A Biography of Bill Monroe

As a fusion of mountain and country music, bluegrass had been around much longer before being given its name. But it was Bill Monroe which had almost singlehandedly defined the now key aspects of bluegrass music such as the inclusion of mandolin, the solos that displayed band members’ instrumental virtuosity, and the “high lonesome” sound that he was most famous for. It is for all these reasons that he completely deserves the title Father of Bluegrass.

Early Life

Bill Monroe, the youngest in a brood of eight, was born on September 13, 1911 on a farm in Rosine, Kentucky.

Monroe had an early introduction to music, with his mother, Malissa Vandiver Monroe, a fan of music herself. The family had often enjoyed singing and instrument-playing sessions together, with Monroe left to learn the mandolin since his older brothers already played the banjo and guitar.

Monroe’s parents died when he was still a teenager and he was soon sent to live under the guardianship of his uncle Pendleton Vandiver. There, Monroe’s musical learning deepened as Vandiver often played the fiddle in local dances and had his nephew accompany him in his performances.

After some time, Monroe went to live with his brothers, who were then working at an oil refinery. There, Monroe came to form a band with his siblings, Birch and Charlie, and Larry Moore. Besides a shift at an oil refinery, Monroe also maintained a job as a square dancer at the WLS National Barn Dance.

Professional Career

Although Birch Monroe later dropped out of the band, Monroe and his other brother Charlie continued on as the Monroe Brothers and soon established a loyal following from the listeners of WBT, a radio station based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eventually, the duo signed up with the Bluebird Label under RCA Records. Some of their most popular compositions include What Would You Give in Exchange of Your Soul, Nine Pound Hammer, and John Henry.

In 1938, Monroe and his brother parted ways, but he was back to performing again soon after with his new band, the Kentuckians, later renamed as the Blue Grass Boys.

On October 28, 1939, Monroe became a member of the Opry cast. For his first performance, Monroe performed Muleskinner Blues, a Jimmie Rodgers composition, at the War Memorial Auditorium and received three encores.

It was only in the 1940’s when Monroe’s works began to include lyrics. During this time, Monroe had composed songs such as Blue Moon of Kentucky, which had been sung by the likes of Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley, and the ever famous Uncle Pen, which was his tribute to his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver.

At about the same time, Monroe was able to recruit what would be some of the most famous names in bluegrass history to be a part of his band, namely fiddler Chubby Wise, vocalist-guitarist Lester Flatt, and banjoist Earl Scruggs.

Other notable members who were once a part of the Blue Grass Boys include Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Stringbean.

The style of music played by Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys was critically acclaimed and often described as a mixture of folk ballads and “old time” string playing and everything from black & white gospel and blues to African stomp and Appachalian mountain music. It was at the height of their popularity that their style of music came to be known as bluegrass in honor of Monroe’s band name and his home state, Kentucky, which was also famous for its expansive horse farms situated in acres of bluegrass fields.

In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys to form their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Wise followed shortly after. Flatt and Scruggs would continue to rise in fame in subsequent years while Monroe continued to focus on his work with the Opry.

When the 1960’s ushered in, Monroe would receive invaluable advice from promoter Ralph Rinzler and which would catapult him back to stardom. In 1965, Bill Monroe top billed the world’s first multi-day bluegrass festival and not long after, Monroe himself would hold his own annual bluegrass festival in a 55-acre property he had acquired in Bean Blossom, a small town in Indiana.

Awards and Achievements

1970 –   Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame

Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts

1971 –    Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame

1989 –    Southern Flavor became the first bluegrass work to receive a Grammy Award

1993 –    Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

1995 -    National Medal of Honor, as presented by President Clinton in a White House ceremony

1997 –    Posthumous induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

On September 9, 1996, just several days shy from his 85th birthday and a few months after he suffered a fatal stroke, Bill Monroe passed away.

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