monroe: Celebrating The Father Of Bluegrass At 100

A poor, cross-eyed boy from Kentucky, Bill Monroe created the hard-driving, high-lonesome genre known as bluegrass.

A poor, cross-eyed boy from Kentucky, Bill Monroe created the hard-driving, high-lonesome genre known as bluegrass. Thomas S. England/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas S. England/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Bill Monroe, known as the "Father of Bluegrass Music," was born 100 years ago this week in rural Kentucky. He influenced early country music and rock 'n' roll, as well as the hard-driving, high-lonesome genre he created — bluegrass.

William Smith Monroe was a man of few words, but he opened up to fellow bluegrass musician Alice Gerrard, who recorded him in 1969.

"I was brought up the best way that I could be brought up with what we had to do with," Monroe said. "I could have had a better education, and I could have had better clothes to wear to school. I could have had a better chance, you know. But if I'd had the best education in the world, I might have not played music."

Gerrard says it was hard to get Monroe to open up.

"Bill, in some ways, he was very inarticulate about his feelings. In other ways, he was very profound about his feelings," says Gerrard. "And when you got him into a certain mood where he was being more introspective, he really could be very profound, I felt."

Monroe grew up as the youngest of eight children on a working farm. His biographer, Richard D. Smith, says Monroe was born with a condition that left one eye crossed and his vision severely impaired. He was teased for that.

"Being the youngest, being kind of shunted off to the side, being teased — bluegrass is often known as the high lonesome sound," Smith says. "This childhood pain came out in his music, and he really worked through it with his music.

"Bill Monroe was just 10 years old when his mother died," Smith adds. "And in this wonderful autobiographical song, 'Memories of Mother and Dad,' the song begins, 'Mother left this world of sorrow, our home was silent and so sad ...' "

'True Life' Songs

Del McCoury sang lead and played guitar with Bill Monroe in the mid-1960s. He recalls that at first he couldn't get the lyrics right, so Monroe took him to his parents' graves when the band was passing through Kentucky.

"So we stopped in at Rosine, and he took me there to those tombstones, and he said, 'Now I want you to read what's on those tombstones there,' " McCoury says. "And so I read it — on Mother's, 'Gone, but not forgotten.' And on Dad's, 'We'll meet again someday.' That's what it said. A lot of his songs were true life. ... And they meant a lot to him."

Smith says that Monroe is one of the great early autobiographical singer-songwriters.

"I mean, he was writing autobiographical material before Hank Williams," Smith says. "I'm not saying he's the first to do it, but so much of that stuff is from his life experience. I mean, he just is absolutely baring his soul."

His father died when Monroe was still a teenager, and he went to live with his mother's brother, his Uncle Pen Vandiver. He's the subject of "Uncle Pen," one of what Monroe called his "true songs."

Uncle Pen was an old-time fiddle player, and they were able to bring in much-needed money by playing at local dances. The young Monroe also worked with a black musician, Arnold Shultz, in a rare integrated duo, playing segregated dances in the 1920s.

"I tell you, me and him played for a dance one night," Monroe said. "We started, you know, at sundown, and the next morning at daylight, we was still playing music. All night long. 'Course that automatically meant you'd be dancing on Sunday. But that is really the truth."

Blue Grass Boys

Monroe continued absorbing black and white musical traditions throughout the 1930s, closing in on the style that would become bluegrass. He first went on the road as a duo with his brother Charlie, then led his own band, named after his home state of Kentucky.

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys lasted 58 years and saw more than 150 different musicians pass through the band. But it was this group, formed in 1946 — Lester Flatt (guitar), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Cedric Rainwater (bass), Chubby Wise (fiddle), with Monroe playing mandolin — that defined the classic bluegrass quintet.

"I think Bill Monroe is arguably the most broadly influential figure in American popular music," says Smith. "Not only he's the father of bluegrass — he was influential in country music, later in the folk music revival, but also ... early rockers loved Monroe — Elvis [Presley], Carl [Perkins], Buddy Holly — all huge Bill Monroe fans. Maybe he doesn't have the specific impact of a Louis Armstrong ... [or a] Frank Sinatra, but over a spectrum of American music, this man was quite influential."

Smith says that influence pervades American music to this day. Chris Thile, best known for his work in the bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, plays mandolin. He says he remembers meeting Monroe for the first time in 1992. Thile was a child prodigy playing a tune for the old master, and "Big Mon" (as Monroe was known) smiled and gave him a quarter.

