He's called the "Father of Bluegrass". Bill Monroe was born September 13, 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky. His father was a well-off gentleman farmer. Bill and his older brothers, Birch and Charlie, learned to play music from their mother Malissa and her brother, Pendleton Vandiver. Uncle Pen made his living traveling the barn dance circuit as an Old Time fiddler.
In the early 1930s the three brothers moved to Hammond, Indiana where they found work in an oil refinery. The Monroe Brothers began playing locally and landed a spot on the radio in nearby South Bend. After a few years Birch left the band for other pursuits. Bill and Charlie continued to perform and gain a large audience. They were so successful that they recorded 60 songs for Bluebird
over a two year period. In 1939 the brothers parted ways and Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys.
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys became regulars on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. They played Old Time music, as did most of the Opry regulars. What made them stand out from the crowd was Bill’s virtuosity with the mandolin.
Although the Blue Grass Boys went through many personnel changes (over 150 musicians have been members of the Blue Grass Boys over the years), I like to break it down to four distinct periods. The early Blue Grass Boys changed in 1945 when Monroe hired a young musician who had done for the banjo what he had done for the mandolin. Earl Scruggs was joined by singer and guitarist Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass. With this line up the seeds of Bluegrass music were sown.
When Flatt and Scruggs left to form The Foggy Mountain Boys, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys changed again. Some may disagree, but I feel that this third period of the Blue Grass Boys set the definition of the true “High Lonesome” Bluegrass sound. The powerful vocals of West Virginian Jimmy Martin were complimented by Rudy Lyle’s banjo, Charlie Cline’s fine fiddle and, of course, Bill Monroe’s signature mandolin. It was this version of the band that recorded many of the songs now considered Bluegrass standards.
The band took another direction in the 1960s when Bill assembled what is known as the “Northern” version of the Blue Grass Boys. I believe Monroe was trying to appeal to the new converts to Bluegrass music from the folk movement in the cities and universities of the North. This version of the Blue Grass Boys included singer and guitarist Peter Rowan, Richard Greene on fiddle, and Bill Keith on banjo.
Bill Monroe died September 9, 1996 and is buried in his childhood home town of Rosine, Kentucky as are his parents, brothers Birch and Charlie, and Uncle Pen.
Bill Monroe was rightfully the first person inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. But Bill Monroe’s influence reached much farther than Bluegrass. His affect on Country and Rock and Roll were duly honored with inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Monroe Brothers - New River Train.mp3
The Monroe Brothers (pre-Blue Grass Boys) featuring Bill's stellar mandolin.
Bill Monroe - Tennessee Blues.mp3
Early Blue Grass Boys.
Bill Monroe - Bluegrass Breakdown.mp3
The Flatt and Scruggs years.
Bill Monroe - I'm Blue And I'm Lonesome.mp3
High Lonesome period.