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Bill Monroe and Questions of Authenticity in Bluegrass Music
By: Matthew Rogers

I. Bluegrass Music

There is a clear distinction between the mainstream country music that dominates the airwaves nationwide and traditional Bluegrass music, and it does not take an expert to realize that Bluegrass is much more deeply rooted than the pop-cultured genre of country music.  Modern country uses instruments such as the fiddle, mandolin and banjo as a gimmick, brought in/out of retirement (if you will) every few years to promote a certain artist’s individuality, as if to set this specific artist apart from his or her fellow musicians.  However, these instruments have been and continue to remain some of the most crucial and fundamental components of Bluegrass music. 

The standard Bluegrass we hear today may have gotten its label from Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys Band, but its beginnings can be traced back to the early ox-drawn wagons making their way through the hollow, murky mountains of central Appalachia.  Whether the lyrics portrayed the rugged life on the slopes of Appalachia, mining disasters, or simply the humming of old protestant hymns, most tunes were passed down from father to son in an endless cycle. [1]  In these early years, Bluegrass was simply a regional phenomenon.  Because of this, specific fiddling and vocal styles arose based on locale. According to Bluegrass enthusiast, Bob Artis, “In New England and Canada, the sound of the pipes and fiddling of the British Isles were retained, while the music of the southern mountains developed a droning, sad sound”. [2]  This droning, sad sound has incorporated itself not only into the instrumental composition of Bluegrass music, but in song and album titles as well.  In fact, world- renowned country artist Vince Gill, in his song (also album title), “High Lonesome Sound”, speaks of the loneliness he feels when away from his lover.  “I wanna hear that high, lonesome sound, when my sweet baby ain’t around”.  This element of sound remains one of the most distinctive characteristics that sets Bluegrass apart from any other genre.

Essential to the authentic Bluegrass sound is the fiddle, an instrument that can take years, sometimes even decades, to master.  The fiddle’s versatility and durability that helped it survive the changes of time throughout the mountains.  According to Neil Rosenberg, folklorist and author of Bluegrass: A History, “Everyone had a relative or neighbor who played the fiddle, and many people could play a little – much as many teenagers today can play a little guitar”. [3] 

Introduced in the mid nineteenth century was the banjo, an instrument that has since been a major complement to the fiddle.  However, its origin can be traced as far back as the late 1600’s, making its first appearances in places such as Martinique, Jamaica, and Barbados, and by the mid eighteenth century, the banjo had become a predominant form of entertainment and self-expression for African Americans on the plantations of Maryland and Virginia. [4]  Because of this instrument’s African American heritage, European culture was exposed to some of the most complex, yet seemingly elementary rhythms ever heard, thus explaining the African American influence on Bluegrass finger-picking and strumming patterns.  Similar to mountain fiddlers, banjo players developed unique styles based on personal preference and regional location.  The three finger picking style is primarily associated with areas in the vicinity of the Carolinas, while those in Kentucky simply played with their thumb and index finger. [5]  However, as time progressed, the controlled up and down strumming technique known as the ‘clawhammer’ came to be the most widely utilized, as the five-string banjo had now become the fiddle’s best accompaniment for most Bluegrass ballads.  

The mandolin and guitar were two early twentieth century additions to the Bluegrass ensemble.  Though the guitar had been an admired novelty in European culture since the eighteenth century, the rugged mountain men had not begun exploring its possibilities until the early 1900s. [6]  However, once discovered, most musicians found the guitar to be just as, if not more suitable than, the fiddle in terms of vocal accompaniment, more fitting than the banjo when backing the fiddle, and when combined, all three would create the formula for an authentic Bluegrass sound, a combination that has seen little or no alteration for nearly half a century. 

Before transmission technology entered the mountain regions, most music originated in the home, often times by the fireside.  The traditional fiddler would inherit both his instrument and his songs from his father; women sang songs passed along by their mothers.  No one knew when or where these tunes originated.  However, according to Artis, “their limited style, whatever it was, consisted entirely of what they inherited from those who came before them along with the very little they added to it themselves”. [7]  Having only relatives and neighbors in proximity restricted musicians’ opportunities to artistically explore other facets of their vocal range, fiddling and banjo techniques.  The ‘hand-me-down’ nature of Bluegrass music in general explains why devices such as the phonograph and radio proved to be such tremendous factors in the development of Bluegrass music.   Had it not been for the arrival of the phonograph, many, if not all mountain Bluegrass musicians, may have had nothing and no one from which to derive new styles and techniques, for the phonograph offered its listeners the chance to hear schooled musicians from around the world.  [8]

