Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration
Click on a track to play
  • Tall Timber
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:17) [5.22 MB]
  • Will You Be Loving Another Man
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:20) [5.33 MB]
  • Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:51) [8.81 MB]
  • Cheyenne
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:29) [7.99 MB]
  • Close By
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:26) [5.59 MB]
  • I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:50) [6.48 MB]
  • Shenandoah Breakdown
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:30) [5.71 MB]
  • My Florida Sunshine
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:01) [6.89 MB]
  • I'm Blue I'm Lonesome
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:27) [7.88 MB]
  • Toy Heart
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (04:19) [9.89 MB]
  • Wheel Hoss
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:37) [5.98 MB]
  • On The Old Kentucky Shore
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:51) [8.82 MB]
  • Come Back To Me In My Dreams
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:29) [5.7 MB]
  • Wicked Path Of Sin
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:38) [6.05 MB]
  • Old Brown County Barn
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:44) [6.25 MB]
  • You'd Better Get Right
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (01:50) [4.19 MB]
  • Voice From On High
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:21) [5.39 MB]
  • Lonesome Moonlight Waltz
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:52) [8.86 MB]
  • Dog House Blues
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:17) [7.52 MB]
  • Walls of Time
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:49) [8.75 MB]
  • Big Mon
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:52) [6.57 MB]
  • Footprints In The Snow
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:39) [6.06 MB]
  • Jerusalem Ridge
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (04:39) [10.65 MB]
  • Mansions For Me
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (03:38) [8.33 MB]
  • In Despair
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:13) [5.08 MB]
  • You're Drifting Away
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:13) [5.08 MB]
  • True Life Blues
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:37) [5.98 MB]
  • Goodbye Old Pal
    Genre: Bluegrass
    MP3 (02:14) [5.11 MB]
Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration
A Classic Bluegrass Tribute
Rounder 11661-9123-2

Disc 1
1. Tall Timber – The Bluegrass Album Band 2:16
2. Will You Be Loving Another Man – The Grascals 2:20
3. Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day – Michael Cleveland with Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill 3:50
4. Cheyenne – The Bluegrass Album Band 3:05
5. Close By – Dailey & Vincent 2:26
6. I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys 2:50
7. Shenandoah Breakdown – Wyatt Rice 2:30
8. My Florida Sunshine – Claire Lynch 3:01
9. I'm Blue I'm Lonesome – Nashville Bluegrass Band 3:27
10. Toy Heart – Ricky Skaggs 4:19
11. Wheel Hoss – The Bluegrass Album Band 2:36
12. On The Old Kentucky Shore – The Bluegrass Album Band 3:51
13. Come Back To Me In My Dreams – Al Jones and Frank Necessary & The Spruce Mountain Boys 2:28
14. Wicked Path Of Sin – Blue Highway 2:38

Disc 2
1. Old Brown County Barn – Michael Cleveland 2:44
2. You'd Better Get Right – The Vern Williams Band 1:49
3. Voice From On High – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys 2:20
4. Lonesome Moonlight Waltz – The Bluegrass Album Band 3:52
5. Dog House Blues – Nashville Bluegrass Band 3:16
6. Walls Of Time – The Johnson Mountain Boys 3:49
7. Big Mon – Tony Rice 2:52
8. Footprints In The Snow – IIIrd Tyme Out 2:38
9. Jerusalem Ridge – Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper 4:39
10. Mansions For Me – Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-press 3:38
11. In Despair – Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Charlie Sizemore 2:12
12. You're Drifting Away – Nashville Bluegrass Band 2:13
13. True Life Blues – Hazel and Alice 2:36
14. Goodbye Old Pal – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys 2:14

UPC number 011661912328

(p) & © 2011 Rounder Records. Manufactured and distributed by Concord Music Group, Inc., 100 N. Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws. Printed in the U.S.A.;

Mastered by Paul Blakemore at CMG Mastering
Compilation by Ken Irwin
Design by Nancy Given
Photo by Carl Fleischhauer
Notes by Bill Nowlin

