Bill Monroe: Celebrating The Father Of Bluegrass At 100 The poor, cross-eyed boy from Kentucky created the hard-driving, high-lonesome genre known as bluegrass.

Bill Monroe: Celebrating The Father Of Bluegrass At 100

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Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of one of the giants of American music. Bill Monroe, who died some 15 years ago, was called the Father of Bluegrass. But his influence extended well beyond that to country music and even rock 'n' roll. Bradley Klein reports on a life told through music.

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


ALICE GERRARD: Do you feel that you were brought up in a good way?

BILL MONROE: I was brought up the best way that I could be brought up with what we had to do with. 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.

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

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

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

RICHARD D: Being the youngest, being kind of shunted off to the side, being teased -bluegrass is often referred to as the high lonesome sound. And I think this childhood pain came out in his music, and he really worked through it with his music.


SMITH: Bill Monroe was just 10 years old when his mother died. 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.


MONROE: (Singing) Mother left this world of sorrow, and our home was silent and so sad. Dad took sick and had to leave us. I have no home, no mother, nor dad.

DEL MCCOURY: He wanted me to learn that song, "Memories of Mother and Dad." It was really close to him, you know, that song was.

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

MCCOURY: 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 them tombstones there. And so I read it. On mother's, gone but not forgotten. And on dad, we'll meet again someday. That's what it said.


MCCOURY: You know, a lot of his songs were true life. They really were, you know? And they meant a lot to him.

SMITH: Bill Monroe is really one of the great early autobiographical singer-songwriters.

KLEIN: Biographer Richard D. Smith.

SMITH: I mean, he was writing autobiographical material before Hank Williams was. 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.

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


MONROE: (Singing) Late in the evening, about sundown, high on the hill and above the town, Uncle Pen played the fiddle. Oh, how it would ring. You can hear it talk. You can hear it sing.

KLEIN: 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.


MONROE: Me and him played for a dance one night. We started, you know, at sundown, and the next morning at daylight, we were still playing music. All night long. Of course, that automatically meant you'd be dancing on Sunday. But that is really the truth.

KLEIN: It's clear, from his interviews with Alice Gerrard, that Monroe learned from Shultz and used that knowledge to put some blues in bluegrass.


MONROE: (Singing) Good morning, captain. Good morning, sky. Do you need another mule skinner out on your new road line?

KLEIN: 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 leading his own band, named after his home state of Kentucky.


KLEIN: 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 playing guitar; Earl Scruggs, banjo; Cedric Rainwater, bass; Chubby Wise, fiddle; and Monroe playing mandolin - that defined the classic bluegrass quintet.


SMITH: I think Bill Monroe is arguably the most broadly influential figure in American popular music. I mean, not only he's the father of bluegrass, he was influential in country music, later in the folk music revival, but also rock 'n' roll musicians. 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 an Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, but over a spectrum of American music, this man was quite influential.

KLEIN: Biographer Richard D. 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 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.

CHRIS THILE: That was something he always did. He would always give little kids - if he ever 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.

KLEIN: Monroe 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, as if Monroe never forgot being that cross-eyed boy growing up poor on a Kentucky farm. For NPR News, I'm Bradley Klein.


MONROE: Let's go.

NORRIS: You can hear the music of Bill Monroe as well as the friends and collaborators he influenced at


NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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