Following the phonograph, the radio proved to be one of the most relentless forces in the mass communications industry, and by the early 1920’s, hundreds of commercial radio stations were broadcasting worldwide, primarily in the southern regions.  Because much programming was performed live in those days, many rural fiddlers, banjoists, and Bluegrass balladeers were offered a chance to showcase their talent to the masses, often leading to professional opportunities.  Country music was becoming extremely popular at the time.  Many mountain families, along with neighbors, would gather around the radio every Saturday evening to listen to broadcasts from both the Atlanta and Nashville stations.  However, these early radio stations distributed a wide variety of musical genres, thus explaining the infiltration of pop culture and jazz into the lives of rural families.  According to Artis, “The mixing of musical ideas was bound to have an effect on the musical attitudes of both worlds”. [9]  Gradually this exposure to new genres prompted mountain musicians to begin seeking a market for their ‘hillbilly’ music.  In fact, a mountain musician known as ‘Fiddlin” John Carson caught the attention of an Atlanta recording company executive, not only for his fiddling proficiency, but for his ability to entertain and energize large crowds as well, becoming the first ‘hillbilly’ artist in history to release his material to mass audiences.  [10]

Throughout the early 1930’s, Bluegrass groups were highly informal when it came to performance venues.  Especially popular at the time was the duet, most often collaboration between two brothers or cousins.  It was thought that brothers, having developed similar language skills, accents, and intonations throughout the course of their lives, would vocally blend more clearly and harmoniously than non-family members. [11]

 By the mid 1930’s, most of the large frequency radio stations had sponsors for every show, and in the case of ‘hillbilly’ music, the fifteen-minute “barn dance” became the most popular form of entertainment.  However, most disc jockeys were far less captivated by this mountain music than their native audiences, primarily because these disc jockeys were middle class, urban, educated individuals who looked down upon ‘hillbillies’ and the music they made.  According to Rosenberg, “Their condescending attitude and idiosyncratic treatment of the musicians was one of the hazards of the professional hillbilly musician’s life”. [12]   In fact, the Blue Sky Boys, a well-established duet at the time, felt that egotistical disc jockeys kept hillbilly music off the air, not because they disliked it, but as a means of portraying the mountain man’s subordinate status in society’s hierarchy.  [13]So, like most bands today, these hillbilly groups attempted to establish themselves at one specific station in hopes of developing a solid fan base through extensive radio play, guest appearances, concert promotions, and requests and dedications.  Strong listener responses often amazed the pessimistic disc jockeys, many of whom were now offering the musicians weekly, sometimes monthly spots in their broadcasts, as well as live performances at which the musicians earned most of their income.  [14]

Personal appearances were usually small and quite informal.  Mountain musicians frequently performed in rural schools because they were the only structures that could hold the large crowds from neighboring farms and towns.  But, like the skeptical disc jockeys, school officials were often hostile and unsympathetic towards the performers, labeling them as both ignorant and unsophisticated.  In addition, parents, religious institutions, and society in general, thought ‘hillbilly’ music condoned inappropriate living and loose morality, which increased the opposition of officials.  Hence, musicians turned to open-air performances, in which they would ‘set-up-shop’ on street corners and town squares.  Though it may not have been the most prestigious way to earn a living, it did give musicians the opportunity to showcase their talent to entire villages and towns.  This type of venue continues today to be a way of showcasing alternative or non-mainstream forms of music.  [15]

Overall, this ‘hillbilly’ music was not simply a form of entertainment, but an opportunity for performers to liberate themselves from the grueling toils of factory work and tiresome hours in the mills.  It provided these musicians with a comfortable lifestyle, and allowed them to express themselves artistically – something they had never experienced before.  Through their music and lyrics, these ‘hillbillies’ authenticated their identity, portrayed personal beliefs and values, and fulfilled their duties to their community as genuine artists in their own right.  But above all, ‘hillbilly’ music gained national acceptance, and no group was more prominent than the Monroe Brothers,which consisted of world famous Bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, and his brother Charlie.  [16]

II.  Bill Monroe, Roots and Career

            Often times a musician, or group of musicians, comes along and unknowingly, through his or her own uniqueness and originality, develops a genre, earning them pioneer status in both the music industry and history.  The world of punk owes much of its success to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, Rap’s early practitioner, Afrika Bambaataa, stands as the Godfather of Hip-Hop culture, and in the case of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe has graciously accepted the honorary title of “Father of Bluegrass.”  Not only has his innovativeness as a mandolin player and singer opened doors for numerous Bluegrass and country musicians, but his ability to compose and to discover talent has proved to be just as successful, introducing to the world some of the most astonishing musicians, two of whom are the legendary Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. 

