Bill Monroe - Biography
Bluegrass is ancient and timeless, the real country music, frenetic solos and haunting choruses and forlorn echos. Yet it mostly postdates World War 2, a peculiar amalgamation of structures that faintly borrow from jazz, ragtime and hill-country, bagpipe skirl. Still, bluegrass is as authentic as it gets, as real as any sound that ever emanated from the creaking floorboards of the Ryman, the crackling broadcasts of the Hayride, or the doleful Delta moans sponsored by King Biscuit Flour. And at the center of it all was Bill Monroe. He was a King of raw Americana, and his name is murmured with the hushed reverence accorded to rarified Titans like the Carter Family and Charley Patton. Monroe was the progenitor and patriarch of bluegrass music, the individual most responsible for its keening, wailing aesthetic and otherworldly, dilated intensity. Come to think of it, even the Opry and the Hayride represented versions of country that had clamored for and achieved levels of respectability and show-biz gloss that were beyond Bill Monroe’s ken and beneath his stature as an artist. He imbued bluegrass with the High Lonesome sound and established its fundamental formalism and strictly defined parameters, and when younger protégées like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs decamped for lucrative self-parody (e.g., The Beverly Hillbillies), Monroe stood his ground, steadfast and resolute. So preeminent was Monroe’s stature, that when the nascent genre needed a recognizable brand name, they simply lent it that of his legendary band, The Blue Grass Boys.
William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 — September 9, 1996) was born on the family farm near Rosine, Kentucky. Bill was the youngest of eight siblings, many of whom shared his predilection for music. There was a pecking order among the child performers in the Monroe home, and Bill was at the very bottom. He was assigned the lowly and undesirable mandolin. Before long, he would forever revolutionize the way the instrument was played. Monroe’s parents died while he was a child, and the remaining family dispersed; it was Bill’s Uncle Pen who raised him and taught him his initial repertoire of songs — and who later became the subject of the beloved bluegrass classic Bill named in his honor. As a teen, Monroe struck up a string band with several of his siblings, but by 1934, it was the duo of Bill and Charlie as the Monroe Brothers who were catching radio stations by storm. Their impossibly precise, breakneck performances, soaring harmonies and rhythmic bravado snared the attention of RCA Victor in 1936; by 1938, the Monroe Brothers had recorded 60 sides. By 1940, Bill Monroe had gone solo, secured a position in the Grand Ol’ Opry, and was assembling the band that would define bluegrass.
By 1945, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had perfected the sound that would become genre orthodoxy. The group was an all-acoustic five-piece, featuring mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle; a newly discovered hotshot teen named Earl Scruggs rounded out the ensemble on banjo. This is the version of the Blue Grass Boys that cut tracks for Columbia in 1946 and 1947, crafting the template for bluegrass. Classics from these sessions remain standards to this day: “Blue Moon of Kentucky”; “Bluegrass Breakdown”; “Molly and Tenbrooks”; “Toy Heart”; “Wicked Path of Sin”; “My Rose of Old Kentucky”; and “Little Cabin Home on the Hill.” The group was a sensation, and even the late-40s departure of Scruggs and phenom guitarist Lester Flatt didn’t faze Monroe. While the Blue Grass Boys’ fame started to wane as Nashville got slick in the late 50s, the folk revival of the early 1960s eagerly embraced Monroe as an elder statesman, guaranteeing his place in history for subsequent generations of fans. The various collections of Bill Monroe’s work are awash in overlapping material and vary widely in quality, but any curious listener can safely indulge with these releases, each with four full CDs: All the Classic Releases: 1937-1949 (2003 JSP); and Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys: 1950-1958 (2009 JSP). Within the 21 years covered by these recordings, Bill Monroe invented a timeless music that continues to thrill, invigorate, and inspire.