"That was something he always did," says Thile. "If he ever encountered a little kid and had the opportunity, he gave them a quarter. And so after I played for him, he gave me a quarter, which was awesome — a pretty epic experience for an 11-year-old."

Monroe, who died in 1996, gave out hundreds, probably thousands of quarters over his long life. It's as if this famous musician, who had played for four sitting U.S. presidents and won the nation's highest honor in the arts, never forgot being that cross-eyed boy, growing up poor on a Kentucky farm.

More On Bill Monroe

  • Alice Gerrard: Talking To A Man Of Few Words

    Alice Gerrard i i
    Katherine Meehan/Courtesy of the artist
    Alice Gerrard
    Katherine Meehan/Courtesy of the artist

    The late Ralph Rinzler was a folklorist, musician, co-founder of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Bill Monroe's manager for a time in the 1960s. In 1969, he asked musician Alice Gerrard to conduct a series of interviews with Monroe, a man of few words who was famous for answering reporters with a simple "yes sir" or "no sir." She may have been the first person to convince him to share the details of his life story — growing up in poverty with a severe visual impairment, losing both parents at a young age, and finding success as a musician.

    LISTEN: Alice Gerrard on interviewing Monroe

  • Chris Thile And Michael Daves: Carrying On The 'Brother Duet' Tradition

    Chris Thile and Michael Daves i i
    Eric McNatt/Courtesy of the artist
    Chris Thile and Michael Daves
    Eric McNatt/Courtesy of the artist

    In the mid-1930s, before there was bluegrass music, the young Bill Monroe found commercial success in a duo playing mandolin with his brother Charlie on guitar. By the time they broke up acrimoniously in 1938, they'd paved the way for generations of brother duets in country music. Chris Thile and Michael Daves, though not brothers themselves, are among the hot young pickers carrying on that tradition today.

    LISTEN: Chris Thile and Michael Daves on the Monroe brothers and guitar-mandolin teams

    MORE: Hear Thile and Daves' cover of the Monroe brothers' "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" in full

  • Gene Lowinger: Recognition At The End Of His Life

    A live photo of Monroe by Gene Lowinger i i
    Courtesy of Gene Lowinger
    A live photo of Monroe by Gene Lowinger
    Courtesy of Gene Lowinger

    The fiddle was especially dear to Bill Monroe, and Lowinger was the first non-Southern fiddler to play in the Blue Grass Boys. Later in life, he became a documentary photographer and snapped some of the most candid images ever taken of his old boss, one of which can be seen here.

    LISTEN: Gene Lowinger on photographing Monroe near the end of his life

  • Tony Trischka: The History Of The Banjo In Bluegrass

    Tony Trischka i i
    James Porto/Courtesy of the artist
    Tony Trischka
    James Porto/Courtesy of the artist

    Bill Monroe played the mandolin, but the banjo is the instrument that has come to define bluegrass music for many listeners. In fact, some peg the birth of bluegrass music to late 1945, when Earl Scruggs joined Monroe's band. Scruggs popularized a three-finger banjo-picking style that has become the standard in bluegrass. Banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka talks about the evolution of the banjo in the Blue Grass Boys.

    LISTEN: Tony Trischka demonstrates Scruggs' banjo sound

  • Sam Bush: 'I Always Thought Of Him As 7 Feet Tall'

    Sam Bush i i
    David McClister/Courtesy of the artist
    Sam Bush
    David McClister/Courtesy of the artist

    Sitting inside his tour bus, Grammy-winning musician Sam Bush recalls Bill Monroe as a complicated figure. He could be fiercely disapproving toward those who strayed too far from the "true vine" of bluegrass tradition, and in the 1970s and '80s, Sam Bush's band The New Grass Revival did just that, merging older traditions with elements of rock 'n' roll. But Monroe could also be strikingly generous to others in times of need.

    LISTEN: Sam Bush on Monroe's hard and soft sides

  • Laurie Lewis: 'You're Better Than You Think'

    Laurie Lewis and her band i i
    Mike Melnyk/Courtesy of the artist
    Laurie Lewis and her band
    Mike Melnyk/Courtesy of the artist

    Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis recounts meeting Bill Monroe. Like many musicians, she has treasured the words they exchanged ever since. In a field dominated by men, she says she's grateful for the encouragement and respect that he demonstrated to her.

    LISTEN: Laurie Lewis on taking a compliment from Monroe

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