            Born the youngest of six on September 13th, 1911, William Smith Monroe resided with his family on a farm in western Kentucky.  Each of his family members had some musical ability.  His father danced, his mother was a fine balladeer, and each of his siblings played at least one instrument fairly well.  As a youth, Bill’s poor vision limited his ability to participate in activities practiced by most young boys, one of which was Bill’s favorite sport, baseball.  Because of this, Bill often felt left out and quite lonely, explaining why he chose music as a physical and emotional outlet in which he channeled the many frustrations he dealt with as a child.  [17]

Bill’s diverse musical training was acquired at home and at the Baptist and Methodist churches in his hometown, where visiting teachers would conduct singing schools regularly.  However, due to his poor eyesight, Bill had to learn as much by ear as possible.  Bill’s early performance venues were primarily with his uncle Pen, accompanying him on guitar at local dances.  According to Rosenberg, “Years later he would describe his uncle as ‘the fellow that I learned to play from’”. [18]   In fact, one of Bill’s greatest hits, “Uncle Pen”, is about this man who may have unknowingly been responsible for creating and molding a musical genius.  Aside from Bill’s musical kin, one of his greatest influences was a black musician named Arnold Schultz, a coal miner by day and guitarist at night.  Schultz had a tremendous impact on Monroe as a performer, and introduced the young musician to some black musical traditions such as gospel and the blues. 

Bill’s older brother, Charlie, had been buying and listening to records of Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter family, all of whom were new ‘hillbilly’ singers at the time.  As time progressed, Monroe gradually absorbed a plethora of genres and subtly incorporated them into his own compositions, apparent in both his live and studio repertoires. 

Although bashful as a youth, Monroe was by no means hesitant about playing mandolin for the public.  In fact, a major country artist at the time, Karl Davis, claimed that he had never in his life witnessed anyone play mandolin quite as fast as Bill.  However, Bill was dissatisfied with the traditional mandolin role and was determined to develop a definitive style of his own.  At the time, the mandolin and fiddle were tuned identically, so initially, Bill emulated proficient fiddlers of the era.  Clayton McMichen was one of the premier fiddlers of the time, playing very unique and intricate solos, a fashion of play that helped Bill develop his own distinct style, primarily because McMichen did not use the fiddle as a ‘filler’ instrument, but as a way to draw attention to the instrument itself, and to the performer’s virtuosity.   

In 1934, Bill’s dream of becoming a professional musician had indirectly come true, thanks to his brother Charlie, who had been developing as a singer.  A lucrative radio station executive approached the young musician in hopes of convincing him to work as a solo artist for their program in Shenandoah, Iowa.  Fearful of venturing alone, Charlie asked Bill to join him, and together they formed the world-famous Monroe Brothers.

Like most musical pioneers, the Monroe Brothers’ impact on the southern music scene was monumental.  Numerous brother duets incorporated similar guitar and mandolin instrumentations, but none were as distinctive and skilled as the Monroe Brothers. According to Rosenberg, “They sang higher and played faster than the others.  Charlie’s bass runs on the guitar were snappy and attracted attention; Bill’s mandolin playing, with its speed and dexterity, was unique”. [19]  In fact, Bill was the first Bluegrass musician to expose the mandolin’s versatility as a lead instrument.  Monroe inspired guitar players to take up the newly popularized mandolin. 

When the two brothers unexpectedly split in the late 1930s, Bill Monroe found himself alone and without resources.  Many have contemplated and argued over the actual cause of their falling out, but truth be told, only the brothers themselves know the facts behind the split. 

Bill was left in his brother’s shadow, for Charlie had done all the lead singing for the Monroe Brothers.  For this reason, Charlie kept his contract with Victor and continued to record for Bluebird, replacing Bill with numerous others who were almost identical in sound. [20]  Bill’s first venture, The Kentuckians, lasted for only months, prompting Bill to move to Georgia, where he placed an ad in a local newspaper for a guitarist and singer.  Among the first to respond was a young guitarist from northwest Georgia named Cleo Davis.  Though at first quite hesitant, Davis, with the encouragement of some close friends, decided to audition, unaware that he was auditioning for Bill Monroe, a known professional.  After Davis’s performance, Monroe’s wife claimed that she had never heard a man’s voice mimic Charlie’s so closely.  The next day Monroe took Davis downtown and bought him a brand new guitar and suit.  Bill and Charlie had always worn matching outfits, and Bill intended to keep this tradition alive.  However, even with the new equipment and fresh wardrobe, Monroe was not prepared to face the public quite yet, for he and Davis would need at least two to three months of practice before staging a live performance, rehearsing nearly three hours every afternoon.  Though Bill played mandolin for his brother, he did familiarize himself with almost all of Charlie’s guitar runs, and it was not long before Bill had Davis sounding exactly like his brother.  [21]

