Bill Monroe is a mandolin player and singer/songwriter from Rosine, an unincorporated community in central Kentucky. The undisputed inventor of bluegrass music, Monroe grew up in a musical family. He was highly influenced by his uncle Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, who taught traditional Scotch and Irish folk songs to the family. Bill’s swinging acoustic music evolved from its beginnings with The Monroe Brothers (Bill, Birch and Charlie) to the innovative bluegrass sound of the late forties and fifties. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980.
“Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters.”
— Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe (1911-1996), mandolin, singer, songwriter
Notable Alumni of The Blue Grass Boys
Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), banjo
Lester Flatt (1914-1979), guitar, vocals
Robert “Chubby” Wise (1915-1996), fiddle
Kenny Baker (1926-2011), fiddle
Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), guitar, vocals
Del McCoury (b. 1939), guitar, vocals
Peter Rowan (b. 1942), guitar, vocals
Mac Wiseman (b. 1925), guitar, vocals
I first saw High Lonesome, a terrific introduction to bluegrass music, in a Portland art house theater many years ago. The first ten minutes of this movie are available on YouTube. During this segment, Bill Monroe discusses his home and upbringing, and in the eighth minute, sweetly asks to play a song.
A Man Who Loves To Play
While researching Mr. Monroe, I came across this story from the SE Minnesota Bluegrass Association newsletter, which can be found here in a mandolin discussion group. Even as he aged, he loved to play, to share stories, and to teach.
Bill Monroe and Suze Marshall
Many published accounts have described Bill Monroe as a rather difficult man, especially if you were working as a member of his band. Anyway, Suze Marshall suffered serious damage to her inner ear and equilibrium as a result of being in an airplane which suffered pressure loss.
Her injuries resulted in her not being able to move and necessitated experimental reconstructive surgery. A residual effect was she could not go above an altitude of 500 feet. During her recuperation, learning to play the mandolin was what gave her the incentive to go on. She has been instrumental in building a community for bluegrass through lessons, jams, workshops and concerts.
Suze in 1994 attended, as one of her first activities following her medical problems, the first year of Wintergrass in 1994. Because of her inability to ride an elevator, she happened to get the room next door to Bill Monroe. Suze was not able to sleep and did not want to disturb her friend sharing her room. She ended up in the hallway in her pajamas and was practicing a tune on her mandolin “Going Up Caney”. Suze had no clue that Bill Monroe was next door. It was about 11:00 p.m. when the next door opened and standing there was Bill Monroe. He sat next to Suze and asked, “Would you mind if I sat here and played with you because, you know, I know that song.” He shared the story of where the tune came from and it became apparent that it was one of his tunes. He indicated she played it just like him. He stated that he felt bluegrass was progressing to change and he did not like it. He stated that by putting all the modern chords in, it takes away all the blues notes that remind him of his mother. He said “Every time you put new chords in there, you take away the blues sound, and my mother’s harmony parts don’t fit anymore.”
Suze was surprised Bill was sitting in the hall with her but he indicated he was having difficulty getting to sleep, was tired of being on the road, and waking in the night and not knowing where he was. He eventually went and got his mandolin and showed Suze some licks. He then traded mandolins with her so she had the opportunity to play his. Bill’s was a worn Gibson but it was the mandolin he loved.
Bill then talked about his mother and indicated he still missed her every day. She played the fiddle and although she was not particularly good, he loved to hear her play. She was the person who taught him the bluesy sound. Bill noted that he was disappointed that he got stuck with the mandolin but then proceeded to ask “Well, how do you think I did?” What a statement coming from one of the role models for mandolin playing. Bill told about being the youngest child in the family and not being able to see very well. He indicated he was teased a lot by kids. He stated that his mother made him strong and taught him to make the best of everything he had. This had served him well but he regretted never really appreciating her as much as he should have.
Bill talked about his Uncle Pen and DeFord Bailey, a blues harmonica player from whom he picked up some tunes and had even played backup for on occasion. During the course of their hallway visit Bill showed Suze how to play four-note chords without having to do those jumping around. #He also showed her how he played his chords. He said he basically just plays those three and then he plays double-stop or triple-stop versions of that and doesn’t always play the full chord. He noted that he always plays heavy on the bass strings. Bill emphasized the importance of tracing a song back to where it came from and to find the real flavor, which often doesn’t get duplicated. A more modern version of a song may sound good but the original feel gets lost.
Bill asked Suze where she had heard his music and she informed him that her grandfather had some of his old 78 records which was her main listening material. Suze explained that she did not have any of the new albums of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
The one thing Suze did note was it was getting a little hard for Bill to get around. He seemed a bit unsteady. When walking the halls, he made sure he was seen walking by himself. Suze was touched when at the last concert of the weekend, Bill from the stage indicated he needed a dancing partner and pointed to Suze. It was as if the unsteadiness previously noted had suddenly disappeared when the music began and his stature seemed to be straighter and stronger. Bill did a clogging type thing and said to Suze, ‘”Now you gotta be careful, I’m not as young as I used to be. I might throw you too hard. You be a little careful.” It was an experience Suze has never forgotten.
