As I talk to people about American music and Southern music, I’ve noticed that many folks mistakenly assume that Bluegrass is an old genre stretching back into the hills for generations. In fact, it’s one of the newer genres of American music, and we can trace its beginnings to one man in the 1940’s who single-handedly set all the standards and parameters for what is known as Bluegrass. Everyone who plays Bluegrass today follows the lead of our seventh installment in the series What Makes this Musician Great – Kentucky’s own Bill Monroe.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Bill Monroe was the same age as Bluesman Robert Johnson, and he was the youngest in a large musical family of Scottish descent in Appalachia. Since his older brothers had already taken up the guitar and fiddle, Bill Monroe was kind of relegated to learning the only string instrument left in the family – the mandolin. I have often noted a significant number of innovative people who tragically lost a parent during their teenage years, and Bill Monroe lost both of them. As an orphan, he lived with his various older siblings, aunts, and uncles, and eventually ended up with his late mother’s brother, Uncle Pendleton Vandiver – also known as “Uncle Pen.” Although the teenage Bill Monroe was already musically gifted, it was his Uncle Pen that pushed him even further into legendary greatness. Uncle Pen exposed Monroe to all kinds of musical styles, genres, and performance techniques, and he demanded that everything be played at breakneck speed in order to develop flawless technique. (By the way, if the name “Uncle Pen” seems familiar, it might be because a 74-year old Bill Monroe played a character named “Uncle Pen” in a Ricky Skaggs 1985 video for the song “Country Boy.”) A local black fiddler/guitarist named Arnold Schultz (remember that name for future reference) also introduced young Bill Monroe to the Blues, and together they played Monroe’s first paid musical performance.
Directly inspired by the early recordings of The Carter Family, brothers Bill and Charlie Monroe formed a string band known as The Monroe Brothers, and they began touring nationwide and playing their own versions of those same folk tunes, which they performed at a completely different pace. Bill Monroe played mandolin and his brother Charlie played guitar, and they featured themselves playing their instruments at breakneck, virtuoso levels. Their music was lightning fast and infectious.
When The Monroe Brothers disbanded in the late 1930’s, Bill Monroe continued by forming a new band that he called The Blue Grass Boys, thereby giving a name to the style of music that he played – Bluegrass. At this time, there was no style of music known as “bluegrass.” He simply chose that name for his band because Kentucky was known as “the Bluegrass State.” The style of music played by The Blue Grass Boys was called “bluegrass music,” and the name stuck. Many, many extremely famous musicians did a “tour of duty” with The Blue Grass Boys, including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Doug Kershaw, Stringbean Akeman, and Chubby Wise. I have seen one estimate stating that over 140 different musicians played at least one paid, billed gig as a member of The Blue Grass Boys. The two main trademark features of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass music were a lightning-fast tempo and an extremely high level of solo virtuosity, and every member of the band was expected to keep up with Monroe. The specific songs played by The Blue Grass Boys were a mixture of Country songs, Appalachian and Scots-Irish folk songs, Gospel songs, black work songs, and the Blues. So, as it was with so many other new Southern styles of music, it was based on Scots-Irish folk tunes, and blended with other contemporary Southern sounds of the day to make something new.
Modern, contemporary Bluegrass is mostly instrumental. Although there are a few famous older Bluegrass tunes with vocals, the vast majority of the repertoire of newer tunes is instrumental. Bluegrass music also features a round-robin format of solo breaks, featuring everybody. Everyone takes a solo on every song, and the only other style of music where everyone takes a solo like that is Jazz. As it turns out, Jazz and Bluegrass actually have a lot in common.
Bill Monroe firmly established that Bluegrass music REQUIRES an incredibly high level of virtuosity from the performers. You’re not allowed to be “okay” if you play Bluegrass, and the performers are constantly pushing each other to the next level. You have to be the best you can be at all times, and the most popular Bluegrass performers usually have a trademark style of playing that’s copied by other players. Bill Monroe was a perfectionist, and mediocrity was never tolerated. He relentlessly drove his band to excellence in much the same way as did Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman. The ones who were truly gifted, like Earl Scruggs, never complained, and the ones who were “lesser mortals” complained bitterly. Also, Bill Monroe’s personality was very clipped and short, and that carried over into the performance style of Bluegrass. You will note that the members of his band stand stock still and play without emotion on their faces, and this is still the preferred performance method for Bluegrass today. You just don’t see Bluegrass performers running around, working the stage, and reaching out to the audience as you would a Country star. This is all due to Bill Monroe and his tight-lipped performance style.
In any given Bluegrass song, the performers take turns playing a solo while the rest of the band plays the same accompaniment in the background. Usually, each song follows a format similar to this: Introduction, Verse, Solo, Solo, Verse, Ending. This is the exact same thing you’d find in any Jazz club. Bluegrass music does have a “jam session” quality similar to Jazz, which makes it a very self-indulgent art form. In Bluegrass, the performers aren’t really playing to please the audience. They’re playing to please themselves. It’s incredibly FUN to play Bluegrass at that Bill Monroe level of breakneck speed and high virtuosity, and you forget that the audience is even there. It’s all you can do to keep up with the other monsters in the band, and it never lets up. I’ve performed a lot of different styles of music – everything from Rock, Jazz, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel, etc., and I can easily say that Jazz and Bluegrass are the only two styles that REQUIRE total concentration at all times. In Rock or Country, you can let your mind wander and kind of play on auto-pilot for a while, and nobody will ever know. In Jazz and Bluegrass, you have to listen intently to everything played by every performer, because you’ll be expected to use what you hear when it’s your turn. In Bluegrass, you are constantly being tested by your bandmates, and it’s incredibly exhilarating. At a Bluegrass festival, there could be 50 people in the audience or 5000 people in the audience, and it wouldn’t make any difference either way to the musicians. They’re too busy trying to impress each other than worry about an audience.