Despite their preparations, their performances proved tiresome and unsuccessful, being turned down by most southern radio stations, as well as many in the northern mountain regions.  Finally, in Asheville, North Carolina, the two were hired to fill a fifteen-minute spot on WWNC’s Mountain Music Time program.  Meanwhile, Bill had been seeking other musicians through ads in local newspapers.  The first two musicians hired were fiddler Art Wooten, and Spoons player Tommy Millard.  These musicians constituted Monroe’s famous Blue Grass Boys.  The name was chosen because Monroe was from the Blue Grass State, Kentucky.  The group frequented rural schools, charging a mere fifteen cents a head to entertain crowds of fifty to seventy people.  [22]

When the Blue Grass Boys decided to move to Greenville, North Carolina, Millard stayed behind and was replaced by bassist/singer/comedian, Amos Garen.  Though the string bass had been a fairly uncommon instrument for hillbillies at the time, Monroe found it extremely useful in developing the unique sound he so desperately needed to escape the shadow of the Monroe Brothers.  It gave the music a solid rhythmic foundation, something Bill had never had due to Charlie’s inability to keep steady tempo and meter.   While in Greenville, Monroe devoted much of his time to developing and perfecting the group’s sound and repertoire.  Just as he had shown Davis what he expected from him on the guitar, he soon began tutoring Wooten.  Because the mandolin and fiddle were tuned identically, Bill found it quite simple to teach Wooten, and it was not long before Wooten gained Monroe’s full approval.  Vocally, the group had to rehearse for hours at a time, for quartet singing required that each member not only sing lead, but harmony as well.  At the time, male quartets were quite popular among both white and black musicians.  In fact, a black group from Virginia known as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet often shared the spotlight with the Monroe Brothers (prior to their separation), appearing on stations in Charlotte, Columbia, and South Carolina.  [23]

As for the Blue Grass Boys, Garen and Monroe would often exchange lead vocals, both accompanied by Wooten’s baritone and Davis’ bass.  In fact, Monroe was so musically blessed that he would occasionally alternate from lead to tenor harmony in the course of one song, a feat that many vocalists of the time could not accomplish.  On top of his vocal abilities, Monroe could bounce in and out of solos, providing subtle mandolin fillers between lyrical pauses.  As Rosenberg put it, Monroe was the equivalent to “a switch-hitting batter or a utility outfielder, a man who could play at more than one position who strengthened the team”. [24]  The group itself had the cohesiveness of an Ellington or Goodman jazz dance band, and by the fall of 1939 it seemed that they were prepared for Nashville’s world renowned Grand Ole Opry.  [25]

As the 1930’s came to a close, the movie industry popularized and glorified ‘singing cowboys’, and urban swing bands heavily influenced both the music and dress patterns of these so-called country artists.  Similar to today, traditional country music was permeated by popular culture, greatly devaluing the more authentic, conservative style that so many true musicians sought to preserve.  However, a man named George Dewy Hay, better known as Judge Hay, fought to keep the Grand Ole Opry a place where only true, genuine hill-country music would be heard.  In fact, all throughout the 40’s he urged his colleagues, as well as the performers, to keep drum sets off the Opry’s stage, and discouraged any form of electric instrumentation. [26]  He was a man of strong will and dignity, explaining why he gained the admiration and respect of all those around him, especially Bill Monroe.  According to Artis, “The old styles were dying, and some, like Monroe, knew that something had to be done to bring traditional music up to the new standards of sophistication”. [27]  Even though Nashville had become preoccupied with novelty acts, Monroe knew that ‘hillbilly’ music had some life left, and he intended to prove it to the world. 

Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys’ most successful years were those following World War II, a time when Monroe acquired guitarist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs.  Not only had Flatt developed a reputation as a guitarist extraordinaire, but he had proved to be a competent vocalist, singing lead on more Monroe recordings than any other musician prior to his arrival.  Scruggs’ complex and nearly incomprehensible banjo solos at the Grand Ole Opry made him a star overnight, earning him both the envy and respect of nearly all country and ‘hillbilly’ instrumentalists.  The group’s accomplishments landed them an article in the world famous Billboard magazine, in which a commentator raved about their highly successful Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania tour.  Throughout much of the 1940’s, the Blue Grass Boys enjoyed great success, producing hit singles such as ‘Kentucky Waltz’, ‘Careless Love’, and ‘Footprints’. [28]   In fact, some of the group’s songs became so admired that other country and ‘hillbilly’ groups began covering their hits.  However, in 1948 this seemingly indomitable group began to unravel unexpectedly, initiating one of the most significant events in Bluegrass history.  Though Monroe, for the most part, remained silent about the events leading up to the group’s break-up, many speculate that a variety of circumstances prompted the musicians to part ways.  In his book, Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo, Scruggs claimed that after years of traveling and performing, he had become exhausted and wanted to return home. [29]   However, Scruggs and Flatt’s practically simultaneous departure left some to believe that the two may have been unhappy with their roles as ‘side men’, as Monroe frequently basked in the midst of stardom.   Monroe’s first response to Flatt and Scruggs’s parting was to immediately replace the two, a pattern that Monroe consistently followed throughout the years.  However, in hopes of competing with the highly successful Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boysband, a group that contained four previous Blue Grass Boys members.  [30]  In fact, some claimed that Flatt and Scruggs’s group more closely represented the authentic Blue Grass Boys sound than Monroe’s newly revised ensemble. 