Disc 1
1. Tall Timber – The Bluegrass Album Band
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from The Bluegrass Album, V. 6 – Bluegrass Instrumentals
(Rounder 11661-0330-2)

2. Will You Be Loving Another Man – The Grascals
(Bill Monroe/Lester Flatt – Peer International Corp., BMI/Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Long List of Heartaches
(Rounder 11661-0583-2)

3. Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day – Mike Cleveland with Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill
(Bill Monroe – Songs of Universal, Inc., BMI)
from Let ’Er Go, Boys
(Rounder 11661-0561-2)

4. Cheyenne – The Bluegrass Album Band
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from The Bluegrass Album, V. 4
(Rounder 11661-0210-2)
also from 58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection
(Rounder 1166-11622-2)

5. Close By – Dailey & Vincent
(Bill Monroe/Van Winkle – Universal Cedarwood Publishing, BMI)
from an upcoming album

6. I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from Diamond Joe
(Rounder 1166-11537-2)
also from True Bluegrass
(Rounder 1166-11615-2)

7. Shenandoah Breakdown – Wyatt Rice
(Bill Monroe – Songs of Universal, Inc., BMI)
from New Market Gap
(Rounder 11661-0272-2)

8. My Florida Sunshine – Claire Lynch
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Whatcha Gonna Do
(Rounder 11661-0606-2)

9. I'm Blue I'm Lonesome – Nashville Bluegrass Band
(Bill Monroe/Hank Williams – Bill Monroe Music, BMI/Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, BMI)
from My Native Home
(Rounder 11661-0212-2)

10. Toy Heart – Ricky Skaggs
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Family & Friends
(Rounder 11661-0151-2)

11. Wheel Hoss – The Bluegrass Album Band
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from The Bluegrass Album, V. 6 – Bluegrass Instrumentals
(Rounder 11661-0330-2)

12. On The Old Kentucky Shore – The Bluegrass Album Band
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI/Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from The Bluegrass Album, V. 5 – Sweet Sunny South
(Rounder 11661-0240-2)
also from Lonesome Moonlight: Bluegrass Songs of Bill Monroe
(Rounder 82161-0346-2)

13. Come Back To Me In My Dreams – Al Jones, Frank Necessary & the Spruce Mountain Boys
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Al Jones, Frank Necessary & the Spruce Mountain Boys
(Rounder 11661-0050-1)

14. Wicked Path Of Sin – Blue Highway
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Wondrous Love
(Rounder 11661-0524-2)

Disc 2
1. Old Brown County Barn – Michael Cleveland
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Let ’Er Go, Boys
(Rounder 11661-0561-2)

2. You'd Better Get Right – The Vern Williams Band
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from Bluegrass from the Gold Country
(Rounder 11661-0131-2)
also from Long Journey Home: Bluegrass Songs of the Stanley Brothers
(Rounder 82161-0349-2)

3. Voice From On High – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
(Bill Monroe/Bessie Mauldin – Bill Monroe Music, BMI/Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from Diamond Joe
(Rounder 1166-11537-2)

4. Lonesome Moonlight Waltz – The Bluegrass Album Band
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from The Bluegrass Album, V. 6 – Bluegrass Instrumentals
(Rounder 11661-0330-2)
also from Lonesome Moonlight: Bluegrass Songs of Bill Monroe
(Rounder 82161-0346-2)

5. Dog House Blues – Nashville Bluegrass Band
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Idle Time
(Rounder 11661-0232-2)

6. Walls Of Time – The Johnson Mountain Boys
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Walls of Time
(Rounder 11661-0160-1)

7. Big Mon – Tony Rice
(Bill Monroe – Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from Tony Rice
(Rounder 11661-0085-2)
also from 58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection
(Rounder 1166-11622-2)

8. Footprints In The Snow – IIIrd Tyme Out
(Rupert Jones – Peer International Corp., BMI)
from Footprints: A IIIrd Tyme Out Collection
(Rounder 11661-0602-2)

