See biography by R. D. Smith (2000); N. V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History (1985); Rooney, J., Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters (1991); T. Ewing, ed., The Bill Monroe Reader (2000); The Music of Bill Monroe: From 1936 to 1994 (4 CDs, 1994); High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music (documentary film, 1994).
(born Sept. 13, 1911, Rosine, Ky., U.S.—died Sept. 9, 1996, Springfield, near Nashville, Tenn.) U.S. singer, songwriter, and mandolin player, inventor of the bluegrass style. Monroe began to play professionally in 1927 and later toured with his brother Charlie. They made their first recordings in 1936 and recorded 60 songs over the next two years. He formed the Blue Grass Boys in 1939. His bluegrass sound emerged fully in 1945, when banjoist Earl Scruggs (b. 1924) and guitarist Lester Flatt joined his band. The Blue Grass Boys established the classic makeup of a bluegrass group—mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and upright bass—and bequeathed its name to the genre itself. Monroe continued to perform until shortly before his death.
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William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996) was an American musician who developed the style of music known as bluegrass, which takes its name from his band, the "Blue Grass Boys," named for Monroe's home state of Kentucky. Monroe's performing career spanned 60 years as a singer, instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. He is often referred to as "the father of bluegrass."
Monroe's mother died when he was ten years old, followed by his father six years later. Because his siblings had moved away from Rosine, Monroe lived for about two years with his uncle Pen Vandiver, often accompanying him when Vandiver played the fiddle at local dances. This experience later inspired one of Monroe's most famous compositions, "Uncle Pen," recorded in 1950; on a 1972 album, Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen, Monroe recorded a number of traditional fiddle tunes often performed by Vandiver. Another major influence in Monroe's musical life was a black musician named Arnold Shultz who introduced Monroe to the blues.
After the Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the group only lasted for three months. So he left for Atlanta, Georgia to form the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist Amos Garren. In October 1939, he successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic performance of Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues." Monroe recorded that song, along with seven others, at his first solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940; by this time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
While the fast tempos and instrumental virtuosity characteristic of bluegrass music are apparent even on these early tracks, Monroe was still experimenting with the sound of his group. He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor recordings, often preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the Monroe Brothers. A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion, soon dropped from the band. Most importantly, while Monroe added banjo player David "'Stringbean" Akeman to the Blue Grass Boys in 1942, Akeman played the instrument in a relatively primitive style and was rarely featured in instrumental solos. Monroe's pre-1946 recordings represent a transitional style between the string-band tradition from which he came and the musical innovation to follow.
The 28 songs recorded by this version of the Blue Grass Boys for Columbia Records in 1946 and 1947 soon became classics of the genre, including "Toy Heart," "Blue Grass Breakdown," "Molly and Tenbrooks," "Wicked Path of Sin," "My Rose of Old Kentucky," "Little Cabin Home on the Hill," and Monroe's most famous song, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." The latter was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1954, appearing as the B-side of his first single for Sun Records. Monroe gave his blessing to Presley's rock-and-roll cover of the song, originally a slow ballad in waltz time, and in fact re-recorded it himself with a faster arrangement after Presley's version became a hit. Several gospel-themed numbers are credited to the "Blue Grass Quartet," which featured four-part vocal arrangements accompanied solely by mandolin and guitar — Monroe's usual practice when performing "sacred" songs.
Both Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe's band in early 1948, soon forming their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys, which met with notable commercial success in the 1950s and 1960s with such hits as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," "Cabin on the Hill," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Monroe quickly regrouped with what many consider the classic "high lonesome" version of the Blue Grass Boys, featuring the lead vocals and rhythm guitar of Jimmy Martin, the banjo of Rudy Lyle (replacing Earl Scruggs), and fiddlers such as Merle "Red" Taylor, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements. This band recorded a number of bluegrass classics, including "My Little Georgia Rose," "On and On," "Memories of Mother and Dad," and "Uncle Pen," as well as instrumentals such as "Roanoke", "Big Mon", "Stoney Lonesone", "Get Up John" and the mandolin feature "Raw Hide." Carter Stanley joined the Blue Grass Boys as guitarist for a short time in 1951 during a period when the Stanley Brothers had temporarily disbanded.
On January 16, 1953 Monroe was critically injured in a two-car wreck. He and "Bluegrass Boys" bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were returning home from a fox hunt north of Nashville. On highway 31-W, near White House, their car was struck by a drunken driver. Monroe, who had suffered injuries to his back, left arm and nose, was rushed to General Hospital in Nashville. It took him almost four months to recover and resume touring. In the mean time Charlie Cline and Jimmy Martin kept the band together.
By the late 1950s, however, Monroe's commercial fortunes had begun to slip. The rise of rock-and-roll and the development of the "Nashville sound" in mainstream country music both represented threats to the viability of bluegrass. While still a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe found diminishing success on the singles charts, and struggled to keep his band together in the face of declining demand for live performances
The growing national popularity of Monroe's music during the 1960s was also apparent in the increasingly diverse background of musicians recruited into his band. Non-southerners who served as Blue Grass Boys during this period included banjo player Bill Keith and singer/guitarist Peter Rowan from Massachusetts, fiddler Gene Lowinger from New York, banjo player Lamar Grier from Maryland, and singer/guitarist Roland White and fiddler Richard Greene from California.
In 1967 Monroe himself founded an annual bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom in southern Indiana, a park he had purchased in 1951, which routinely attracted a crowd of thousands; a double LP from the festival featuring Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, and Jim and Jesse was released in 1973. The annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is now the world's oldest, continuously running annual bluegrass festival.
Monroe's compositions during his later period were largely instrumentals, including "Jerusalem Ridge", "Old Dangerfield", and "My Last Days on Earth"; he settled into a new role as a musical patriarch who continued to influence younger generations of musicians. Monroe recorded two albums of duets in the 1980s; the first featured collaborations with country stars such as Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, and the Oak Ridge Boys, while the second paired him with other prominent bluegrass musicians. A 1989 live album celebrated his 50th year on the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe also kept a hectic touring schedule. On April 7, 1990, Monroe performed for Farm Aid IV in Indianapolis, Indiana along with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and with many other artists.
We all knew that if he [(Monroe)] ever got to the point that he couldn't perform that he wasn't going to make it. Music was his life.|
More extensive list at Discography of Bluegrass Sound Recordings