Despite the Foggy Mountain Boys’ mounting success, Monroe’s strong will and confident leadership qualities kept him on top of the ‘hillbilly’ genre. Groups such as the Foggy Mountain Boys and the Stanley Brothers, though extremely talented and representative of traditional ‘hillbilly’ music, echoed the sound that had belonged to Bill Monroe too directly, leaving many to label them as unoriginal and imitative.  In fact, though Monroe did encourage other musicians to cover some of his own compositions, he explicitly discouraged any form of copying, for he considered his music an individual art form.  This contentious issue of individuality and authenticity did, however, foster competition within the genre, and was indeed a major component in the development of Bluegrass music.    [31]

As the 1950’s approached there still had been no standard, universal label for ‘hillbilly’ music.  Bill may have used the name ‘Blue Grass’ in a variety of ways, in song titles and as the name of his limousine, but this name had been a trademark for him.  His sound had still been known primarily as ‘hillbilly’ music, or sometimes even old time tunes, but by 1955 a popular interest in Bluegrass as a genre was taking shape, primarily because pre-packaged, mainstream rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were dominating the country music charts, limiting audience exposure to traditional Bluegrass instruments such as the five-strong banjo and the fiddle.  A rising interest in traditional music spawned what came to be known as the folksong revival, consisting mostly of young people less connected with country music and attracted to old time folk tunes.    However, these folk revivalists, like the rest of the country, perceived ‘Blue Grass’ to be a corporate gimmick, and the word itself had been thrown around quite loosely by disc jockeys, musicians, and executives throughout the music industry.  [32]

Though Monroe was still particularly popular with ‘hillbillies’ and country audiences, he was practically an unknown figure when the folk revival of the late 1950’s reawakened interest in regional music.  Of Monroe and the many ‘hillbilly’ musicians that accompanied him throughout the thirties and forties, Earl Scruggs was the only one gaining acceptance by the folk music community, primarily because these young enthusiasts were intrigued by his five-finger picking style. [33]  However, in the early 1960’s, authentic Bluegrass music blossomed at folk festivals, especially on college campuses where young, educated people began showing an increasing interest in the genre, and it was during this period that Bill Monroe’s talent and somewhat obscure demeanour brought his dwindling career out of the dark and into the limelight.   

On July 4th, 1961, in Oak Leaf Park, Virginia, an all day folk festival was host to some of Bluegrass’s biggest names, including the Stanley Brothers, Bill Clifton, and Bill Monroe.  Bill addressed the crowd concerning his past demons with his brother Charlie and his tensions with Flatt and Scruggs, an event that has since become a part of Bluegrass’s oral tradition.  Also significant was the city Bluegrass followers’ role in the Bluegrass festival movement.  Now, along with having the traditional ‘hillbilly’ support, Bluegrass musicians were gaining the acceptance of big city audiences.  These events inspired writer and former Greenbriar Boy Ralph Rinzler to develop both a professional and personal relationship with Bill, and his impact on Monroe’s career was substantial.  [34]  According to Rosenberg, “Rinzler’s article in Sing Out! Along with his notes to the Greenbriar Boys’ Vanguard album convinced Monroe of Ralph’s sincerity, and he began a series of in-depth interviews with Bill, gathering information for a biography”. [35]  For the first time ever, Bill spoke in great detail about the history of the Bluegrass tradition, as well as his musical career.  Rinzler also introduced Bill to numerous ‘city boy’ musicians, one of which was legendary banjoist Bill Keith.  Thanks to Rinzler, Monroe had the opportunity to interact with musicians from Boston, New York, and San Francisco, musicians who had training in a vast array of genres such as country, rock & roll, and jazz.  Along with his committed ‘hillbilly’ following, Bill was now building strong, emotional bonds with devout urban Bluegrass fans, and he would soon be perceived as a cult figure. 