9. Jerusalem Ridge – Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Leavin’ Town
(Rounder 11661-0596-2)

10. Mansions For Me – Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-press
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Try a Little Kindness
(Rounder 11661-0552-2)

11. In Despair – Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Charlie Sizemore
(Bill Monroe, Joe Ahr, Juanita Pennington – Unichappell Music, BMI)
from Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling
(Rounder 11661-0614-2)

12. You're Drifting Away – Nashville Bluegrass Band
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI/Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI)
from To Be His Child
(Rounder 11661-0242-2)

13. True Life Blues – Hazel and Alice
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard
(Rounder 11661-0054-2)
also from O Sister! The Women’s Bluegrass Collection
(Rounder 11661-0499-2)

14. Goodbye Old Pal – Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys
(Bill Monroe – Bill Monroe Music, BMI)
from Diamond Joe
(Rounder 1166-11537-2)

Bill Monroe September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996

Bill Monroe is both the father of bluegrass and the genre's most prolific writer. Virtually every bluegrass band has at least a few Bill Monroe numbers in its repertoire. Monroe’s songs and his instrumentals are truly the core of bluegrass music. Any time a group of pickers gets together in a schoolroom or in a parking lot, the numbers they’ll find they have in common will more often than not include songs from Monroe – because they’re so often the ones everyone knows.
Monroe’s songs remain vital. They have stood up over the years and provided a major part of the overall bluegrass repertoire. Other bluegrass artists have built very significant bodies of work, but no one else in the field has written the number of classics as Bill Monroe has. The range of artists who have covered his songs and played his instrumental numbers is remarkable, and that so many more still do so today 100 years after he was born, and half a century after many were first written, is nearly incredible.

This one man more or less single-handedly created a genre – named after his band, the Blue Grass Boys – and the music has more widespread appeal than ever – with Monroe music so frequently at its center. The list of Blue Grass Boys alumni who went on to have successful careers of their own is staggering (Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Sonny Osborne, Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, etc.) all of whom helped reach new audiences for bluegrass.
Though different songs hold different appeals for different people, Monroe’s songs have endured for reasons we can safely surmise. Many are on universal themes – pining for a lost love, or at least one far, far away, as we hear in songs such as “Close By” or “Dark As The Night”. The ultimate loss is death, and we find that in “Come Back To Me In My Dreams” and “Walls Of Time”. His songs are not always of unalloyed sadness: Nellie is up in Heaven in “Footprints In the Snow”; she’s with the angel band. Even a song with such heart-rending grief as “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling” offers the comforting vision of the family reuniting on a bright and peaceful shore.

Those songs which aren’t universal at least fascinate, though it would be a rare person who hasn’t felt a broken heart, or suffered some sense of betrayal or unfaithfulness. Monroe himself certainly bore a full share of broken hearts – “In Despair” and “You’d Better Get Right” and “Toy Heart” all draw from that well. So, in another way, does “Will You Be Loving Another Man” – which is less a lament than an expression of simple curiosity: the singer is bound to travel, yet wonders what he’ll find when he returns. Monroe isn’t always the one being wronged; in “Dog House Blues”, it was he who came home at 8:30 AM after stepping out all night.

That said, “Dog House Blues” is one of his earlier numbers, in some senses not too far from a formulaic song like “Goodbye Old Pal”, a farewell to a well-loved horse which had died, a song which well could have been a Jimmie Rodgers song. Rodgers was one of Monroe’s early influences. Monroe seems to have purchased the rights to “Goodbye Old Pal” from Cliff Carlisle. Bill’s writing matured over time as life experiences and perhaps more of a sense of gravity – wanting to pen more meaningful songs – took hold. As the years passed, he seemed to turn to songs which were more achingly personal, songs that could be seen more as autobiographical – what he called his “true life” songs such as the 1945 number which bore those words it its title –“True Life Blues” – and like “On the Old Kentucky Shore” from 1951.

