Today would mark Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. He did a lot for music in his lifetime (which stretched from September 13, 1911 to September 9, 1996) by inventing what he called Bluegrass Music and by teaching it to so many of the music greats over the years. Musical giants such as Butch Robins, Peter Rowan, Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Done Reno, Bill Keith, Bobby Hicks, Vassar Clements, Kenny Baker- (the list could go on for pages) learned under Bill’s iron fist and then went on to make their own indelible mark on acoustic music. So great was his influence, it is almost impossible to imagine what the musical universe would look like had Bill Monroe not been in it.
I found some of Bill Monroe’s instrumental works to be the best of the best in bluegrass music. Songs like Jerusalem Ridge, Old Daingerfield, and Cold Frosty Morn are as challenging as you might want to find to play correctly. His rhythms and chord signatures are at the same time confusing and complex as they are primal and simple. That man could write an instrumental that’s for sure!
His life was complex and his story long, so I will just give a quick synopsis of it here-
Born in Rosine, Kentucky as the youngest of 8 children, Bill found himself in a very musical family. His mother and some of his brothers played music and he soon found himself being assigned to the mandolin in the family band which he apparently took to quite well. Bill’s early life was musical, but it was hard too. His mother died when he was 10, his father when he was 16 and Bill who was born cross eyed, was passed from relative to relative until he ended up with his uncle Pendleton Vandiver who he would later immortalize in the song Uncle Pen. Between his Uncle Pen and his brothers Charlie and Birch, he had many opportunities to play music and eventually (1929) moved with his brothers to Indiana where they worked in an oil refinery but also played music. The Monroe Brothers were signed to a recording contract with RCA Victor between 1936 and 1938 and recorded some hit singles. As will happen the band broke up and Bill Monroe found himself the front man in his own band and he continued that until his death in 1996.
After the breakup of the Monroe Brothers, Bill played throughout the south and landed himself a regular spot on The Grand Ole Opry in 1939 which he kept until his death. (I saw him at the Grand Ole Opry once!)
1944-5 marked basically the beginning of what we think of as Bluegrass music with the addition of Earl Scruggs. That point is somewhat debatable but what is not debatable is the band that had Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt (guitar), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Chubby Wise (fiddle), and Howard Watts (bass) was wildly successful and changed the course of acoustic music in America forever. Flatt and Scruggs left the band in 1948 to pursue their own band and that too was wildly successful and will never be forgotten.
Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys continued playing and touring and eventually he decided to start his own bluegrass festival. In 1967 Bill started this festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana on a farm he owned. Each year thousands of people still flock to it despite the fact that Bill passed away in 1996- another indication of his importance to the music world.
So let’s remember Bill Monroe today with a read or a listen!
Here is a good listen from NPR (click the photo):
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.M66 B58 1989 v.1||AVAILABLE|
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.M66 B58 1989 v.2||AVAILABLE|
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|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.M66 B58 1989 v.4||AVAILABLE|
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.M66 B58 1989 Booklet||AVAILABLE|