All of these basic standards of Bluegrass were set by Bill Monroe, and every generation of performers follows his lead. Bluegrass should always be of extremely high virtuosity, and mostly fast-paced. It’s okay to have an occasional vocal Bluegrass tune or an occasional slow, mournful Bluegrass tune, but they must ALWAYS feature top-level skill and talent in the performance at all times. Additionally, Bluegrass music should never lose its strong, vital connection to its roots in Country, Appalachian, Gospel, and the Blues. Asked to compile a list of the most essential Bluegrass songs, most performers would list folk standards such as “Cripple Creek,” and “Old Joe Clark,” African American folk tunes such as “John Henry,” and Gospel songs such as “I’ll Fly Away,” and “I Saw the Light.”
The instrumentation in typical Bluegrass music follows the old string band format used by Bill Monroe as well. The basics are always banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass, and the dobro is frequently acceptable. However, it’s rare to find authentic Bluegrass music that uses percussion, and nearly impossible to find Bluegrass music that uses piano or wind instruments – not even harmonica. Now, having said that, I have been to Bluegrass festivals in which audience members joined in with spoons, washboards, and jugs, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen these impromptu household items actually used in the band, despite what Hollywood tries to tell us.
“Blue Grass Breakdown”
Banjo pickers instantly know this tune that Earl Scruggs claims to have written but Bill Monroe got the credit. It has a lot of similarities to Scruggs’ biggest hit, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and this 1965 Grand Ole Opry appearance features the added bonus of left-handed banjo phenomenon Don Lineberger. The performance of this song is the very definition of Bluegrass music, and features a lightning-fast tempo, and a melody that takes turns with technically breathtaking solos among the band members. Notice how each soloist steps forward into the middle, takes his turn at the microphone, and then gives way to the next man. The song begins with the banjo on melody, and then the banjo immediately takes the first improvised solo. Fiddler Gene Lowinger (the first Northerner to play fiddle with Monroe) takes the second solo, and then it’s back to the banjo. After that, Bill Monroe proves why he’s the best with his solo, and the song wraps up with banjo for a third time, ending with the familiar “tag” ending. The only part of this song that is the same whenever played is the opening banjo melody. After that, each soloist is improvising, or simply “making it up on the spot,” and the only purpose for each improvised solo is to SHOW OFF. Each performer is almost in competition with the rest of the band to top everybody else, and a lot of power is packed into a simple two-minute song.
“Blue Moon of Kentucky”
This is one of Bill Monroe’s most iconic songs, written in 1945 and is a slow waltz, with vocals provided by Bill Monroe in his trademark “high, lonesome sound.” Elvis recorded it in 1954, and turned it into a duple meter rocker in his version. In later live performances, Bill Monroe would start the song slowly and then jump into the up-tempo Elvis version. This is the full studio version recorded with Flatt, Scruggs, and Wise that would have been heard on the radio, and is the one that always plays inside my head whenever I think of the song. You may ask why this is considered a Bluegrass song and not a Country song, and I will admit that the lines are blurred sometimes between Bluegrass, Country, and Appalachian folk music when it’s a vocal song. For me, the answer is Bill Monroe’s voice and the instrumentation. He is the one that makes this Bluegrass instead of Country, and you just don’t normally hear banjo, fiddle, AND mandolin in a country song. You might get one of them, but usually not all three.
This is my personal favorite Bill Monroe song of all time, and it features all of his best qualities – lightning fast, technically flawless music featuring a stage full of virtuoso performers pushing each other to incredible solos. Any one of these solos would be enough to bring down the house, and they’re all packed into one little two-minute song! I almost feel sorry for the audience, because they must feel overwhelmed at such unimaginable back-to-back solos without a chance to catch their breath in between. The song begins with a bolt of lightning from Monroe’s mandolin, and then the twin fiddles of Bobby Hicks and Charlie Cline play the melody. You hear the melody at the beginning of the song, in the middle of the song, and at the very end of the song, always on twin fiddles. Let there be no doubt of Bill Monroe’s breath-taking talent and skill on his second mandolin solo, mercy! Also, during the second banjo solo, the great Jackie Phelps is purely showing off by playing the Earl Scruggs three-finger roll banjo picking style, but using only TWO fingers to do it, which you can see when the camera zooms in on his right hand.
By the way, Jackie Phelps’ main instrument was actually guitar, and you might remember him from the TV show “Hee Haw,” by his regular comedic appearances with Jimmy Riddle in a segment they always called “Eefin.” Jackie Phelps would slap a hambone rhythm on his thigh while Jimmy Riddle squeezed his hands together and sang “eefin” noises through the whole bit. One day, I need to write an article detailing just how much unbelievable, incredible music could be found on “Hee Haw.” It really was an amazing TV show.
“Blue Grass Boys Compilation”
I included an added bonus, which is a recording of a live appearance of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry right after World War II, when the stunning lineup consisted of Chubby Wise on fiddle, Lester Flatt on guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo. This clip features eight short songs, and is well worth the 12 minutes it takes to hear the all. You’re welcome.
Many musical artists and performers evolve and change during their careers, as they adapt to changing times, but Bill Monroe never did. He was playing and singing the same Bluegrass songs the same way at the end of his life as he was in 1939. I believe the main reason for this is that the songs themselves are just as fresh now as they were at the beginning. Bluegrass always sounds timeless without ever sounding dated, all because of the influence and guidance of its founding father, Bill Monroe.