Monroe may well have been, as Richard D. Smith states, “the pioneer of autobiographical country music and a progenitor of the modern singer-songwriter movement”. He was certainly prolific. BMI lists 263 selections written by Bill Monroe, either under his own name or those of his somewhat inscrutable pseudonyms (Joe Ahr, Rupert Jones, Wilbur Jones, Albert Price, and both James B. Smith and James W. Smith – the distinction between which may forever remain unknown). A few of the tracks listed under Monroe’s name, though, are versions in other languages, adaptations by others, or other arcane items. The actual number of original Monroe compositions is somewhere between 225 and 250 titles – impressive by any measure. Some of those listed, however, such as “True Life Blues”, are known to have been written by others; the song in question was written by Pete Pyle. Monroe or one of his publishing companies may have purchased the rights from Pyle and listed it under Bill’s name alone; arrangements of that sort are not unusual in the field of music publishing. In adopting the song, and making it his own, it became autobiographical, if somewhat second-handedly so. Other tracks, such as “Footprints in the Snow” are readily traceable to an English music hall number, but the practice of arranging older music is a time-honored one and there can be no doubt that Monroe made the track one identifiable both in his day and in the present with himself alone.

Monroe’s influences were many, ranging from his own family and his uncle Pen Vandiver to the black guitarist Arnold Shultz, and to Jimmie Rodgers and others he heard on records and over the airwaves. He absorbed music from the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and Mac and Bob, and even the countrified crooners like Vernon Dalhart. Much of the early material that he and brother Charlie played when performing as the Monroe Brothers came from gospel songbooks and other available printed music sources. By the end of the Second World War, he was writing much of the music he recorded.

His repertoire evolved, as one might expect, and his recorded repertoire differs from the songs he performed on stage. It’s one thing to reach out to please a crowd with familiar songs such as “Shady Grove” and “John Henry” but another thing to commit them to record as part of one’s body of work (though in a 1954 session for Decca he did record “New John Henry Blues”). Unlike some confronting mortality, Monroe didn’t begin to perform an increasing number of gospel songs. Indeed, it was in his earlier years that he recorded the larger percentage of his gospel songs. He turned more to instrumental music in his latter years.

Monroe was also a composer and many of his instrumentals have become a solid part of bluegrass repertoire. Eight of the 28 tracks represented on this volume are Bill Monroe instrumentals. Monroe wasn’t much for interviews or introspection, outside the body of his work. He felt that his music expressed what he wanted to say, and some of that came through his compositions. Some of his earlier numbers were straight 12-bar blues and stomps, but – reflecting another evolution – the older he got, the more his instrumental work invoked the “ancient tones” of which he occasionally spoke.

There is Bill Monroe’s music, which we will all enjoy for decades to come, and then there was the man himself. Most of the artists featured in this collection met Monroe – if only briefly, but memorably. They knew his music, and they knew at least something of the man.

A towering figure in American popular music, Bill Monroe was a true original as well. He’s universally acknowledged as the “Father of Bluegrass Music” – though there’s reasonable debate about just when the music was born. Was it as early as perhaps 1939 or as late as 1945? It offers another dimension to appreciate that Monroe has also aptly been described as a “grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll”.

The more fortunate among us – most of us born after the birth year of bluegrass, whatever year you might choose – have experienced a Monroe show which demonstrated how his treatment of country music could indeed have prodded someone like Elvis Presley to add a little extra jump to his own music.

When Elvis cut his first single for Sun Records in 1954, Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the B side. And the first time Carl Perkins met Elvis, he said that the first words out of Presley’s mouth were a question: “You like Mr. Bill Monroe?”

Both pathbreakers – Presley from Mississippi and Monroe from Kentucky – drew into their own music from black and white musical traditions. Charlie Feathers worked at Sun and claimed he was the one who adapted Monroe’s song for Elvis. Feathers also had a name for the music Presley and Perkins were starting to popularize: “Bluegrass rock, that’s what it really was. Sam [Phillips] called it rhythm ‘n’ blues, some said it was country rock, but Bill Monroe music and colored artists’ music is what caused rock ‘n’ roll.” For those with a deep enough understanding, it was no surprise when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Bill Monroe in 1997.