In 1965, a country music promoter named Carlton Haney organized the first exclusively Bluegrass festival in Virginia.  At first, Haney’s fellow promoters met this idea with some concern, because in the past, people had come to these gatherings with expectations of hearing an assortment of musical genres.  However, as an avid lover and admirer of Bill Monroe’s music, Haney made the gamble based on hopes that “others shared his vision of Monroe’s importance and would pay to hear little else but Bluegrass for several days running”.  [36]  However, to counteract any doubts people might have had about this festival, Haney incorporated aspects of folk revivals, including workshops for all those interested in learning various techniques and oral histories of instruments such as the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. 

The final piece of Haney’s ingenious plan came at the show’s grand finale when Bill Monroe took the stage, accompanied by former band members throughout the years, more or less in the order in which they had worked with him. [37]  Any resentment or hostility Monroe or the others may have felt for one another dissolved as the group recreated numerous songs from the Blue Grass Boys’ collection of hits.  Subsequently, Rinzler published an article for Billboard speaking of the festival’s intense atmosphere, explaining how city folk and ‘hillbillies’ united as a result of Bill Monroe’s music and wisdom, something that had never happened prior to the event and was unlikely to happen ever again to the same degree.  

Following the success of Haney’s festival, Monroe organized his very own Bean Blossom Festival in the hills of Indiana in 1967.  “Here, in the pastures and glades of a country music park, Bluegrass musicians and enthusiasts assemble in numbers-tens of thousands, in recent years-to indulge in a sense of identity whose ethnic origins, though still quite significant in themselves, have inspired the participation of people far removed from Appalachia or its people”.  [38]  As he made his way through the crowd, Monroe would talk to all those who came to pay homage to the Father of BluegrassMusic.  During this time, many young musicians such as Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Byron Berline, and Roland White benefited from their time spent with Monroe, both on and off stage. 

As the 1970’s approached, Bluegrass festivals proliferated, with Bill’s Bean Blossom being one of the country’s most celebrated.  Monroe’s contributions had now earned him the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel, as well as a spot in both the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame.  Bill’s hectic touring schedule took him well into the 1980’s, but in 1981, he was stricken with cancer.  However, after battling and surviving treatment, Bill pressed on, continuing his highly regimented touring agenda, and in 1986 Bill’s achievements earned him icon status by the United States Senate.  Also, his signature song, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, was named the official state song by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1988.  [39]

In the 1990’s, Bill was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, and was given a National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton.  However, on September 9th, 1996, in Springfield, Tennessee, Bill passed away, leaving a legacy that will forever be cherished, especially by those who have had the privilege to grace the stage of the legendary Grand Ole Opry.   [40]

III.  Influences

While Bill Monroe’s abilities as a musician did pave his road to super-stardom, the sounds and techniques that propelled him ahead of his time suggest the influence of ragtime and minstrelsy; these arts forms have clearly been a driving force behind Monroe’s success, and are often overlooked when researching the history of Bluegrass music.   Also, his later success and popularity were amplified as a result of commercialism and Bluegrass’s crossing into mainstream culture. 

Virtually every genre of music is influenced in some way by other genres – and Bluegrass is no exception.  Though virtually all of Bluegrass music is written, produced, and performed by white musicians, the sounds of this genre have been greatly influenced by African-American musicians.   African-American ensembles have traditionally been rhythmically complex, and such is the case with their musician’s banjo picking abilities.  With atypical, non-western accents and unusual rhythmic phrasings, these musicians have developed a sound and a style that is definitively their own.  There are, in a sense, rhythms inside of rhythms – beats on top of beats.  The practice of beating 3 beats against 2, found in both Bluegrass and African American influenced Jazz, has a lineage extending from the minstrel banjo through the cakewalk to piano ragtime.  [41]

Ragtime more than likely entered the Appalachian regions as a result of minstrel shows.  Banjoists of the area began adapting their style to the new sounds of ragtime.  Traditional hillbilly 2/4-measure was altered to 4/4, allowing musicians to express their preference for the African backbeat. [42]  In the case of the Bluegrass genre, these characteristics are most apparent in the sounds of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, especially after the group acquired legendary banjoist, Earl Scruggs.  Scruggs’ banjoing has been admired and mimicked by practically all Bluegrass and Country banjoists alike.  Prior to the acquisition of Scruggs, Monroe had gained considerable popularity among Bluegrass and country audiences.  However, with the addition of this banjo virtuoso, Monroe was credited with not only being an extraordinaire himself, but also with introducing to the world yet another Bluegrass phenomenon.  Scruggs produced and performed some of the most inventive Bluegrass tunes, and his definitive three-finger picking style has earned him pioneer status among musicians and fans worldwide.  However, this style, while indeed closely tied to his native environment of North Carolina, does resemble the styles of ragtime and minstrelsy.  Scruggs took his knowledge of the African-American playing style and molded his own concoction from it, using metal finger picks that pull the strings and snap them back, allowing guitarist-like dexterity and precision.   This style became a vital component to Bill Monroe’s legendary sound, and can possibly be considered Bluegrass’s first-ever innovative instrumental style.  And, though it is indeed certain that Monroe’s ability to perform had a profound influence on his ever-increasing success as a musician, one cannot help but ascribe a great portion of his accomplishments to the complex techniques handed down by Earl Scruggs.  Morever, had it not been for African-American rhythmic patterns and instrumentation, Scruggs’ banjoing may have never developed to the extent that it did.   [43]