The advice Suze has for others after her experience with Bill Monroe includes don’t be in such a big hurry to play everything fast before you have the content down. Learn the song before playing it fast. Listen to old music and to new music. Listening to musicians is really important if you are going to be one. Study music and go back and see where it came from. Play with others as that is how you get better, but most of all have fun.
The Driving Perfectionist
It’s curious that Mr. Monroe entered the Country Music Hall of Fame so late in his career. Perhaps his reputation as a difficult man delayed his induction. He was reported to be a tough taskmaster as a bandleader, demanding flawless execution. Bandleaders James Brown, Van Morrison and Benny Goodman share this reputation. Rather than perceive the driving perfectionist in a negative light, understand that their desire and vision for the music lifted it above the ordinary. It’s clear by the High Lonesome video and the personal anecdote by Suze Marshall that all Bill Monroe wanted was to play his music and play it well.
Here’s an example of the amazing precision of the Bluegrass Boys:
The Sound Of My Tribe
It’s primitive and beautiful, the trio of men singing into a single microphone. I see little difference between them and a pack of coyotes, facing one another in a circle, lifting their heads and matching their voices in song. In the previous video, they resolve the song by mimicking the Doppler effect of a passing locomotive, with one of the pack dropping a step in mid howl. In “A Voice From On High”, the high voice rises up, as if to express his divine appreciation.
My father’s parents were Scottish, and all my relatives on my mother’s side were English and Irish stock. The sound of these wolves resonates with me. That’s how I sound, with the high voice that sometimes grates on members from other tribes. The competitive nature of bluegrass, like bebop jazz — it separates the best, a way of saying “I run this fast…can you keep up?”. My favorite Monroe song is the autobiographical “Uncle Pen”, who inspired him to become a musician. The song has a clever turnaround sequence.
“Uncle Pen played the fiddle and how it would ring,
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing.”
David Grisman and Jerry Garcia
I discovered Bill Monroe through my enjoyment of the David Grisman Quintet, who I learned about from a friend who worshiped the Grateful Dead. Grisman and Grateful Dead vocalist/guitarist Jerry Garcia were longtime friends who first met at a bluegrass festival, and both idolized Bill Monroe. Grisman even titled one of his bluegrass compositions “Happy Birthday, Bill Monroe”. I bought my first Bill Monroe compilation sometime in the mid-eighties. Over the years I’ve filled out a representative cross-section of his songs, though some work and research was required to shape up the list for presentation. Critics tend to consider his Decca Records catalog in the fifties as his finest. My collection of songs favors his earlier RCA Records sides with Flatt & Scruggs.
Bill Monroe Song Notes:
1. I recommend the following CDs:
“High Lonesome”: The Story Of Bluegrass Music
Bill Monroe: Anthology
The Essential Bill Monroe (1945-1949)
Bill Monroe Songs:
Uncle Pen, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭✭
Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭✭
With Body And Soul, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
Blue Grass Breakdown, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
Blue Grass Breakdown (Alt), Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
Rocky Road Blues, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
New Mule Skinner Blues, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭✭
I’m Working On A Building, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
A Voice From On High, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Molly And Tenbrooks (The Racehorse Song), Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Wicked Path Of Sin, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Get Down On Your Knees And Pray, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Orange Blossom Special, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Cryin’ Holy Unto My Lord, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Blue Grass Special, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
Toy Heart, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
With Body And Soul (Live), Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭
New River Train, The Monroe Brothers ✭✭
My Long Journey Home, Monroe Brothers ✭✭
Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Going Across The Sea, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
In The Pines, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Sally Goodin, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Kentucky Waltz, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Footprints In The Snow, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
I’m Working On A Building, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Blue Yodel No. 7 (Anniversary Blue Yodel), Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Cryin’ Holy Unto My Lord, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Roanoke, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭
Nine Pound Hammer, Monroe Brothers ✭
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, Bill Monroe & Doc Watson ✭
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, Kenny Baker ✭✭
Moonlight Waltz, Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns ✭✭✭✭✭
East Tennessee Blues (Live), Bill Monroe & Doc Watson ✭
Jerusalem Ridge, Kenny Baker & Bill Monroe ✭✭✭
My Long Journey Home, David Grisman (with Doc Watson) ✭✭
Nine Pound Hammer, Kentucky Colonels ✭✭✭✭
Roll On Buddy (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Roll On Buddy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ✭✭
With Body And Soul, The Seldom Scene ✭
Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Elvis Presley ✭✭✭✭
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Elvis Presley ✭✭✭
In The Pines, Leadbelly ✭
In The Pines, Clarence White ✭✭
Orange Blossom Special (Live), The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭
Orange Blossom Special, Johnny Cash ✭
Get Down On Your Knees And Pray The Del McCoury Band ✭✭✭
Get Down On Your Knees And Pray (Live), The Johnson Mountain Boys ✭✭✭
Blue Yodel No. 7 (Anniversary Blue Yodel), Jimmie Rodgers ✭✭