No one suggests that Elvis was the first figure of rock ‘n’ roll. Richard D. Smith aptly cites Bill Haley’s "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" – from April 1954 – as remarkably similar to Monroe’s February 1945 hit “Rocky Road Blues”. Both were jump blues of a sort, a “jazzed-up twelve-bar blues” in Smith’s words. The two songs weren’t unique. One can see similarities in Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954) and Hank Williams’ earlier “Move It On Over” (1947). Any number of bands were drawing from the same wellsprings. But Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues” predated most, and Hank and Bill knew each other, and even once toured together.

Not only did Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys start a unique and distinctive musical genre that has endured and expanded, but his music influenced a good number of major figures in mid-20th century American music.

It was just particular genius to not only excel as a songwriter but as a composer as well. As Jon Hartley Fox has written, “Monroe, alone among his songwriting contemporaries, not only wrote songs, but also composed a vast amount of instrumental music…[and that body of work] sets him aside from other great American songwriters. Not one of his peers – people like Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Brian Wilson, or Smokey Robinson – can match Monroe’s accomplishments in two such disparate forms of music.” Most of his recorded repertoire were songs and tunes he himself wrote or helped create. Monroe and Hank Williams collaborated as writers on “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”.

Monroe didn’t come from the prosaic mountains in Eastern Kentucky. He spent his formative years in the small unincorporated town of Rosine (Ohio County), Kentucky, in the west-central part of the Blue Grass State. The family had put together a farm embracing about 655 acres around the time of Bill’s birth, pastured some livestock, and raised several crops. The family was reasonably well-off and also reasonably well-educated. When he infrequently opened up to an interviewer like Ralph Rinzler or Jim Rooney, Bill acknowledged a sense of lonesomeness from an early age. He was considerably younger than his seven older siblings, and he was often left to his own devices. He’d also been born cross-eyed, and was mocked often enough that he sometimes hid in the barn when visitors would come.

It’s not difficult to discern the autobiographical strain in his songs, and the appeal of the “ancient tones” that pervades many of his instrumentals. Both his lyrics and his sound reflected the dislocations of the day, as the Depression hit hardest during his teenage years and as families throughout the South were uprooted for one reason or another and forced to look for work away from home.

Adding to his own sense of alone-ness, Bill lost his mother at age 10, and then lost his father when he was 17. He moved to join older brothers Birch and Charlie in Whiting, Indiana, some 300 miles due north. The city was less than five miles from the Illinois state line and the city of Chicago. After a short while, the three brothers moved to East Chicago and Bill lived there for the next five years working most of the time at the Sinclair Oil facility unloading freight cars of empty oil barrels returned for refilling and cleaning them out with gasoline. He could usually stack 1,000 to 2,000 barrels a day. It was hard labor, something from which Monroe never shrank.

Work was what you did, if you grew up on a farm. Even until his later days, accounts agree that Monroe often liked nothing more than to sink fenceposts and work on straightening the fence lines. He’d left school after the fifth grade, within a year of his mother’s October 1921 death. Music was something he picked up the way most people did at the time – from others around him. The family didn’t have a radio, and in any event, there wasn’t much music on the radio even if they’d had one. Commercial radio itself hadn’t started until the very early 1920s. Once it did, it took a couple of years before music began to be featured over the air. The WLS Barn Dance didn’t start broadcasting until 1924, and the Grand Ole Opry began in 1925.

Willie – as he was known in his early days – learned music first of all right at home. His mother Malissa played fiddle and accordion and sang – and even played a little harmonica. Her brother, Pendleton Vandiver, was an exceptional fiddle player, one that Bill memorialized in his song “Uncle Pen”. In 1972, Monroe cut an entire tribute album based on fiddle tunes he’d learned from his uncle. Malissa must have better than your average around-the-homestead player; Smith says she once filled in and played a square dance for a full evening. Most of the Monroe children – the boys and the girls – played and sang. Birch and Charlie, and Uncle Pen, were the ones who played the most.