These correlations often go unnoticed when investigating Bluegrass’s past.  The playing styles of both Scruggs and Monroe can be directly related with ragtime and minstrelsy tunes.  Their techniques, while indeed complex and exceptional in their own right, are more or less a modernized version of these African-American art forms.  Even the high lonesome vocal technique that is so characteristic of Monroe can be linked to field hollers and spiritual shouts of African-American slaves.  In fact, legendary Country artist, Jimmie Rodgers, learned to play guitar and sing from African-Americans in the railroad yards of Mississippi.  [44]  Predominantly ‘white’ music forms and musicians that would have previously been unassociated with African-Americans were now finding themselves directly in the path of Black influences. 

While all these influences were merging to form what is now recognized as the traditional Bluegrass sound, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Bill Monroe and his contemporaries found themselves struggling to compete with electrified Country and Rock and Roll music.    Though Monroe remained true to the authentic acoustic sound of Bluegrass, his audiences were dwindling in numbers – that is, until the “Bluegrass Festival” was introduced in the early 1960s.

Much of Monroe’s success following the 1960s can be attributed to his frequent appearances at festivals and on national television, as well as his acquired status as the “Father of Bluegrass”.    He became more than just the maestro behind the Blue Grass Boys, more than just a mandolin and vocal virtuoso; he was now mentor, a household name, and a visionary.  Monroe’s lyrics conjured up images of rural life, and musicians and fans alike accepted his words as the truth; some have even claimed that his words had changed their lives. [45]  Revered as a cult figure by his audiences, Monroe regularly made it a point to fulfill requests, signs autographs, and to simply make small talk with fans. 

However, his expressionless presence gave him the sort of mystique that is somewhat essential for prodigy status.  But never did Monroe look down upon the common man from a pedestal, for he was himself, a common man.  In fact, writer Jon Weisberger witnessed Monroe take 20 minutes in the middle of a 100-degree Indiana August afternoon show to teach a young mandolin player the proper way to play one of his tunes.   [46]

Though determined on keeping his own sound as authentic as possible, Monroe was cordial with all those who adapted his tunes to other styles.  In fact, Monroe encouraged Elvis Presley to pursue a rock version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.  The song not only boosted Presley’s career, but also helped to expose Monroe to a younger generation of mainstream Rock and Rollers – a market that had previously not been exposed to Bill Monroe and Bluegrass music.  [47]

Throughout much of the 1970s and into the 80s, famous musicians of mainstream Country, Rock and Roll, Jazz and R&B all desired to record with Monroe.  He had the respect of veteran performers, the veneration of rising stars, and had even made guest appearances in music videos.  Monroe had become knee-deep in mainstream culture, and his music began molding itself around his newly established place in popular society.  Though his sound did remain unquestionably authentic, Monroe began experimenting with string sections and environmental sounds that were   He also pushed his vocal limits by singing in falsetto, and his post-Elvis remake of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, which was recorded in the 1980s, was set to a two beat-gallop and was uncharacteristically absent of the banjo.   Mainstream culture further expanded the success of Monroe and Bluegrass music by incorporating ‘hillbilly’ themes into television shows and in films.  Television programs such as Hee-Haw, theBeverley Hillbillies, andtheAndy Griffith Show all incorporated the sounds of Bluegrass, as did films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance, and recently, O Brother Where Art Thou Monroe has even been the subject of several personal and Bluegrass documentaries.  [48]

When speaking in terms of authenticity, some may feel that Monroe’s later career was somehow ‘less authentic’ due to his crossing into mainstream culture and experimenting with alternative instrumentation.  This seems to be the claim of devout fans of all genres.  Consider the backlash that occurred when Bob Dylan strapped on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar at an early folk festival.  Followers see “their artist” in music videos and on the cover of magazines, and somehow feel that the artist’s music has, in a sense, become superficial, and the artist’s ego has risen above his or her music in importance.   However, what many fail, or even willingly choose not to realize, is that crossing into mainstream culture can greatly improve an artist’s career.   Monroe’s position in popular culture helped introduce him to new audiences, which in turn, brought more fans to shows, increased album sales, and hence, increased his earnings.  His place in the mainstream never lead him to stray from what many might consider true, authentic Bluegrass music; still, some critics and fans assume that the words mainstream and authenticity cannot coincide peacefully with one another. 