It was at a square dance that Bill first saw the man who may have shaped his music as much as anyone – Arnold Shultz. Monroe told Jim Rooney, “This square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky, and Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. They had a guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Arnold played guitar, but he could play the fiddle – numbers like ‘Sally Goodin’. People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky there; if he was playing a guitar they’d go gang up around him till he would get tired and then maybe go catch a train.” Shultz was himself a black American. And young Bill loved to hear him talk, talking about music contests he’d won and what he’d done to win them. “I admired him that much that I never forgot a lot of the things that he would say,” he reflected, adding that he learned a number of guitar runs from Shultz and other things that stayed in his own music even decades later.

It may have been Shultz who gave Bill Monroe his first paid work as a musician on a Saturday night in Rosine. “Me and him played for a dance there one night and he played the fiddle and we started at sundown and the next morning at daylight we was still playing music – all night long. And of course, that automatically made you be dancing on Sunday, but that really is the truth – I could say that I’ve played for a dance all night long. I played the guitar with him. I could just second fair – probably any guitar man in the country could’ve beaten me but anyhow I played guitar for him.” Even telling it years later, Bill was perceptibly proud that he’d been able to play with Arnold Shultz.

It was the mandolin that Bill Monroe played most of all, mainly because brother Birch played fiddle and Charlie played guitar. Mandolin was the instrument left for the youngest of the Monroe boys. A farmworker for Bill’s father named Hubert Stringfield may have been the one that he heard most often on mandolin. Bill’s first mandolin was a round-backed “tater bug” model. He later mused that he probably would have been a blues singer and guitarist, following Arnold Shultz, but Charlie was eight years his senior and had first claim on the guitar. So Bill decided he’d play mandolin, but that he’d develop his own unique style, aimed most of all at trying to evoke the sound of Uncle Pen’s old-time fiddle on his instrument.

Bill’s first full professional job in the music business was neither as a musician nor a singer. It was as a dancer – with the WLS Barn Dance stars. Birch and Charlie and Bill and a fourth man each had square dance partners – the standard set of eight – and they went on the road, often seven nights a week, traveling to shows in Illinois and Indiana and Michigan and Wisconsin. The work became so steady they were able to give up working for Sinclair. They played their own music to while away the downtime. When the dancing work came to an end, they secured a gig playing music as the Monroe Brothers, first for WJKS radio in Gary and then a longer-lasting radio job at KFNF in Shenandoah, Iowa.

The Monroe Brothers were successful over the airwaves and began to book shows in local schoolhouses and courthouses, later moving on to bigger markets in Columbia, South Carolina and in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1936, they first had the opportunity to record their music, for Victor.

Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers, developed a larger and larger following throughout the Carolinas and beyond, and had become well-loved legitimate stars. Had they stayed together as a duo more than just a few years, bluegrass music might not have been born quite the way it was – but Bill was a hard-driving player from early on, pushing the mandolin to become more of a lead instrument instead of one content to remain in the background.

Bill was headstrong, too, and undoubtedly chafed at Charlie – the older brother – being a little too controlling. Whatever the reasons, there came a breakup in 1938, and they went their separate ways, each leading his own group. Charlie Monroe and the Kentucky Pardners was a more traditional group. Bill’s first efforts were very much along the Monroe Brothers line, with a different singing partner. His new duo had some success, but Bill was ready to push the envelope and create a more distinctive sound, forming a new group he called Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Bill later reflected, “It’s a different style from what the Monroe Brothers had. Monroe Brothers didn’t have no beat, and the Blue Grass Boys have a beat to their music.”

Bill definitely had the beat, one with drive, and he pushed it once he separated from Charlie and went out on his own; it’s evident right away in the 1940 and 1941 sessions Bill cut for Victor. There was some gospel there, too, but those first recordings by the Blue Grass Boys held some true dance music. Even the instrumentals, like “Katy Hill”, were played in overdrive. It’s easy to hear the links between “Honky Tony Swing” and “Back Up and Push” and vocal numbers such as “Dog House Blues”, and 1945’s “Rocky Road Blues”. And it’s easy to understand how the energy reached out and grabbed audiences.

The word “blues” appeared in many of the early Blue Grass Boys numbers – “Mule Skinner Blues” and “Tennessee Blues” were two other tracks cut in 1940 and 1941. And Bill’s playing added its own urgency to the music. As Smith has written, “It was a surging timing that anticipated the main beat. Not in a way that sped up the song but in a way totally enlivened it.” He was pushing the music along; he “jumped the timing”.

There were changes in other musics as well – in blues, for instance, as it worked its way up the Mississippi from the Delta to Chicago. It was no accident that Jim Rooney paired Bill with Muddy Waters in his book Bossmen. The two each brought a rurally-based music to broader acceptance, and both of them did so informed by other kinds of music they encountered – even if, in Monroe’s case, it was Arnold Shultz bringing some black music right to Rosine. Add in Bill’s being steeped in church music, and his powerful sense of lonesomeness – sometimes feeling himself an afterthought even within his own family, suffering because of his crossed eyes and poor vision, losing his mother at an early age. He was determined to make his own way, but he had a lot to draw on, albeit often deeply tinged with sadness and experience. He’d had losses, and he also lived through tempestuous and passionate relationships; his first wife once even stabbed him in the leg with an ice pick. Even though married, he pursued other women compulsively, those who weren’t off-limits in one way or another according to his own code of ethics.

Though it may have defined him, it would be a mistake, Neil Rosenberg reminds, to focus only on Monroe’s lonely side. He may have mastered the high lonesome sound in bluegrass, but his life itself was far more complex. He was married twice (to Carolyn Brown and to Della Streeter) and had long-term relationships with at least four other women (Virginia Stauffer, Hazel Smith, Julia LaBella, and Bessie Lee Mauldin, who Neil points out, “played in Bill’s band for a longer period than anyone else and was the subject of his greatest songs”). Neil adds, “Bill cared deeply for his children, nurtured them and helped them with their musical careers. James recorded more with him than anyone else. All of these people, along with Brother Birch, were Bill's family of his mature years... He had a lot of dear and close friends of both sexes throughout his life.” Remarkably, Carolyn continued to help with his bookings even through times he was living with others as husband and wife, even sharing ideas on his career with the other women, and Julia LaBella returned to help care for Bill near the end of his life when the others had gone.
There was mystery to Monroe as well. He once told his banjo player Butch Robins, “I never wrote a tune in my life.” Robins, taken aback, was perhaps still a bit perplexed after he asked Bill what he meant and was told, “Those tunes are all in the air. I just happened to be the first one to pick them out.”
Charles Wolfe, who saw a little bit of J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon in his willingness to let his music stand without needing to be drawn out and explain it, also saw in Monroe how “his personal relationships had a mysterious chemistry that left many friends and enemies alike puzzled”, adding that “his fascination with his past was both a trap and an inspiration, and legends have grown up around him since the 1950s.” Neil Rosenberg saw in him someone who was stubborn, single-minded, and who “with seemingly little counsel beyond a few trusted friends consistently strove to maintain control of his music vision.”

In many of our most creative people, there is a sense of separateness that can impel them, a certain sensitivity that attunes them to perhaps traveling a different road. They stand out as individuals, and individualists, and often inspire other creative types. The list of people in the bluegrass world is, by its nature, all-encompassing, far beyond the 150-plus members who played in Bill’s bands. We have noted Elvis Presley talking to Carl Perkins about Mr. Bill Monroe, and that Bill toured with Hank Williams. He was well-known to two or three generations of Grand Ole Opry stars.

We also know that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once traveled all the way to Bean Blossom, Indiana, to audition as a Blue Grass Boy – but when he saw the man himself, he shied away and never put himself forward. When Bill recorded a couple of albums of duets in the 1980s, he recorded with Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Waylon Jennings, and more. He played Farm Aid with John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and many others. We even know that Frank Sinatra respected his work.