It seems as though the music industry “tells” the consumers (as does the fashion industry) what the “mainstream” is, and expects the public to accept it at face value without an explanation or questioning.  The prime objective is making money the easiest, fastest way.  Unfortunately, authenticity does not mean much these days if it cannot generate quick money.  On the other hand, authenticity does not always precludean artist’s mainstream success.  For example, Alison Krauss somehow sneaked into mainstream, even though the bluegrass sound had not been accepted in popular Country and Western for many years. 

When one looks back on the small number of artists who have stood the test of time, Bill Monroe’s longevity can be counted in this very short list.  This has not been the case with most singers and songwriters.  More often than not, superstars find themselves and their careers forgotten after only a few years.  This is truer than ever these days, and unfortunately, what this process often brings is musical mediocrity and serious obstacles for any kind of artistic development of the singer or songwriter.  Bill Monroe, because of his innovativeness and tenacity, has been able to reap the rewards of mainstream popularity, while still remaining true to his authentic Bluegrass roots; this is a feat that most artists have neither the skill nor the diligence to accomplish – this is why Bill Monroe continues, even after his passing, to be venerated as a cult figure.    

Works Cited

Rosenberg, Neil.  Bluegrass: A History.  University of Illinois Press.  Urbana and Chicago.  1985

  Artis, Bob.  Bluegrass: From the lonesome wail of a mountain love song to the hammering drive of the Scruggs-style banjo – the story of an American tradition.  Hawthorn Books, Inc.  New York.  1975

  Cantwell, Robert.  Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.  University of Illinois Press.  Urbana and Chicago.  1984. 

  http://hammer.prohosting.com/~coollz/bill.htmBill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass Music

  http://www.bluegrassmusic.com/bu/backfile/1996/bu9609/monroe.htm.  Richard D. Smith.  Bluegrass Unlimited – Bill Monroe Obituary

Ira Gitlin.   Bluegrass: A Banjo Players Appreciation

http://www.countrystandardtime.com/billmonroeCOLUMN.html.  Jon Weisberger.  Country Standard Time: Remembering Bill Monroe

http://www.tokyo-blues.com/African_American_Country.html.  David Winship: The African American Music Tradition in Country Music

 

 

 



[1] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p.3

[2] Bob Artis. Bluegrass.  p. 5

[3] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History

[4] Robert Cantwell.  Bluergass Breakdown.  p. 91

[5] Bob Artis.  Bluergass.  p. 6

[6] Bob Artis.  Bluergass.  p. 6

[7] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p. 7

[8] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p. 8

[9] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p.8

[10] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p. 9

[11] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 21

[12] Neil Rosenberg.

[13] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 24

[14] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 25

[15] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A Breakdown.  p. 25

[16] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A Breakdown.  p. 27

[17] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History – Bill Monroe’s early childhood history (prior to his career with Charlie) pp. 28-31

[18] Neil Rosenberg. Bluegrass: A History.  p.28

[19] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 34

[20] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 40

[21] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 41

[22] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 42

[23] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 44

[24] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p.45

[25] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 45

[26] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 46

[27] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p.21

[28] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 72

[29] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 78

[30] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 80

[31] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 88

[32] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 109

[33] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 150

[34] Bob Artis.  Bluegrass.  p. 119

[35] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 184

[36] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 205

[37] Neil Rosenberg.  Bluegrass: A History.  p. 211

[38] Robert Cantwell.  Bluegrass Breakdown.  p. 252

[39] Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass Music.  http://hammer.prohosting.com/~coollz/bill.htm

[40] Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass Music.  http://hammer.prohosting.com/~coollz/bill.htm

[41] Robert Cantwell: Bluegrass Breakdown.   p. 102

[42] Robert Cantwell.  Bluegrass Breakdown.  p. 105

[43] Robert Cantwell.  Bluegrass Breakdown.  p. 105

[44] David Winship: The African American Music Tradition in Country Music.

    http://www.tokyo-blues.com/African_American_Country.html

[45] Ira Gitlin.   Bluegrass: A Banjo Players Appreciation

[46] Jon Weisberger.  Country Standard Time: Remembering Bill Monroe

[47] Jon Weisberger.  Country Standard Time: Remembering Bill Monroe

[48] Richard D. Smith.  Bluegrass Unlimited Bill Monroe Obituary

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