One of Monroe’s appeals was a perceptible, inescapable, purity – in his repertoire, in his performance – both his musicianship and in his high lonesome vocals, the discipline he brought to his music, and in the way he positioned the music. Earl Scruggs marveled how Monroe would spend entire rehearsal sessions with the group never playing a song, but only working on tightening their sound.

Richard D. Smith writes that Bill Monroe was “the most broadly talented and broadly influential figure in the history of American popular music.” That is quite an assertion. He mentions Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams and Elvis, but then adds, “Monroe’s varied influence as a singer, instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader was felt in early commercial country music, rockabilly and later rock, the folk music revival, contemporary country, and, of course, bluegrass.…[he was] the only person to create – not just dominate – but wholly create – a distinctive musical genre.”

He forged a distinctive music, a very American music, a genre of its own. It proved compelling and it’s also proved enduring. Two-thirds of a century after its birth, bluegrass is as healthy as it’s ever been, with 500 festivals each year around the United States, and bands in more than two dozen other countries.

Rosenberg, Neil V. and Charles K. Wolfe, The Music of Bill Monroe (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 48
2 Smith, Richard D. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ (Cambridge MA: Da Capo Press, 2000), p. xiii.
3 Neil Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe report it as traced by W. K. McNeil who found it published in the 1890s as by a composer named Harry Wright. To his credit, Monroe never claimed to have been the writer. The version cut in February 1945 bears credit as “arr. Boyd Lane”, but he later told Doug Green, “That’s my tune. It was written by a guy with the Cumberland Ridge Runners but I rearranged it. I don’t know why Boyd Lane’s name is on there as arranger – I think he had a radio show up in Chicago.” The 1945 Columbia session indeed took place at the WBBM-CBS radio studio in the Wrigley Building in Chicago. There are 36 songs by the title currently listed by BMI, including Lane’s and even one by Ry Cooder. Monroe’s claim comes under his pseudonym Rupert Jones. See Douglas B. Green’s notes to County album CCS-105, Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys: The Classic Bluegrass Recordings, Vol. 2.
“Walls of Time” – written with Peter Rowan and “I’m Blue I’m Lonesome” (co-written with Hank Williams) are two other songwriting collaborations.
4 Ibid, p. 286. Smith’s book is the definitive biography of Bill Monroe. 1939 or 1945? Two dates stand out. October 28, 1939 was when the Blue Grass Boys first played the Opry. They roused the crowd with “Foggy Mountain Top” but when Bill soloed on “Mule Skinner Blues”, they earned the first encore in Opry history – a show that already been running for 14 years. Their music had electrified the place, and radio listeners across America heard something new and vital. The Blue Grass Boys had also established another Opry first in 1939: the band wore white shirts and neckties. They were consciously trying to elevate the music and give it more professionalism and even more dignity. The 1945 date is February 13, 1945 – when Bill and the boys cut “Rocky Road Blues”.
5 The A side was Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song “That’s All Right Mama”, the two-sided 45 (Sun 209) encapsulating the two Southern musical traditions – black and white – that give birth to rock ‘n’ roll.
6 Smith, op. cit., p. 133
7 Guralnick, Peter. Lost Highway (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), p. 110
8 Fox, Jon Hartley. Notes to True Life Blues (Sugar Hill Records SHCD2209 (1996)
9 Rooney, James. Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), pp. 80, 81
10 Ibid., p. 23
11 Ibid., p. 24
12 Ibid., p. 32
13 In 1962, these sessions were gathered together on an album released on RCA’s Camden label, Father of Bluegrass Music (Camden 719).
14 Smith, op. cit. p. 56. The emphasis is ours.
15 E-mail communication of June 24, 2011. Rosenberg suggested that some writing on Monroe has “got a lot about ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ [but that] more ‘Happy On My Way’ is called for.”
16 Smith, op. cit., p. 234
17 Rosenberg and Wolfe, op. cit., p. xx.
18 Rosenberg and Wolfe, op. cit., p. xvi
19 Ibid., p. 218
20 Rooney, op. cit., p. 43
21 Smith, op. cit., pp. x, xi

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